Thursday 26 May 2011

How Comparable are Barefoot Shoes to Bare Feet?

As many people already know, I spend most of my life barefoot. I view shoes rather like gloves - sometimes they are necessary for warmth or protection, but most of the time they are redundant. I like the lightness, agility and freedom of bare feet, and the extra awareness of the environment that they provide. I wear shoes only when I absolutely must and even then, the footwear of choice tends to be cheap plastic flip-flops.
Various people are very surprised when they learn that I rarely wear shoes when I go out. I am frequently asked if my feet aren't cold or if walking is not uncomfortable. The answer to both is negative. Americans in particular question whether it is even permitted to go barefoot, referring to the abundance of 'NSNSNS' signs that adorn US establishments.
Perhaps it's a difference in culture, but here in England I've only ever seen a written prohibition of bare feet in places where to be unshod would be genuinely dangerous. In this country, I've only ever been accosted once in all my barefoot years, and that was by a weaselly jobsworth security guard at a branch of Tesco in Kent, but a quick talk to the manager resolved the matter and I was free to proceed.
Most people in this country don't seem to care what anyone else wears on their feet.
The human foot is an engineering marvel. It has twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints and an arch capable of absorbing the shock of the full body weight landing upon it. At the same time, it is a highly sensitive receptor of environmental stimuli.
In recent years, various manufacturers have developed 'barefoot' or 'minimalist' footwear, ostensibly to allow the natural mechanics of the human foot to function, rather than the somewhat limited range of motion afforded to the shod. Notwithstanding the 'barefoot' misnomer, minimalist shoes are lighter and more flexible than their traditional counterparts, and often have a very thin sole with little or no arch support. The most visible example of these products is the 'FiveFingers' range from Vibram - a bizarre looking creation, the most obvious characteristic of which is the individual pockets for toes. These shoes, and a book called Born to Run have spawned a new generation of people to rediscover their feet.
You might think that as an advocate of bare feet, I would have jumped on the minimalist footwear bandwagon ages ago, but the fact of the matter is that minimalist or not, these products are still shoes and thus, I have avoided them up to now.

Yesterday, I succumbed to curiosity and ordered a pair of Vibram FiveFingers 'Speed' from They arrived this morning, and I wiggled my feet into them (which is quite a task in its own right).
So, what's the verdict? Am I a convert to the minimalist footwear way? Is the feel of wearing them anything like being barefoot?
In short, no.
Let's start with the good points. This particular style is far less ostentatiously styled than earlier offerings, so I don't feel like a complete freak wearing them. The range of foot motion is very good, with the soles bending freely with the movement of my feet. The shoes are extremely light - possibly even lighter than my 'emergency' flip flops, so I'm pleased with that.

On the other hand, my toes feel somewhat constrained in the individual pockets. Most peoples' toes don't point straight out of the end of their feet, as the pockets are arranged, but obviously it's not possible to cater for every foot shape. The soles on the toes are relatively thick, and as I walk I don't feel my toes grasping for grip as I normally do without shoes.
The biggest down-side is the lack of sensation from the soles of my feet. A large part of the experience of being barefoot is the intimate physical contact with the ground on which one walks. The soles of the feet are covered with sensitive nerve endings (which is why feet are so very ticklish) and these nerves communicate the texture, temperature and firmness of the ground to the brain in order to make tiny adjustments to the way your feet approach and rest upon the ground.
With the shoes on, this sense is extremely dulled, much as one's dexterity and sensation is hampered by thick gloves, and one is only able to detect much larger features on the ground. I found that this affected the way I walk - I was far more heavy-footed wearing the shoes than I would normally be without them, as I was receiving little to no feedback about the hardness of the ground from my soles.
Over and above it all, I miss that sensation. I like to experience the ground, it gives me a sense of connection to the place on which I am standing, and those plantar nerves provide a sensory banquet for your brain at all times.
In conclusion, I like the shoes and will wear them on occasions, but the default state of my feet will remain bare for the foreseeable future.


  1. How do you keep your feet clean? I mean pavements etc can be quite dirty, looking at the soles of my shoes, and the number of shoes I have actually gone through I have to wonder.

    Personally I would opt for shoes on the basis that you can buy new shoes you can't buy new feet . . .

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