Is Barefoot Footwear for You? — Experts Share the Pros and Cons of Minimalist Shoes

Barefoot shoe brand Vivobarefoot has been challenging the footwear establishment with its collection of casual to performance looks that allow for more natural movement and maximum sensory feedback.

The direct-to-consumer brand, launched in 2012, offers footwear featuring a patented ultrathin, puncture-resistant sole that’s designed to protect the foot while running and walking.

Now the company is taking its message to consumers with a short documentary titled “Shoespiracy.” The film, released today, presents the opinions of a panel of medical and footwear experts including shoemakers, doctors, and biomechanists concerning the effects of wearing minimalist footwear on the feet and body.

While these industry insiders are in favor of a barefoot approach to footwear over more traditional shoes with built-in cushioning and support, others note the trend may not be beneficial to everyone.

Barefoot & Minimalist Shoe Movement History

The barefoot or minimalist footwear movement is not new to the industry; it was introduced to consumers in the mid-2000s by brands including Vibram with its FiveFingers styles, New Balance’s Minimus styles, Merrell and Lems.

Although the trend ebbed, Galahad Clark, founder of Vivobarefoot, said the tides are beginning to turn with a renewed interest in this footwear category.

Experts and Insiders Have Different Views

There are industry insiders who agree minimalist shoes may not be for everyone. Dr. D. Casey Kerrigan, who recently introduced her own line of footwear under the OESH label, said peer review research has demonstrated that traditional cushioned shoes increase rather than decrease impact on the joints, particularly the knee joint. “Specifically, we found that any heel elevation and any side-to-side contours in a shoe — typical in most shoes — abnormally increase the loads on the knee joint.”

However, noted Kerrigan, that doesn’t mean traditional shoes are bad for one’s health. “It just means they need to be designed such that the soles are flat in both the front and back and side to side planes, and the sole is comprised of an elastic spring material that doesn’t cushion per se but rather rebounds with each step, protecting the foot while minimizing the impact on the joints.”

Vivobarefoot Borough
Vivobarefoot men’s Borough style.
CREDIT: Vivobarefoot

How Minimalist Footwear Can Impact Health

Lori Weisenfeld, a New York-based sports podiatrist, explained for people who are considered severe overpronators — those with arches that collapse or roll in when standing or running — are more prone to injuries due to the foot condition and require additional support, particularly if they want to take on running as an activity, which promotes even more stress. “Even if you’re walking, pounding the streets in urban areas, many people do need the additional support a shoe or insert will give them,” she explained.

Weisenfeld advises individuals who want to embark on the minimalist footwear trend to do it gradually. “You need to be sure you have the right foot type,” she said. “And if you’re a runner, it would be a good to have a biomechanical evaluation first.”

At Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine, Dr. Howard Palamarchuk, a clinical associate professor, has also found not everyone is born to go barefoot. “If you’ve never had foot issues, it would not be wrong for you,” he said. He added runners who want to wear minimalist footwear should consider retraining to run in this footwear type.

Some people are comfortable running closer to the ground, he said, referring to Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila, a double Olympic marathon champion who won the gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome running barefoot, setting a world record. However, noted Palamarchuk, Bikila repeated his victory in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, this time wearing athletic shoes.

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