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

Barefoot Alternatives

I 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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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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