In today’s world, we pretty much always have to wear shoes. But the majority of shoes people wear run directly counter to the way our feet and lower bodies are designed to function. Tall heels, thick padding, restrictive material that allows no movement, heavy sole that prevents us from feeling the ground—modern shoes are monstrosities that cut us off from the world around us and inhibit our ability to navigate it pain-free. Shoes that emulate the barefoot experience on the other hand offer tangible benefits to your health, wellness, athletic performance, and overall well-being by recreating the environment under which the human foot evolved.
Here are 9 tangible reasons to wear barefoot shoes.
Proprioception describes the bodily awareness we have as we move throughout the world. Do we know where our limbs are in relation to the environment? Do we have intuitive understanding of what our head, shoulders, hips, and arms are doing as we run, jump, move, or even just walk around? All of these contribute to our overall sense of proprioception and regulate the speed, strength, and safety of our interactions with the outside world. If you have better proprioception, you will be a better athlete. You’ll be more effective in every physical capacity. You’ll be smoother.
The first and arguably most important way we establish proprioceptive awareness is with our feet touching the ground. The simple exposure of the millions of nerves on our feet to the ground—the textures, the slopes, the rocks and twigs underfoot, the slipperiness—gives our nervous system an incredible amount of actionable information about where we are and how we’re moving. Barefoot is obviously best if the environment is forgiving, but barefoot minimalist shoes with a thin sole are second best and provide almost as much information—and they can be worn everywhere.
Better rootedness to the ground. Stability.
The closer you are to the ground, the more stable you are. The less material you have between you and the ground, the more rooted you are. Barefoot shoes give you better ground feel and ground control by minimizing the amount of shoe material between you and the world.
Studies on athletes show this. Those wearing the most supportive shoes, particularly those with ankle support, have the worst balance and stability when performing. Those in bare feet (or wearing minimalist shoes that provide no support and mimic the barefoot experience) have the best balance and stability. In fact, ankle stability studies often use barefoot athletes as the control group against which the various ankle taping methods and high top shoes are compared. The control group always wins in these studies.
Better foot landing mechanics and fewer injuries.
When you run in a raised heel shoe, you tend to land on your heel. When you run in a zero heel drop barefoot shoe, you land more naturally—on the mid to fore foot. This can have huge implications for your risk of repetitive stress injury. Forefoot striking in general tends to place far less loading on the knee joint.1 In a forefoot landing, the knee is slightly bent, allowing the muscles to help absorb the impact. In a heel strike, the knee is fully extended, forcing the joint itself to absorb the impact.
A study from 2012 found that among endurance runners, the heel strikers had twice the rate of injury.2 The mid/forefoot strikers were much less likely to incur any injuries.. having a zero heel drop shoe without a raised heel allows your feet to land according to natural mechanics. Rather than a heel striker, you become
Even just a half inch of padded heel throws off your entire posture up the line. It’s like standing on a slant, and in order to maintain an upright head position your lower back is thrown into lordosis, your knees jut forward, your ankle angle shortens. Instead of a straight stack of joints and tissues from top to bottom, you’re more like a wobbly Jenga tower.
More accurate biofeedback.
I won’t try to claim that running in barefoot shoes allows you to go farther and longer. It doesn’t. The “clouds” that are modern fluffy padded running shoes do allow you to run greater distances in comfort, but this isn’t a good thing for most people. Most people should be getting the biofeedback, aka discomfort, that you receive from minimalist shoes. They tell you when your body has had enough running. If you sever that connection and bypass the natural biofeedback with padded shoes, you run the risk of overtraining and taxing your joints and other tissues.
Barefoot shoes give you accurate biofeedback about how much more stress your feet—and body overall—can handle.
The feet aren’t just wedges of flesh and bone. They are active limbs with dozens of muscles that require engagement and stimulation. If you stick them inside stiff shoes, the muscles in your feet atrophy and weaken. If you wear minimalist barefoot shoes that allow full range of motion through every foot muscle and every toe, your feet and toes get stronger, healthier, and more resilient.
Wider toe boxes.
Narrow footwear squeezes the toes together, reshaping them and forcing them into an unnatural position. The natural position of the toes is splayed out, providing a broader distribution of weight through movement and loading. The more compacted your feet and toes, the more concentrated the weight rests on certain areas, promoting stress fractures and bunions. The wider the shoe, the more evenly distributed the forces across the foot. Toes should also be a lot more prehensile than we’ve been made to think, and a wide toe box barefoot shoe can help us achieve that.
Getting comfortable with being the weird one.
This is no small thing. I often tell you guys to “let your freak flag fly” because that’s what it takes to be a healthy, happy human in this world. If you don’t agree with the way things are going, the way most people live their lives, the way people eat and exercise (or don’t), then why wouldn’t you get a little weird? I’m not talking about being the bearded man screaming on a street corner. I mean you should be comfortable diverting from the norm if it’s what you truly need and desire.
Wearing shoes that divert from the norm is an easy low-level entry point to “weirdness.”
It’s a return to the way we came into this world.
On several levels barefoot shoes return us to the purest state of all—how we came into this world.
It’s how we as hominids came into this world 2 million years ago: walking upright on bare feet.
It’s how modern humans spread across the globe: walking upright on bare feet or in the flimsiest of moccasins or sandals.
It’s how we as individuals were born: as babies without shoes on.
The onus is on those wearing and selling big padded protective shoes to prove that their footwear is safe. The default position is that the oldest, most natural mode of upright barefoot bipedalism is also the safest and most effective. You have to prove that it’s not.
Tips to Prepare for Wearing Barefoot Shoes
Once you’ve got your first pair of barefoot shoes, be careful. If you resume full activity levels in the new shoes, you might risk injuring yourself. You need to acclimate your lower body to the new situation.
Spend as much time barefoot. Go barefoot at home, in the park, in the yard, at the beach. Really
Train your feet. Do toe spreads against a tight rubber band, squeeze pencils between your toes, pick up objects with your feet, go walking in deep soft sand, alternate pointing at objects in the distance and then at your own face using your toes, walk around on the sides of your feet.
Start taking shorter strides when walking and running. Walk and run softly, try to be silent.
Start slow. From short walks to longer walks to brisker walks to easy jogs to runs to sprints. Don’t skip a step.
Stop when you get sore. Don’t push through the soreness. Stop right away and come back tomorrow.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.