Barefoot is the new cushion: Why I ditched the big chunky shoes

Travelling around Europe was on my To-do list when I first come to the UK about 10 years ago. However, with study always taking priority (I have Chinese parents, surprise!) and the lack of funds, I have only been to 2 European cities before finishing university. So when I finally got a job and saved up some money, I started planning a getaway for a breather. Not wanting to pay that extra to check in my luggage, I wanted to pack light, I needed to pack light. That’s when I first come across barefoot shoes.

“High tech shoes, low tech feet” – Ido Portal

Devolution

With millions of years of natural selection, human’s feet have evolved with one undivided focus – to walk and run. With 26 bones and more than 100 muscles, our foot and ankle are engineered to propel us forward and act as part of the complex but efficient shock absorption system. However, once we have satisfied with our survival needs, societies decided daintier feet are more desirable. So the East had the Chinese foot-binding practice while the West have high heels and pointed leather shoes, we are all sacrificing our survival advantage in the name of “beauty”. Then we over-engineer our shoes to have more cushioning without realising we already have the best tailor-made shock absorption system for our body.

What are barefoot shoes?

Unlike other trainers or formal shoes, barefoot shoes embrace your feet in their most natural form. The wide toe box, zero drops and the incredibly flexible and indeed extremely thin sole are designed to provide protection against sharp stones or debris without compromising ground feel. All these encourage your feet to do exactly what they were designed to do. 

Benefits

1.    Compact

That was the main reason I was drawn to barefoot shoes in the first place. I need something that I can throw in my bag without taking up much space. Compared to traditional trainers, barefoot shoes have extremely flexible sole thanks to their thinness. They can be rolled up small or pack flat into any small corner of your bag.

2.    Improve posture

Zero drops meaning the front of your shoe is at the same level at the heel. With heel elevation, the human body naturally trying to compensate for the tilt by anteriorly tilting your pelvis and arching your back. Incorrect posture in a long run gives you a stupid amount of aches and pains, most commonly chronic back pain, knee and hip pain. With zero drops, your body doesn’t need to work as hard to keep you upright, less incentive to hold yourself in an awkward position. Subsequently, allowing an even load across all joints to avoid excessive wear and tear at one particular point.

3.    Balance and joint stability 

The thin sole allows “ground feel” and exercises the foot muscles. Our feet have a huge amount of nerve endings not unlike our hands. The ability to connect with the ground, give us stronger joint proprioception (sense of self-movement and position) and greater control of our own body. While on uneven ground, our feet will have to work harder to morph into different shapes to allow us to remain upright, it strengthens those small muscles in our feet and provides much better stability, hence the longevity of our joints. This argument is like you don’t wear gloves while performing intricate and complex tasks with your hands because of the loss of “touch” and dexterity, we shouldn’t deprive our feet the same if we expect them to constantly doing minute adjustments for balance.

4.    Hallux Valgus

Hallux – Big toe. Valgus – Pointing away from the midline. Hallux Valgus is a bunion, I just like to sound clever once in a while. It is a deformity of the big toe bending and cramping towards the 2nd toe. One of the causes is wearing tight-fitting shoes, essentially squeezing the toe into an unnatural position. The joint can then get inflamed and sore. Having a wide toe box, can help with relieving some of the pressure and reduce the risk of it getting irritated.

Downsides

1.    Takes time to get used to

For a long time, our feet have gotten used to wearing these tight-fitting, big cushioning shoes. Just like anything, you lose it if you don’t use it. It will take some time to build up those small muscles in the foot again. In my experience, your feet get tired and sore quickly at the start, but as you build up, you will find yourself able to sustain being on your feet for longer and easier than before.

2.    Less choice

Barefoot shoes are gaining a bit of traction in recent years as people become more aware of the theory behind the benefits they offer. There are indeed more companies popping up these days with more fashionable choices. But in a large scheme of things, there are still only a small pool to choose from and the “duck-feet” like wide toe box is not exactly commonly associated with the word “classy”.

Verdict

Initially, I just wanted a pair of shoes that can fit into my backpack without taking up too much space without thinking too much about it. People claim barefoot shoes provide plenty of health benefits such as better posture, better joints and less chronic pain. Although I wouldn’t bet all my money on them as the magic solution for your shitty backs or dodgy knees, I certainly enjoy the freedom, the flexibility and the minimalistic design these shoes have. Anecdotally, I do notice some improvement in my balance and sustain longer on my feet albeit that could solely be placebo/bias. Many barefoot shoes come with a trial period with a money-back guarantee, you have little to lose to try one on. 😉