The benefits of barefoot shoes: A beginner’s guide

Free your feet, but start slow.
two sets of legs walking on a wooden boardwalk
Say goodbye to overly structured, rigid, and inflexible footwear. Xero Shoes

If you think you need over-cushioned, over-supportive, and over-engineered footwear for everything from running errands to running trails, think again. Research has shown many healthful and practical advantages to wearing barefoot or minimalist shoes instead, whether you’re walking, running, hiking, or chasing the kids around the backyard.

Minimalist and barefoot shoes can strengthen muscles and bones in the feet and ankles, which can help prevent injury, stabilize the arch, and help prevent some athletic injuries. Intrinsic foot muscle strength is positively correlated to stability and better balance, especially in older individuals. And in athletes, the strength and flexibility in the big toe area that’s encouraged by barefoot shoes can help with push off, power, and agility. 

However, when you contain your feet in a conventional shoe with excessive cushioning and support and a decidedly un-foot-like shape, you lose much of their natural function and strength—not to mention the childlike joy of feeling the earth beneath your feet. And science seems to corroborate the idea that feet are designed perfectly to perform functions like walking and running in minimalist footwear—or in none at all. After all, for most of human history people trod barefoot or in only minimalist footwear.

But if you’re keen to free your feet and give minimalist shoes a try, whether you’re interested in whole body health and wellness, functional movement, reducing chronic pain, or simply returning to a place of childhood delight that comes only from romping around outside sans footwear, it’s going to take time and strategic effort. Here’s how to transition safely and effectively for a lifetime of healthy, functional feet.

What are barefoot shoes?

Before you start shopping for new shoes, it’s important to know what constitutes minimal or barefoot footwear. Main features include a wide toe box, zero-drop footbed (meaning your heel is the same distance from the ground as your forefoot), no arch support, and a flexible sole. All are designed to let your toes spread and your feet get stronger as they move and flex naturally, as if they were barefoot.

And just about everyone can—and maybe should, according to Emily Splichal, podiatrist and founder of the Center for Functional & Regenerative Medicine—make the transition. There are only a few types of feet she says may not benefit from minimalist footwear, including those with overpronation due to ligament laxity (extra loose ligaments) or high-arched, rigid feet. But most others, including those with bunions, hammer toes, or plantar fasciitis can usually benefit. Just transition wisely.

Start Slow

Like strengthening any other part of your body, strengthening the muscles in your feet will take time, so don’t expect to make the switch to barefoot shoes overnight. “You’re theoretically increasing stress and demands to the foot, which means you need to have sufficient strength to address those demands,” explains Splichal. How much time that takes depends on you and your feet, but it could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

“This kind of transition from overly structured, stiff, and inflexible shoes requires consistency and patience,” adds John Wadley, vice president of product development at barefoot shoe brand Xero Shoes.

After all, you’ve likely been wearing narrow, cushioned shoes for most of your life; your foot and leg muscles aren’t used to all the increased stress, load, and sensation that comes with wearing minimalist footwear. Think of transitioning like getting a cast removed, Wadley suggests: When the cast comes off, your muscles have atrophied a bit and returning your injured appendage to pre-break strength will take time and effort. Conventional footwear is similar to a cast, just less extreme.

So to start, only wear your minimalist shoes at work, to the gym, around the house, or when running errands, but only one day at a time, and maybe just for a few hours. For example, wear them on Monday, switch to your regular footwear for a few days, then don the minimalist shoes again on Thursday. “Introduce your feet to increased demands, but allow sufficient time for recovery and adaptation,” Splichal instructs. “No pain no gain is definitely not something that is involved here.”

Then, as long as your feet and ankles don’t hurt (they’ll likely feel a bit more tired or strained than usual, but that’s normal), slowly increase the number of days per week you wear your shoes while decreasing the number of rest days in between. Listen to your body for cues and don’t push your limits or you may set your journey to foot health back instead of forward.

If you want to start running in barefoot shoes–not just living, hiking, or walking–plan to take even more time to transition. After all, the impact force and demand on your feet is greater when you run, so Wadley, a runner himself, suggests starting with just a mile or two in barefoot shoes. Then slowly increase time and distance on subsequent runs. It’s also important to focus on single leg stability and foot awareness to get better at barefoot running, Splichal says, which involves strengthening your feet via specific exercises.

Strengthen and Recover

Indeed, balancing all the work you put in with recovery and strengthening exercises to increase balance, stability, and foot awareness is just as important as time in your new footwear, Splichal points out.

To aid in your barefoot journey, start with Splichal’s favorite exercise: short foot. To perform the move, stand up straight, lift and spread your toes, and then place them on the floor. Inhale through your nose and, as you exhale, push the tips of your toes into the ground. Press down for the entire exhalation, then relax, inhale, and repeat the cycle five more times. 

Boost single leg stability by standing on one foot while you wash your hands or do dishes, then after time spent in barefoot shoes, use recovery tools like Splichal’s Neuro Ball, a studded sphere with a smaller, harder ball inside, which can be used to massage or release your feet. Place the ball—or a golf ball or lacrosse ball—on the floor and stand up while you roll it around under one foot at a time, using medium pressure, or keep it stationary while you press down on one area of your sole at a time.

Perform calf stretches after activity and wear toe spacers, too, which can both be useful recovery tools that promote flexibility and function, Splichal says.

Give barefoot a chance

Whether you plan to run, walk, or simply wear barefoot shoes for daily life, are looking to increase foot health and function or improve balance, make sure that you listen to your body when transitioning, don’t overdo it, and focus on recovery.

“Give your feet a chance to be healthy and strong,” Wadley encourages. “You won’t regret it.”