Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
5 May

Barefoot Alternatives

2349235973 e8ce7a571eI got the following email from a reader:

Mark,

The Vibram 5 Fingers look great for exercise but not very practical for daily use and I’m wondering if there are any decent shoes available.

The Vivo shoes are the most interesting I’ve been able to spot so far (but haven’t tried them yet).

Many thanks,

Scott

Thanks, Scott. This is actually a pretty common question I get from readers, and it’s typical of the essential problem we Primal Blueprinters face almost every day: that constant battle between doing what is right for our bodies and what is deemed socially acceptable.

Do we politely decline the dessert plate?

How do we turn down the freshly baked, homemade bread without offending our host?

Do we tone down the grunts and heavy breathing during our intense deadlift/squat/weighted-pullup circuit at the gym so as not to frighten the guy on the thigh abductor?

The waiter brought us our steak with no silverware; do we chow down with our hands?

And, finally – must we submit our precious feet to the rigid tyranny of the modern shoe simply to avoid looking weird in our Vibrams or, worse, barefeet?

Absolutely not!

Even I’ll admit that wearing the Vibrams will get you some strange looks, especially if you’re at the grocery store or on a job interview (note: don’t wear them to a job interview, unless you’re interviewing at MDA or Vibram itself). They are essentially foot gloves, and their use can be explained away when you’re at the gym or running a trail, but they aren’t all that (aesthetically) practical in everyday life. Like it or not, we are members of society and, unfortunately, the vast majority of its other members cannot seem to handle the sight of bare feet (or the detailed contours of the foot and toes) in a non-sandy, non-athletic commercial setting. Unless you simply don’t care about social mores and norms (which, I’ll admit, I usually don’t), you’ll want to find a suitable shoe that won’t compromise the health of your feet (even if it compromises your personal ethics… kidding!).

So what are our choices?

Well, when I’m not barefoot or Vibrams-clad, I’m usually wearing a pair of TOD’s tan leather Moccasins. They’re extremely thin, flexible, and comfortable, and they’re about as close to barefoot as you’re going to get while still looking “normal.” TOD’s certainly aren’t as funky as Vibrams, and they’re no good for athletics, but they make a great compromise for the fashion-conscious Groks out there. The sole isn’t hard or rigid, and your feet feel unconstrained. But be warned. They are pricey. Other moccasins may do the job just as well.

Another option is simple sandals. Flip-flops, thongs, whatever you want to call them – as long as they’re thin and pliable, they’ll promote better foot health than the most expensive casual shoes. Rickshaw drivers around the world aren’t outfitted in the latest Nike trainers; they’re either barefoot or in cheap thin sandals. Their feet are their livelihood, so you think if they were causing some problems they’d wear “real” shoes. The other good thing about sandals is that they’re actually socially acceptable – little do they know that we’re secretly wearing them to emulate going barefoot!

According to a close friend of mine, Tom’s Shoes is another good option. I don’t have a pair myself, but he swears by them (he’s also a huge Vibram FiveFingers fan, if you were wondering, so he’s into the barefoot thing). He is quick to mention, however, that if you’re looking for a barefoot approximate you’ll want to get the soft suede versions. Most of the shoes have fairly stiff soles, but the suede ones are fairly pliable, especially once you’ve broken them in. He goes hiking a lot, and once he couldn’t find the Vibrams (which he usually uses), so he went in the Tom’s and was pretty happy with it. Again, these aren’t athletic shoes, but the soft suede shoes are decent replacements for going full on barefoot. Plus, for each pair of Tom’s someone buys, the owner will throw in an extra one to a shoe-less kid in a third-world country (although I’d suggest that maybe they’re doing okay already without shoes!).

Those Vivos you linked to look pretty good, although I’d have to try them on before taking the plunge.

To sum up – Barefoot or Vibrams FiveFingers (with a healthy dose of antipathy toward social protocol) are the best, but there are other options. Try Tod’s Moccasins, soft suede Tom’s, sandals, or Vivos, in no particular order.

Anyone else know some better casual barefoot shoe options that won’t get you thrown out of a 7-11?

M.V. Jantzen Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Toe Socks Met Combat Boots and Had a Baby

Why You Should Nix Shoes

Beach Sprints in FiveFingers

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. If you’re looking for a pair of decent looking shoes that feel barefoot, please consider Stem Footwear. I’ve been wearing Stems in an Oregon winter for five months, and I’m extremely impressed. They’re even more flexible than my Vivo’s and they have worn much better. New company and limited styles, but I can’t say enough about this shoe. Felt like I’d had them for years, right out of the box. They run a size or two small so size up (I’m a ladies size 7.5 to 8, and I purchased the 9 to 9.5 and they fit perfectly). Great company with a strong eco focus and good quality. There are a ton of reviews kicking around the web right now on various barefoot blogs, and Stem has a useful and informative website. Stemfootwear dot com. Can’t say enough good things.

    Sally Coulter wrote on January 31st, 2012
  2. I recently got a pair of the Cushe Surf Slipper Deluxe.
    They are great. Look pretty standard, I think zero-drop, nice wide toe box and very flexible.
    I get lots of compliments on their style, but they feel like the Merrel trail glove or similar.
    http://www.cushe.com/US/en is their US site.

    Jay wrote on February 21st, 2012
  3. I bought two pairs last February from Soft Star, a minimalist footwear company in Oregan. I’ve seldom worn anything else since and will purchase their Runamoc pairs soon. The shoes look like sandals, and feel like them, too. I often bend the shoe into a small roll of leather to people who are curious about them, and get a good laugh when their eyes bulge. Not only can I feel the different types of ground I step into, but also the sudden and happy babyish instinct to sprint as fast as possible. I often trotter or if I feel like it, tiptoe. No one around me yet has ever opted to buy a pair, alas, but all have shown considerable interest in its lightness and flexibility. Granted, one looks like a toddler in them and perhaps not trendy and elegant to go to a cocktail with. But if that makes one feel free like air, or almost, it’s quite worthwhile, isn’t it?
    Best and thank you for your article.

    LIN wrote on March 29th, 2012
  4. I found a pair of casual dress shoes from Johnston and Murphy’s that work well. They are very high quality leather and have a low heel lift.
    Pictures and a write-up at:
    http://barefootdain.blogspot.com

    (I tried the Vivobarefoot Ra and did not like it…cheap leather and felt like a clown shoe)

    Dain Deutschman wrote on April 5th, 2012
  5. Has anyone tried the vibram imitations that adidas and Fila have put out the last year or so?

    Judson wrote on April 14th, 2012
  6. You’d want to give the InvisibleShoes Huaraches a try as well. I have been wearing them for a year and a half, circling all of South East Asia with it, and I never looked back for another shoe.

    It’s the closest you can get to barefoot. I’ve written a review about them:

    http://freshbeetle.com/invisible-shoes-huaraches/

    Regev wrote on May 16th, 2012
  7. Check out the Patagonia Tawa and Loulu! Good looking, thin soled, and VERY comfortable! I wear them every day…

    Dan Wheeler wrote on May 21st, 2012
  8. It seems to me that any sole besides leather defeats the biggest reason for going barefoot — the earthing/grounding effect of sole in touch with earth.
    Grok didn’t have the disconnect of rubber or plastic in between his sole and earth.
    A quick google found several choices, including this solely leather soled moccasin, http://www.wassookeagmoccasins.com/earthing-footwear/

    mtnwoman wrote on May 29th, 2012
  9. I have a Latex allergy so I can’t wear Fivefingers…any suggestions?

    Andrea wrote on June 4th, 2012
  10. It’s a shame that human beings aren’t more rational.

    Shouldn’t what’s scientific and rational determine what is “socially acceptable,” rather than the other way around?

    For example, many churchgoers would probably consider it socially unacceptable to wear a robe and sandals to their Sunday sermon. But think about it. What did Jesus Christ wear?

    Funny what slavishly conformist fashion victims we supposedly “advanced” people can be. Are we really smarter than Grok? I’m not so sure.

    Bevin wrote on June 11th, 2012
  11. An old post, but I’d like to suggest soft ballet slippers. They are a thin leather sock with a slightly thicker patch on the bottom.

    Mine are a size too small and refuse to stretch, but are sill comfy as long as I use a toe-strike gait.

    Kelekona wrote on June 12th, 2012
  12. I’ve been wearing barefootshoes by Vivobarefoot (terra plana) coming from Dr.Martens/Army Boots and later Converse Allstars and they really feel great, but I just don’t like the way they look and wanted a more sneakerstyle shoe like Vans etc. so I’ve been trying some skateshoes and been comparing them to the Vivo’s, I’ve tried Vans, but they were much to narrow, tried Etnies Jameson 2′s and I must say, I like these, although the sole is a bit too cushy and you can’t remove them and there is some ball to heal drop, but the width is not too bad and they’re very flexable.
    The latest I tried are Dekline Archers and they are great, okay width, removable sole, very flexable and no ball to heal drop (without the sole).
    I would love to hear some suggestions for these kind of sneakers, ones with a nice width, removable sole and great flexability, because I think they make great barefoot alternatives.

    Remco wrote on June 23rd, 2012
    • UPDATE:
      Okay, I found out that with a little force you can remove the innersole of the Etnies, they’re not glued that much, but it’s not a cupped sole like in the Deklines, it’s only a thin piece of foam (3mm EVA Midsole) and doesn’t differ that much from the midsole in the Vivos.
      The drop I mentioned is in the rubber sole itself, but it’s not that much.
      Oh and in the above post I called these barefoot alternatives, but they’re more barefootshoe alternatives.

      Remco wrote on June 25th, 2012
      • CORRECTION:
        The thin piece of foam in the Etnies isn’t the EVA Midsole, it’s called an Ortholite insole, you can’t remove the EVA midsole.

        Remco wrote on June 26th, 2012
  13. There’s some mentioning of traditional footwear like Moccasins and Huaraches, but what about other traditional footwear like the Espadrilles, they don’t look to bad, it’s a sole made out of rope with some canvas or cotton attached to it or there’s the Abarka, it looks a bit like the Huaraches, but covers the foot a bit more and I also saw shoes woven from bast.

    Remco wrote on June 24th, 2012
  14. I became a barefooter after reading this, and doing much research on the topic through various websites. Been barefoot for nearly three years now. Or as barefoot as I can be, anyway. I wear barefoot alternatives.

    I have tried various inexpensive shoes I’ve come across that met my need. I have a pair of Skeletoes, which was how I found out that I don’t like my toes to suck up water (like a STRAW!)and get my feet wet without spending $100+ on Vibram Five Fingers.

    I have a pair of Dr. Scholl’s Freestep Larkins. That has been a fairly good experience, but they are more of a stepping stone to shoes that are “more” barefoot.

    I have a pair of Merrells, though I can’t recall at the moment exactly which ones. They are nice, feminine, with a small swirly stitched detail on the side. They’re somewhat like a Mary Jane in appearance, and I got them specifically to wear as dressy shoes should the need arise. I paid a small fortune for them ($100) and I have to say that while they meet all the basic barefoot requirements, they aren’t necessarily that comfortable. I have feet that swell, and these cut across the top of my foot without any flexibility at all. Sadly, I’m somewhat disappointed in them.

    I recently got a pair of New Balance 730s to wear to the gym. They seem pretty comfy, although they do contain more arch than I would prefer.

    Honestly, the best, cheapest, most effective barefoot shoe (which I just got a second pair of) are my OP beach/pool shoes that I got at Walmart. I think they were $9. Flat, super flexible sole toe-to-heel, roomy insides , comfortable stretchy fit, and just the right amount of ground sensation for me. Not much to look at, but they work. I have an issue with foot swelling that I’ve had since before I went barefoot, and these are the ONLY shoes that I can get into when that happens no matter how big they swell. I can wear a thin sock or a thick sock, or no sock at all. They’re pretty perfect in my opinion. I only got the NBs above, because I’m unsure my new gym will let me wear these OPs.

    Good luck to everyone on the hunt for barefoot alternatives!

    Queenbee wrote on June 25th, 2012
  15. I wear some Minnetonka brand moccasins, the kind with simple leather soles for walking, going on errands, anything outside where I’m not actually exercising or at work (I haven’t made the switch at work yet…) I also wear a pair of Teva Zilch sandals for running or anything else athletic or if I just want sandals on. works great free feet :)

    Lizzie wrote on July 12th, 2012
  16. I’ve been wearing a combination of Teva Zilch sandals and Teva Nilch shoes for my forays into town. Lightweight and comfy and only about a 1/2 cm of sole

    liziethewildgirl wrote on July 23rd, 2012
  17. I’ve had no choice but to barefoot most of my life … I have extremely wide feet. (Woman’s 7 EEE) I rarely find shoes that fit. Most of the year I wear Tevas (kid size), I have a pair of New Balance sneakers and a pair of dress shoes I hate, plus my New England-required snow boots. Other than that, I’m barefoot.

    I’d love to find something better than the sneakers or dress shoes, if anything comes in wide, wide widths. Even “wide” shoes aren’t wide enough.

    Back when I wore Birkenstocks, a shoe salesman told me I’d ruin my feet if I kept wearing them. I guess I “ruined” them the right way!

    Liz wrote on July 28th, 2012
  18. What happened to Luna sandals? you mention them in other articles, but not here.

    john wrote on August 24th, 2012
  19. Does anyone have any information/suggestions for someone who is a nurse working 12 hour shifts? I would like to try something barefoot/minimalist…but I’m not even sure that’s an option for someone who stands for such extended periods of time. Help!!

    Looking at FiveFingers…and the guy at Luke’s Locker tried to talk me into Inov-8 195′s.

    Mandy wrote on August 28th, 2012
    • Have you tried Dansko clogs? They’re not cheap, about $140, but worth the investment. Many healthcare professionals swear by them. They should fit fairly loosely ~ when you push your foot forward you should be able to fit a finger between your heel and the back of the shoe. Be sure to get the size that places the arch support in the correct spot for you. I wear them 9 months out of the year and love them.

      Jill wrote on February 5th, 2013
  20. Huaraches! I got mind from invisibleshoe.com, but you can make them yourself if you want. Best thing for walking barefoot and still looking like you’re wearing something like shoes/sandles. When my feel need to be covered, I wear Vivobarefoot shoes.

    Ophelia wrote on September 4th, 2012
  21. My husband is a Boy Scout leader. A couple of summers ago, some of the boys were wearing Vibrams. He thought they looked weird, but they talked about how much better they were for traction and such while doing all their activities. I bought him a pair of knock-offs at Academy for his birthday. They have worked great for all his outdoor activities where he needs shoes due to mud, rocks, or what have you. They are his tennis shoes. When hunting, he prefers his suede moccasin boots that have only a suede sole. They are comfortable and perfect for those needs. He loves going barefoot whenever possible. He only wore shoes to school and when his dad told him he needed them when he was little. (He doubted his dad only once, and got a goat burr stuck in his foot. He took his dad at his word thereafter.)
    At work, he wears waterproof, rubbersoled, steel-toed, cowboy boots to protect his feet from potential dangers at his job. These new ones are comfortable for him and he does not come home complaining about being in pain, though they probably are not great for his back.
    For me, I have worn my gladiator sandals until they are falling apart and I need a new pair. They have been comfortable, flexible, and, unlike flip flops, do not cause ugly callouses on my heals.
    Our daughters go barefoot a good deal, though when we go hiking, they are required to wear boots for their protection as we not only have briars, but poisonous snakes in this area.

    Tammy wrote on October 4th, 2012
  22. I lived in basketball shoes, flip flops, and these when I was younger and forced to cover my feet. I found a pair of them about 15 years ago, and found they REALLY replicated walking on the beach so far as the workout my legs and toes got! I know they are not as “minimal” as some of those listed, but I still recommend them if you’re looking for fashionable options!

    Callay wrote on October 7th, 2012
  23. I’ve been wearing Vivo Ra’s and Xero sandals exclusively for about a year now. The sandals are great for everything but fell running, the Ra’s with their 3mm sole and 0mm heel diff are great when I have to attend management meetings in the city. In the mountains I run in Vivo Breatho’s and for trails I use Merrell Trail Gloves and for roads I run in the Xero sandals. Works for me ;-)

    Angus Robins wrote on December 30th, 2012
  24. I’ve been interested in going barefoot for about a year now, but the need for semi-protective/professional shoes at work and the fact that I have (had?) plantar fasciitis makes me leery of the options out there.
    I say had tentatively, because when I first started noticing problems with heel pain, my dad told me to start wearing insoles (I got the cheap Dr. Scholl’s ones from Wal Mart). In the course of three years I’ve gone from wearing the 440 to wearing the 110. For those of you not familiar with the brand, that’s a change from the most supportive to the least supportive insert. The change, as well as the lack of continuing pain, makes me think that I would be okay going without arch support. After finding a minimalist shoe that does look more like a “normal” shoe that will let me squeak by the work requirements, my only question now is whether going minimalist with my footwear could cause problems with my feet again.

    Annika wrote on April 29th, 2013
    • Hi Annika,

      I have had plantar fasciitis before myself, and injured my feet pretty badly about 20 years ago, when I fractured all the meta-tarsal bones. I spent years wearing orthotics, both the over-the-counter types, as well as prescription custom-molded models you get through a podiatrist. Going barefoot (or in minimalist shoes) was uncomfortable at first. This is really something you want to start slow. Maybe even walking around your neighborhood for 5 or 10 minutes a day, and add another 5 minutes every *week* or two. When you’re rehabbing your feet, this is not something you want to rush. 5 minutes will not feel like much to the rest of your body, but to your feet, you’ll be using muscles and stretching ligaments and tendons that don’t do too much work when we wear shoes and orthotics or insoles. Vivo Barefoot make minimalist shoes that can pass in office environments. Outside of work, I pretty much live in a pair of Luna Sandals, when I have to wear anything at all. Your feet will learn to move naturally again, and your plantar fascia should become stronger because it will actually be used. Mine has. I even have arches now, which is a first for me.

      Tim Kennedy wrote on April 30th, 2013
  25. I’ve only been following a primal lifestyle for 3 months but I have been barefoot or as close to barefoot as I could be for years – clogs and fitflops are my mainstays. But recently I became a huge fan of the New Balance Minimus line of shoes – I have the sneakers, trail shoes, and water shoes. They are all designed to be worn without socks and feel like slippers to wear! I am usually very uncomfortable wearing closed toe shoes and I can’t stand socks but these are awesome!! I highly recommend them!!

    Adriana Vidal wrote on June 13th, 2013
  26. Have you heard about this product called vibram five fingers they are great for job interviews and everything one might so in life?

    AssHat900 wrote on September 3rd, 2013
  27. I think the Russell minimalist moccasin would be a good choice for office wear.

    http://birthdayshoes.com/tuck-s-shoes

    Chris M wrote on September 25th, 2013
  28. I love soft star shoes. You can customize their runamoc dash line into full respectability ( I wear them at work and my boss is strict ), and they’ll let you choose between 2mm or 5mm vibram rubber soles or soft leather soles. My preference is the leather.

    http://www.softstarshoes.com/adult-shoes/runamoc/dash-runamoc-all-smooth-black.html

    toque wrote on December 13th, 2013

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