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Wednesday
Sep282011

Weighing In: Are Barefoot Shoes Better?

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Training shoe design has become quite polarized in recent years. At one end, consumers can buy thick-soled, space-age looking shoes that promise to tone your hips, glute muscles and thighs and provide resistance training through their design. On the other end, there are shoes designed to be as close to barefoot as possible while they provide enough cover to keep your dry, scaly feet out of sight. Will toning shoes live up to the hype? Is barefoot the way to go?

Some of the recent commercials for toning shoes make it sound as though simply walking in them will give you all the benefits you’d gain from a great resistance training, cardio and flexibility program. Plus, they’ll make you look like the fitness models in the commercials. With thick soles designed to make your muscles work harder than they would in regular shoes, these shoes sound like they could be great fitness tools. They look a little funny, but hey, if they can get you in shape, who cares? Many of the toning shoe brands make significant claims about the effect they have. Not surprisingly, the research supporting these shoes comes from the shoe companies, themselves.

Fortunately, The American Council on Exercise funded a study of their own and — wouldn’t you know it— the results didn’t turn out to be as impressive. Working with the University of Wisconsin – Lacrosse, the study looked at MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology), Skechers Shape-Ups, and Reebok EasyTone. Don’t mistake the MBT acronym; these are not barefoot shoes at all. They are designed with a sole to keep you off balance as you walk. The Reebok EasyTone design includes “1 cm rounded pods (like small BOSU balls) built into the forefoot and heel of the shoes.”[i] As the researchers compared these three toning shoes against a standard shoe, what did they find?

The results of this study found no evidence that walking in fitness shoes had any positive effect on exercise heart rate, oxygen consumption, or caloric expenditure compared to walking in a regular running shoe.

The same researchers reviewed the claim that toning shoes “activate more muscle than regular running or walking shoes,” and found:

…there was no significant difference in muscle activation levels for any of the muscles tested between any of the shoe conditions.

So if these shoes don’t help you burn more calories or work your muscles more, why wear them?

At the other end of the training shoe spectrum, you could pick one of the many “barefoot” options available. You won’t really be in bare feet, but the way some of these shoes are designed, it sure feels like it. Before looking at these minimalist shoe options, you might be thinking, “Don’t I need a shoe with a solid sole and arch support to protect my feet and reduce injury?”

Putting your foot inside a shoe prevents your foot from moving the way it otherwise might —or  the way it’s designed to move. Here’s a practical example:

Take off your shoes and stand on a hard floor, if possible. Note that your balance should be pretty solid. If you don’t have some joint dysfunction, your feet should be about hip width and your toes should point ahead or turn out just slightly.

Now find something about an inch high to put under your heel and stand upright again. Can you feel how your weight has shifted? Do you notice that some muscles feel a bit tighter? Keep adjusting with something a little higher. Now, if you move off your heel to the side on your foot, you should notice how the angle at your ankle changes. As it does, stresses are shifted on the joints above your ankle — onto your knees, hips, back — even your neck. By wearing shoes with extra arch support (particularly if you don’t need it) or shoes with elevated heels, you can change the angle of your ankle as you stand or walk, which changes the stresses on joints all the way up to your head.

As for whether special running shoes or walking shoes reduce the chance of injury, Christopher McDougall states in his book, Born to Run:

In a 2008 research paper for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr. Craig Richards, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia, revealed that there are no evidence-based studies – not one – that demonstrate that running shoes make you less prone to injury.

Somewhere between the Converse shoes of decades ago and today, we began believing we needed more and more support and that our shoes should be as comfortable as our pillows. Truth is, our feet are supposed to feel the ground below us, to sense when the ground changes and adapt to different terrain.

Most of us aren’t going to spend our days walking around in bare feet. This is where “barefoot” or “minimalist” shoes come into play. You can get much of the benefit of being barefoot while covering your feet in varying forms of fashion. Some of the brands available were created with the barefoot concept in mind and have held their ground. Others offer both the benefits of barefoot and toning shoes. Consumer demand drives shoe sales more than a company’s philosophy. As a result, the past year has presented a significant number of options. The following are some of the popular ones. I have not tried them all, but will note those I have.

Barefoot options

Vibram Five-Fingers: You can’t get much closer to being barefoot than wearing the Vibram Five-Fingers. These shoes have soles that truly allow you to feel the ground beneath you, while providing enough protection to avoid cutting your foot on a sharp rock or piece of glass. The toes of the shoes wrap around each toe, allowing your toes to move and respond as they would if you were barefoot. They will probably get you a few double-takes from people who’ve never seen them before. As the originator in the five-finger concept, you can be confident of Vibram’s quality and design. I have a pair of these and LOVE them on dirt/wooded trails.
Website: Vibram Five Fingers

Fila Skele-Toes: Fila has followed up with an alternative to the Vibram Five-Fingers with Skele-Toes. The design allows for toes to be separated like the Five-Fingers, but they can’t copy the Five-Fingers so there will be some differences. The main thing I noticed when I looked at them is the firmness of the sole. It didn’t bend much compared to my Five Fingers, which would keep the foot from moving as freely as it could. Website: Fila Skele-Toes

Vivo Barefoot Achilles, Evo Running and Barefoot Aqua: Vivo offers a few different styles, including a cross between a sandal and a five-finger shoe. I haven’t tried these shoes but have read some good reviews online. Website: Vivo Barefoot

Inov-8: Inov-8 is a shoe company based out of England and, at its core, is a minimalist shoe company. Inov-8 offers many different shoe models, all designed to make the foot do as much work as possible. I have a pair of their f-lite 230s and love them. They’re about a year old and still in great shape. The shoe is very flat so it forces you to land with a pretty flat foot when running instead of landing hard on the heel. Their only disadvantage is in trying to purchase them. They’re often sold out online because they’re so popular and many U.S. shoe stores don’t carry them. They’re worth the wait to be on a backorder list, though. Website: Inov-8

Nike Free: The Nike Free is as close to barefoot as Nike makes. This can be a great transition shoe for people who’ve worn conventional running shoes for years. The heel is still elevated, but the sole moves pretty freely under your foot. For those who are used to a very flat-soled barefoot shoe, the Nike Free might not be a good idea. I bought a pair several months ago and was surprised by how much I was forced to land on my heel compared to my other shoes. Website: Nike Free

New Balance Minimus and Merrell Trail Glove: Both New Balance and Merrell partnered with Vibram to provide their own brand of shoes with a Vibram sole. They look like normal shoes (minus the thick soles) but are very comfortable barefoot shoes. I spent a half hour trying both of them recently and finally decided on the New Balance because it moved better with my foot better as I walked. The New Balance Minimus comes in cross-trainer, road, life and trail models. I found the trail shoe to feel most natural. I have to admit that they are my new favorite. Websites: New Balance Minimus & Merrell Trail Glove

Caution:

If you decide to start wearing minimalist shoes, take your time. If you spend too much time in them too fast, your feet might not be ready for them and you can get pretty sore. Once you get used to them, you probably won’t go back to traditional training shoes — or maybe even your everyday shoes. If I had a choice, I’d wear mine all day long and leave my dress shoes in the closet.

Do you have a favorite training shoe? Share yours, below.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


[i] Porcari JP, Greany J, Tepper S, Edmonson B, Foster C. The Physiologic and Electromyographic Responses to Walking in Regular Athletic Shoes versus “Fitness Shoes”. American Council on Exercise, Department of Physical Therapy and Exercise and Sport Science, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

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Reader Comments (26)

Hey Tom, what is your take on arch support and orthotics? I was told by my chiro to wear them?

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

I agree with Tom, my new favorite shoes are the New Balance Minimus, but I have the Cross-Trainer version instead.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNate

@Vanessa: Great question. With the popularity of barefoot shoes, there been growing debate about the use of orthotics. The best thing you could do is ask more questions. Too often, people don't ask enough questions of their doctor. Why does your chiropractor feel orthotics are necessary for you? What types of shoes have you used in the past? In the short-term, orthotics might be okay, but there should be a plan to eliminate them in time. Otherwise, your feet, ankles, knees, hips, back, and neck will always be artificially supported. It's the same as when people feel they need arch support in a shoe. Your arch is intended to support your foot by itself.
Man made arches, like those made of stone, are strongest when all of the pressure on them is from above. The easiest way to weaken an arch - a man made on in a building or the one in your foot, is to apply pressure from underneath. It might take time, but walking with minimal padding under your foot could very well train your foot back to the way it's supposed to work.

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Hi Tom, great post! I've been running with a pair of Saucony ProGrid Kinvaras for a year now, and I really like them a lot. They're a great middle ground between a full-cushioned running shoe and the barefoot models. Eventually, I may transition to a pair of Five Fingers, but didn't want to make the swap so quickly.

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Schaar

Great post Tom! My aha moment was at Arches National Park. My knees were hurting and a lot of people around me were barefoot. I removed my boots just to try it out and I was enjoying the sensation, but what I didn't expect was that in minutes my knees had stopped bothering me. Turns out my boots and running shoes had been forcing me to land heel-first. All the shock was going into my knees. Growing up, I spent a lot of time barefoot and always ran on the balls of my feet. At some point, I started landing heel first. I picked up a pair of Vibram Five Fingers (original) and haven't looked back. No more knee pain, and I can really feel the ground!
Caution! The original five fingers do not protect against thorns! I had a large (about an inch and a half) stuck about halfway into my foot, stopped only by a barb in the thorn that caught the sole of the Vibrams. It was held very effectively by the Vibram rubber. Quite painful to remove on one foot on a trail. Later, same day, a small thorn embedded itself in the shoe. Something i never would have thought would go through, and it did. It took some work to get it out so it would stop stabbing my toe! Perhapse I need those New Balance, or the Vibram Five Fingers trail shoes. (Trek I think?)

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric

Also, for reference:
http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/4BiomechanicsofFootStrike.html

Supports the toe-strike style that barefoot running promotes.

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric

I have a pair of Easy Tone & will never wear them again. I wore them for about a month and then I began having problems with my feet. Save your money and buy a good pair of running or cross training shoes!

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMiranda

Great article!
Regarding the barefoot options; do you recommend their use for indoor aerobic activities?

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNicola

what do you think of the Newton running shoes. I run in the Sir Isaac. I collapsed my ankle a year ago, and after physical therapy I was able to run again only by avoiding landing on my heels. I had been a heavy heel lander previously and a supernator (I thought I was a pronator). The Newton shoes help me land midfoot. Would you recommend I try the Minimus or any of the shoes mentioned above?

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric

I am a trainer and a martial arts instructor. Wearing stiff athletic shoes in the gym all day was a negative after spending time barefooted most of my life, practicing karate. I now wear the New Balance/Vibram trail shoe to work everyday and my feet have been happy. I can throw a fron snap kick without hurting my knee- they are so light!

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElaine Harshman

@Eric: Good story. Once you start watching the average person walking or running down the street, it's surprising how much they land on their heel. They can get away with it with the thick heeled shoes, but it changes your gait quite a bit. You can't walk that way when you're barefoot or using minimal shoes.

@Nicola: You can definitely use these kinds of shoes for group fitness classes. I wouldn't suggest the Vibram Five Fingers right away, as your feet won't be used to the hardwood floor. My Inov-8s and NB Minimus shoes work great for lateral movement like you have in group fitness classes. I wouldn't use my Nike Frees as their sole is too thick and it's too easy to roll over on an ankle. When you try them on, be sure to try some of the common movements you use in the classes you like and see how they feel.

@Eric: I can't say I've ever tried the Newtons. I looked them up on line and they look like they have a pretty thick sole, a very different design than the minimalist/barefoot shoe designs.

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

@Elaine: It was my background in TaeKwondo that made me think about how I used to run in class (barefoot) vs. how I started running on the treadmill, and hiking for that matter. In TKD, I was always barefoot, and I always landed ball-of-the-foot-first, not heel-first. It may have taken longer to figure out why my knees stopped hurting without shoes if it weren't for that. Heck, growing up, I practically walked on the balls of my feet all the time just because it was more comfortable after a while.

@Tom: I realized I couldn't get away with heel-first even with a thick soled shoe. It just postponed the knee pain instead of eliminating it. In the Vibram KSO's I have no knee pain at all. I run on the balls of my feet entirely with the occasional brush of my heel on the ground at most. I'm now looking into a pair of Treks or Trek LS's for the trails with thorn potential. :)

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric

Just after this article was posted, Reebok settled with the Federal Trade Commission for $25 million. Reebok ads claimed that the toning shoes strengthened hamstrings and calves up to 11 percent more than regular shoes, plus toned buttocks up to 28 percent more. After conducting their own testing, the FTC disagreed with some of the claims made by Reebok. While disagreeing with the FTC, Reebok settled to avoid a protracted legal battle.

October 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

I was raised on a farm and was barefoot all spring/summer/fall when I wasn't in school. That's why I have no sympathy when I see those commercials for poor shoeless kids in third-world countries(sorry, developing nations). You don't need shoes unless you live someplace where there are parasites that can enter your body through cuts on your feet. It just takes a little while to get used to being barefoot, as your feet develop thick callouses. Then as an adult I lived in San Francisco and Honolulu... slippahs were the shoe of choice when I wore shoes... which I don't in my home.

Also in my 20s I dated a podiatrist who told me in '20 years' I'd have to have my feet broken and reset because they were extremely flat. hmmm. I'm in my 60s now and have never had a foot problem. So baloney to that. AND I exercise every day too, walking, jogging, swimming. No foot problems at all, plus I've done three marathons, not fast, I'm no speed demon and only 5'4", but never a single foot problem. Oh, but I also have never worn high-heeled shoes either. Another consideration.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTante Waileka

Although they decrease pressure on the knee due to the greater need for more knee flexion with barefoot shoes, barefoot shoes siginficantly increase the stress to the achilles tendons, often leading to overuse injuries such as achilles tendonitis.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames

@James: That's certainly possible if people move from using standard shoes to using barefoot shoes all the time, all at once. That's why it's a good idea to work into them. It would be a bad idea to go for a three mile run right after you buy them. Start with walking for brief periods of time and then eventually you should be able to wear them all the time.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Any options for folk with morton's toe (longer 2nd toe)?

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJER

My apologies to whoever commented prior to Tante. I was deleting two spam comments and I think I deleted yours by accident. Once I realized it, I couldn't recover your comment. It was not intentional.

@JER: Any of the shoe-like minimal shoes should be fine. My wife's second toes are longer than her big toe (we never knew there was a name for it) so the Vibram Five Fingers don't work, but she got a pair of New Balance Minimus shoes when I got mine and she loves them.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Tom, I think you need to decide if you are presenting evidence or offering an opinion. You seem to use some level of evidence when writing about the toning-type shoes. In this case, the study you present supports your opinion and clearly speaks for itself. However, when presenting your opinion of minimal shoes, you cite Born to Run, an obvious proponent of such shoes without offering any evidence in support or against minimal shoes. Further, you offer support for the minimalist shoes by stating broad, unfounded opinions by generally stating that the foot was "meant to be barefoot" without looking at the big picture. It's time you evolve with society. We likely have been designed to be barefoot. From birth. Running on earth. Much like the subjects in Born to Run, we would all do fine in barefeet if we grew up running 3 miles to school, 3 miles back home for lunch, 3 more miles back to school, and 3 miles back home again, in bare feet, on dirt roads, every day. See, it may be OK for an African, or the farmer, or the barefoot martial arts instructor to go into a minimalist shoe, but for those of us grew up in urban environments, none of our surfaces are as old as our foot design. I run on concrete and asphalt and your treadmills. I wake up on hardwood floors, step into my tiled bathroom, and walk outside on my stone pavers and concrete steps. Do you wear a jacket when it's cold outside, Tom? Because I wear shoes to adapt man-made surfaces to a more earth-like substrate on my feet.
No one should wear these shoes in your concrete-laden clubs. I believe you are missing the point. And you probably shouldn't be giving advice on the matter without examining the evidence or offering perspective. I hope you use evidence based practices when offering advice on nutrition an weight loss. Best of luck to you and your profession.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDarwin

So to be kind..what a bunch of marketing nonsense. Silly concept, but I guess the shoe companies will make some $$ and the shepple will buy them up. "Hey do you want to be cool??? Well, we have these space age high-tech shoes that are just like not wearing shoes for only $200. Just think how COOL you will be??" P.T. Barnum continues to be right all these years later.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMitch

I switched to Vibrams last father's day. I can't stress enough to work your way into them. I can run a half marathon distance in them without issue.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Quint

I am interested in the minimus for cross training and running. I have a pinched nerve in my back so running is iffy at best. I am not ready to give it up yet and was wondering if these shoes could help. My problem is that I have a narrow foot. I always buy New Balance because they fit me the best. When looking on their website I noticed only trail shoes and none that came in narrow. Thoughts?

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I have a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves for the gym and running and a pair of Tough Gloves for work. My feet, knees, hips, and lower back have never been happier.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

@Darwin
Tom used evidence regarding the lack of effectiveness of toning shoes, yes. He then cited the lack of any scientific study that shows a benefit (no reduction of injury demonstrated) for running shoes. Your comment about natural surfaces ignores the existence of hard surfaces in nature, like stone, dry dirt, etc. As a matter of fact, it was on a stone surface (Arches National Park) that I learned my knee pain went away when I took my boots off and went barefoot. Until your feet gain some strength, you probably shouldn't run a marathon barefoot, no, but you don't need to be some specialist to be able to go barefoot. You'll also note that all of those examples you gave work barefoot, because shoes offer no benefit. (In fact in martial arts at least, they're a huge hinderance.) I would point out as well, that if foot strength is so unattainable beyond childhood, nobody should ever take up martial arts.

@Mich
The marketing would be where Nike et al. told you that their shoes with special padding in them were somehow better than without. Just like the toning shoes. (And the 'sheeple' as you say, are the majority of people who believe the claims that it's somehow better without any evidence.)

General info for both:
http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/4BiomechanicsofFootStrike.html

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric

I recently bought the Saucony Kinvaras. I was afraid my feet would be sore without all the cushioning of a traditional running shoe. I have been running in Mizuno WaveRiders for 10 years, but with their recent poor redesign I needed a different shoe. I decided to try a minimalist shoe after researching new shoe options. I am not a heel striker, even with thick running shoe soles, but the minimalist shoe helps me especially during long runs of 15 miles or more. Before when my legs would get fatigued, my heels would sometimes "catch' and slow me down. The biggest advantage to the minimalist shoe style for me is than I'm faster now that my weight is shifted forward. To the previous poster - Kate - The Nike Frees are very narrow. I couldn't wear them. They may be perfect for you.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWyayn

I am a big shoe geek and Avid runner. I put in about 50miles per week and race 5K's, 10K's and Half/Full Marathons. I would like to put my flip view on this debate. I am all for wearing low-profile shoes... but barefeet is not a good idea for running. Fortuneatley for the "born to run" Tribe they don't run on pavements - they woud not even dare to as it beats your body up. Thats why we have some cushion/supprt yo our shoes.

The vibram 5-fingers were designed orignaly for watersports and were advertised to the mass media when they relised this could be $$$. All their research is funded by the companys that want to sell their products. I have searched and searched for an article that states the barefoot vs shoes debate that has a valid conclusion However none do.

My opinion. Wear the lowest profile shoe that doesnt get you injured. GO see a proffesional at a specialty running store and get the details on your running gait. its the best and only way to figuring out what works for you.

The Brooks Pure shoes are a great inbetween if you are worried about getting hurt following the minimal trend.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEsimp

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