Take the Next Step in Freeing Your Feet
A few years ago we attended a local outdoor trade show. There were a lot of people who were wearing a popular outdoor sandal that is well known for having thick and heavy solid rubber soles. We won’t name names, but if you’ve ever worn them, you know what I’m talking about. It was fun to get people to take them off and try on a lighter sandal. The result was usually a look of surprise, followed by some kind of dance. These people were experiencing the pure delight of wearing shoes that are light and minimal.
If you’re new to minimal footwear, you may not have felt this sensation. However, most people find that the first time they wear minimal (barefoot) shoes, they feel a sense of freedom as they can move their feet in ways they haven’t been able to in conventional shoes. There is something about the light weight combined with a flexible sole that just feels great!
In recent years, more and more barefoot shoes are becoming available and as the demand grows and more shoe companies see the benefits. It’s been very fun and exciting to see minimal footwear become adopted more and more by the mainstream. As more and more shoes enter the market, we’re seeing a wider range of how natural and movement-friendly they are. This can be a really good thing to help people transition. However, it’s good to be aware of these things before you buy.
So what exactly is a truly minimal shoe? We define it as the smallest amount of shoe needed to fulfil its function. That is going to be different depending on the needs of each individual but here are some factors to think about.
The first and most obvious is that the sole is flexible and allows for ground feel. One thing that isn’t so obvious though is that while sole thickness affects this, it isn’t always the main factor. The material that is used makes a big difference. The hardness, density, elasticity, and makeup all play important factors. Some shoes have slightly thicker soles but less dense material that gives good ground feel. Others have thinner soles that can be stiff and hard. You can’t always judge the shoe by the sole thickness.
A “neutral heel” or “zero drop” shoe is very important for the body to function naturally. Imagine taking a large box and standing it on end. Then put a wedge underneath one side. What happens to the box? It tilts to one side. The taller the box the more it tilts. This is what happens to your body when you wear a shoe with any heel but your body compensates for this with joints. This puts your body out of alignment and creates an unnatural gait. Conventional shoe makers can be sneaky here. Many shoes out there appear flat but if you look at how they are constructed, there is often a small lift in the insole, or the sole is designed with an internal heel that you can’t see from the outside but still brings the heel up.
It’s been really nice to see some more conventional shoes widen the toe boxes in their products! Once you wear shoes with a wide toe box, it’s nearly impossible to cram your feet back into narrow, pointy shoes. Whose idea was that anyway? Have you seen the disturbing images of the old Chinese foot binding? Narrow toe boxes are working the same way. While the importance of a wide toe box may seem pretty obvious, there are still a surprising number of “barefoot” shoe companies out there that have fairly narrow toe boxes. Of course, different people have differently shaped feet but we have very carefully designed our shoes to accommodate for a wide range. Our Forager may be among the widest and most accommodating toe box without looking like a clown shoe!
Arch support is essentially a cast. It restricts movement of the arch and takes over the work of supporting the body weight on the foot. If the arch of the foot doesn’t have any load on it, of course it adapts and atrophies. The phrase, “use it or lose it” comes to mind here. Once the muscles that create the arch start to weaken, it creates a dependency on arch support and a vicious cycle begins. Most of us think of arch support as a big lump on the bottom, inside of the shoe. However, be aware that arch support can come in other ways as well. Often a sole that wraps up and around the arch works much like a suspension bridge with the upper materials and creates a form of arch support. In this case, it at least allows for some movement and doesn’t take all the work away. Eventually, you’re going to want something with zero support.
The upper is the material that holds the sole to your foot. This includes leather, fabric, mesh, straps, etc. It’s not uncommon in conventional shoes to find foam, special molded stiffening fabric, plastic shanks, etc. This is one that most people don’t worry too much about but if you want the best range of movement in your feet, the upper should be minimal as well. Many “minimal” shoes are nothing more than a thin sole attached to an otherwise bulky shoe upper. This can restrict mobility in the ankles, toes, metatarsals, etc.
We all have an impact on the environment, but we believe that a minimal shoe should also have a minimal impact on the environment. We believe that small scale, local manufacturing is much better on the environment. We try to reuse and recycle as much as we can, minimize waste, use clean energy, etc. in our process.
There are many shoes out there that are not minimal, they are what we would call “minimally soled” If you are looking for a good minimal shoe, make sure that you look out for these items. They aren’t always obvious so be careful when buying. At Unshoes, we carefully design our shoes to allow for a full range of movement and proper alignment. Unshoes are among the most minimal options available without excess padding, stiffeners, etc. Just enough shoe, no more.