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Strong Muscles = Healthy Feet; The Benefit of Barefoot Shoes

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

My daily uniform includes my Metrics Fitness Lab trainer shirt, my neon socks and barefoot shoes. It’s hard to miss that my shoes look so different from most other sneakers, so folks are always asking for my recommendation on footwear. It’s easily one of the top five frequently asked questions I get from my clients, so let’s talk about it here:

“what are the best shoes to wear for training?”

That’s easy! NO SHOES. Yes, you read that right. Your feet are the foundation of your movement, and they send and receive necessary information from the ground to your brain, which helps your body engage your natural stabilizers and shock absorbers to protect your joints. The farther your feet are from the ground (shoe padding), the less sensory feedback they have access to.

But if you must train with shoes, and live the rest of your life in them, wink, wink ;), choose a barefoot shoe as often as possible to develop stronger foot muscles for healthy feet.

What is a barefoot shoe?

To put it simply, barefoot footwear strips away the non-essential cushioning and stability characteristics of traditional shoes, to rely solely on your body’s natural shock absorbing mechanisms. The aim is to allow your feet to move more naturally, and to grow stronger and more agile as a result. They’re designed to conform more naturally to the shape and structure of your foot, almost sock-like, and only provide ultra-thin protection on the outsole for increased sensory feedback. Don’t worry, barefoot shoes still protect your feet from weather and harsh terrain, but it does so with less shoe.

There are many different types of barefoot footwear. But all of them have these 5 key characteristics:

  • No heel-to-toe drop. Heel-to-toe drop is the difference in elevation, in millimeters, between the toe and the heel. A proper barefoot shoe should have zero drop - just like your feet! By comparison, traditional running shoes have an 8-14mm drop.

  • A lower stack height. The stack height is the height of the sole. In other words, the amount of shoe between your foot and the ground. Barefoot footwear tends to have a stack height of around 3-8mm, so your feet can feel the ground, whereas most traditional running shoes are in the 9-30mm range.

  • A wide toe box. The toe box is the space for your toes. Barefoot shoes have wide toe boxes, with plenty of room for your toes to open wide and wiggle around. Traditional shoes, including normal running shoes, are tapered, pushing your toes together and compromising their strength and agility (and also leads to bunions and hammer toes).

  • Less padding and support. Traditional shoes have many types of padding and support, including arch support, ankle support and padded soles. Barefoot footwear is minus those exterior cushions, relying instead on the natural muscular padding your body was created with. It helps your feet build strength, and translates the necessary information about theground terrain to your joints and ligaments, which informs your body about the best way to adapt your movement.

  • Lightweight and flexible. Because of their minimalist design, truly barefoot shoes will be the lightest and most flexible out there. You should be able to easily fold your footwear in a circle with ease.

Why do barefoot shoes help to improve your movement?

Like your hands, your feet have sensitive nerve endings and barefoot shoes allow you to use your body’s natural tools to improve sensory feedback and proprioception - that is your awareness of your body in space. Barefoot shoes aim to make you literally feel more by putting less interference between you and your walking/running surface. Feeling every pebble beneath your feet provides an additional level of stimulation for the brain – which will react to changed conditions and relay messages to your feet to instinctively stabilize when the ground underfoot becomes rocky or hazardous.

Who is a good candidate for barefoot shoes?

Everyone. In truth, it’s less about the structural issues of whether you have collapsed arches and flat feet that lack support, or high arches that offer minimal natural cushioning, and more about how strong your arches actually are. Weaker arches whether low, neutral or high, are potential causes for pain and discomfort – as the tiny bones, ligaments and tendons in your foot can not as readily provide support. Being free of arch support and orthotics, barefoot shoes force the muscles in your feet to do the work – and like any muscle, they become stronger as a consequence of being activated. With your muscles doing the heavy lifting, your body learns to adapt, and your feet will strengthen - which may mean less injury risk in the long run.

Ok, I’m a barefoot believer. Where do I start my barefoot shoe journey?

Because most people have been stuck in rigid shoes with padding for our feet, the equivalent of boxing gloves on our hands, for our entire lives, you might be hesitant to jump directly into a zero drop barefoot-style shoe. I suggest either of these two options for you, 1.) Transition from your current shoe to a lower stack height and less padding support, with a wider toe box over the next 2-3 pairs of shoes or 2.) Go directly into a zero drop barefoot shoe, but limit the time you spend in them to 1-hour per day gradually increase it over time.

Check our these links for a variety of zero drop, barefoot shoes:

Check out these links for examples of transition shoes:

Does it have to be all barefoot, all the time?

It’s true, I am a trainer committed to helping people increase their health and create more efficient movement. My official recommendation is that you should wear barefoot shoes as often as possible because they support your body’s ability to function properly. But I also understand that different events and life circumstances require footwear that sacrifice healthy movement in exchange for “looking good.”

For instance ladies, when you wear high heels, you need to combat the negative effects of that forced foot position, so you can make sure to use a golf ball for strategic releases on the bottom of your foot to bring back balance to your structure. If you’re not sure how to do it, the Metrics Fitness Lab Regeneration sessions are a great place to begin. During that 60-minute session you lay on tools like the foam roller, lacrosse balls or muscle hooks to apply strategic pressure to your over-tight muscles. When you release the tension, it restores a healthy balance to your body and promotes better posture , for more pain-free movement.

Now that you know the ins and outs of barefoot shoes and how they positively impact your movement, hopefully you’re intrigued enough to begin the transition toward a zero drop shoe and commit to getting stronger feet. We talked about doing releases to mitigate the effects of restrictive shoes, but performing releases is just the first step. Learning how to properly engage your muscles throughout your entire body is how you keep proper alignment, for stronger foot muscles and less impact on your joints. Our training staff would be happy to support you in your journey toward healthy movement with two FREE sessions for all new clients! Call us today to schedule yours. (334) 740-6442.


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