“What are those — toe shoes?”

@bdayshoes And so, it begins. My boys and I noticed this on t... on Twitpic
The recent Fila Skele-toes billboard advertising campaign is running the tag, “What the heck is that?” alongside a picture of Fila’s four-toed shoes.

It has to be one of the first questions that runs through the minds of someone when they see those “shoes that look like feet” or “toe shoes” for the first time. And no, I’m not talking about ballet shoes and certainly not “steel toe shoes,” but the latest iteration of footwear, complete with articulated toe pockets. I’m talking about the pioneers of toe shoes — Vibram FiveFingers which first showed up around 2006 and could be said to have spawned the whole “barefoot running shoes” minimalist shoes market single-handedlyfootedly. I’m also talking about Fila Skele-toes, which arrived in early 2011, or the Fall 2011 Adidas Adipure Trainers.

Believe it or not, there are no fewer than five manufacturers of shoes with toes these days (You can track which ones we’ve covered here), and I’m sure there will be many more to come. You’ll know toe shoes are here to stay when Nike and Reebok finally put out their own versions.

The question: “What are those — toe shoes?” is, of course, just the beginning. The better question is: why do your shoes have toes? While that’s a good question; it presumes that shoes shouldn’t have toes. The reality is that we live in a time when shoes are more about form than function; style rather than purpose.

And what’s the primary purpose of a shoe but to support the function of the foot and the movement of the human body?

Enter the world of “barefoot shoes” or “minimalist footwear,” of which “toe shoes” are perhaps the most popular iteration. The defining characteristic of these types of shoes is that they fundamentally get out of the way of the foot’s natural or innate functions. They let feet be feet in all their dynamic, sensational glory. Why? Because that’s what God/Mother Nature/Evolution intended and allowing for this “design” means we have healthy feet, more efficient movement, and less injury or pain.

Since “toe shoes” are to “barefoot shoes” like a square is a rectangle, let’s take a step back and talk about the bigger picture.

READER BEWARE: this article is long because it goes in depth on not only toe shoes, but what it takes to make functional footwear. If you just want to get to the point and read why toe shoes work, well be my guest and jump straight to the punch line!

Most Shoes don’t work.

© n3uma — “Linked” — a stunning portrayal of the human body as both organic and mechanical.

When you think about it, it’s obvious that shoes aren’t necessary for getting about — we can run and walk and play barefoot without injuring ourselves. If this wasn’t true, the human race would have likely gone extinct a long time ago. The bottom line is that we are born barefoot, that Nikes and all modern footwear (having elevated heels, cushioned soles, etc.) have only been around for hundreds of years. The emergence of Homo erectus was something like 1.3 to 1.8 million years ago. Homo sapiens emerged a couple hundred thousand years back.

The bare foot state is the default human condition and shoes are a technology created by humans to adapt to different surfaces.

If barefoot is the default state of our feet, it follows that the default design of footwear should be to provide some benefit to the foot (protection, insulation, or even style) while still allowing for the default (bare) function of the foot.

It’s just that most shoes don’t do this at all. Modern shoes have crazy hard soles shaped like wedges elevating our heels. Or they ram our toes into narrowing boxes. Some shoes use springs or air to bounce us from step to step while others intentionally make us walk funny to tone our butts. Shoes that allow for feet to flex dynamically with each step and sense the ground — they are the exception.

The naked human foot is a bone-filled, muscular, nerve-laden body part; one that has five appendages (toes) and interacts dynamically with the earth in all its variations. It does this thousands upon thousands of times a day each time bearing our brute weight multiple times over. Creating a shoe that allows for the full dynamic functionality of a bare foot would be an incredible feat of engineering.

What typically happens when we add to our naked feet—our “birthday shoes”—prosthetics in the form of external soles is that the natural state of the foot is circumvented and the foot and body are forced to compensate in often weird and painful ways. Somewhere down the line things start to fall apart.

Feet are complicated and alive; shoes are dead and simple; can we even design a “smart” shoe?

What Design Needs Must Shoes Meet in Order to Let Feet Function Naturally?

Image © Howard SelinaCCL — Imagine a tree’s roots bound up together. How long would it stand?

Can a shoe be designed that simultaneously improves on the default state of the bare foot while still letting it function naturally? I’m skeptical. Thankfully, we finally are seeing some true experimentation in designing and manufacturing foot friendly footwear. Below are a few criteria I find important, but I trust if I’m omitting some core concept someone will chime in. I’ll also go ahead and disclaim my bias: I’m skeptical any shoe (as yet in existence or theoretical) could provide for the full functionality of the bare foot.

Design Req. 1: The Bare Foot Feels the Ground

Feet are sensitive. Test this out by taking off all footwear and walking outside onto pavement or concrete. If you own a pair of minimalist shoes like Vibram FiveFingers and haven’t done this, you really need to take a moment and go outside barefooted. Do it already.

The sensations you’ll experience actually barefoot are profound even relative to what you feel wearing a pair of minimalist shoes (like Vibram FiveFingers Classics or Soft Star Mocs). Your feet will feel the rough texture of the cement and the dustiness of the dirt. As you walk around barefoot you’ll find yourself stepping more gingerly; you’ll adjust your gait without even paying much attention to it. In the event that you step on something sharp you will instantly correct your weight and reduce impact (and avoid pain). It’s instant, natural, and sorta awesome.

The sensations in your feet direct how you step. The sensitivity of the foot, perhaps more than anything else, is why running barefoot teaches you proper, impact-reduced form. Abrasive friction (dragging your feet across the ground, pulling, or pushing the pads of your feet against the earth) will cause damage. A bare foot is susceptible to being rubbed raw if friction isn’t minimized. And of course there’s the risk of stepping on a sharp pebble or rock that could puncture the foot, but those are one-off problems often avoidable by a watchful eye.

One of the biggest selling points of a shoe is that they protect the foot, but the protection of a shoe comes at a price. Protection impairs the sensitivity of our feet, reducing the need to minimize friction against the earth.

Is it possible for a shoe to both protect the foot without muting feedback from the ground?

Design Req. 2: Feet Sense Their Place in Space

Beyond just experiencing the ground directly, our feet have an awareness of where they are with respect to the rest of the body and surrounding objects. This perception of space is called proprioception. Proprioceptive sense reminds me of being coordinated. Proprioception is what makes it seem easy to perform delicate procedures quickly and without conscious effort. It enables us to catch an accidentally dropped glass before it crashes and facilitates touch-typing 100 words per minute without looking at a keyboard. How is the proprioceptive sense of the foot maintained when wrapped in a shoe?

Design Req. 3: Feet are Mechanical, Organic, Dynamic, and Alive!

Feet flex and bend and have toes that splay naturally without any conscious effort with every step taken. Toes give your foot purchase on the ground as they expand, stabilizing the foot with an instantly customized grip—like the roots of a tree. How do you replicate this rooting of the foot while wearing a shoe?

With a thick tendon at the heel (the Achilles) and all the arch-supporting internal musculature and bones, our feet and legs are awesome springs — pistons perhaps. How do you maintain the springy energy caught via the elastic design of the arch or the rubber band-like tendons?

Functional, “Barefoot” Shoes Must Account for the Natural Design and Function of Feet

Mis Huaraches BW
A homegrown approach to footwear — some sort of huaraches.

Taking the above general criteria and applying them to footwear, you could argue that a barefoot-like shoe must:

  • Allow the foot to feel the ground — not simply because the ground is interesting to feel, but because sensing the ground directs the foot how to step.
  • Allow the foot to sense it’s surroundings — just as clown shoes would be extremely clumsy as they would extend far past the ends and sides of the foot, so must functional shoes fit well enough that a foot’s sense of it’s surroundings remains intact.
  • Allow the foot to move naturally — if the arch of the foot wants to flex (like a bow) as it bears your weight, then a shoe should let it. If your toes want to splay out on impacting the ground, they should be free to do so. If they want to flex upward, that, too, must be considered.

These criteria are simple enough, right? Just remember why we’re even bothering with shoes in the first place: protection. How do we add protection and provide for function?

Two primary solutions have been offered to solve this problem: toe shoes and traditional, mono-toed shoes. Let’s talk about both — and I’ll finally argue why I think toe shoes are the present, best solution for minimalist footwear.

A Thin Soled Foot Mitten—or Sandal

Take a look at these ancient forms of footwear—five thousand year old leather shoes:

Talk about vintage footwear—an international team of archaeologists has discovered the world’s oldest leather shoe. One thousand years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, the 5,500-year-old shoe was perfectly preserved by the cool, dry conditions in the sheep dung–lined cave in Armenia where it was found.

Moccasins are an ancient form of footwear, and while this may not be the canonized truth, this factoid on moccasins from Wikipedia seems to nail their purpose: “Moccasins protect the foot while allowing the wearer to feel the ground.”

It’s remarkable how little improved modern shoes are from the ancient design of a leather moccasin. Mocs work extraordinarily well as protective coverings for the feet that still allow the foot to function naturally. They are roomy on the inside, transmit a great deal of ground feel due to the sole being leather or fabric, and are neutral from heel-to-toe.

Fast forward to today and you can get some truly retro-yet-updated Soft Star, fabric-soled, sheepskin lined Moccasins; or for a slightly less-soft experience the RunAmocs, which feature a Vibram rubber sole. These represent a modern moccasin. These mocs function as expected—zero foot support, zero-drop from heel to toe, and a great deal of ground feel (an enormous amount for the fabric-soled varieties like Roo or Grippy Roo). These are great “barefoot shoes” so long as you don’t mind the aesthetic of a moccasin.

Moccasins aren’t the only ancient, low-tech options. Take the huaraches sandals of the Tarahumara Indians, for example. Huaraches are little more than a thin strip of rubber custom-cut to your foot size with a single lace to attach them to your feet. How’s that for minimal? And if you’re looking for a minimalist sandal that is foot friendly, grab a tire and some string and roll your own. Want a pre-made kit to make your own? Try the Invisible Shoe or go fancy and get some p leather-strapped Luna Sandals from Barefoot Ted.

Beyond low-tech, old-school solutions (Again, solutions that have scarcely been improved upon over the ages and go a long, long way to being the “best” barefoot shoes for the money), there are modern “foot friendly” options to consider, too — like Vivo Barefoots or the newly introduced Merrell Barefoots or NB Minimus shoes. For other shoes worth considering, just peruse our write-up on barefoot running shoes.

There are some fantastic “5-in-1” minimalist shoes that go a long way to allowing feet to do their jobs — this being, again, the primary goal. Unfortunately, they all suffer from one central problem—their soles don’t fully mirror the dynamic functionality of the foot.

Just how varies from barefoot shoe to barefoot shoe, but generally the problems can be exemplified by focusing on the two basic aforementioned solutions: moccasins and huaraches.

« The Venerable Moccasin »

Leather moccasins afford an immense amount of ground feel thanks to the flimsy nature of their leather-skinned, fabric-like soles. Mocs have a super roomy toe box that provides plenty of room for toe splaying, are lightweight, and don’t feel constricting on the foot, either. They’re meant to be worn barefoot. For barefoot feel and comfort, my “elf shoe” moccasins (Grippy Soft Star Mocs) are basically unbeatable. So how don’t they allow feet to be feet? Well, when you get super granularly analytical about it, my awesome moccasins suffer from a critical lack of functionality that seems intrinsic to their single-toe-boxed design.

Simply put, while the single, roomy toe box allows my foot to move independently from the shoe, it allows my foot to move independently from the shoe. Here’s what I mean:

  1. When running or walking, the sole has a tendency to drop away from my foot — even if only marginally — as my foot lifts off the ground.
  2. Because the toe box is so roomy, the foot can move laterally within the shoe.
  3. Because the shoes extend beyond the foot on the front and sides, the foots sense of place in space is impaired.

These three issues affect how the foot “senses” it’s surroundings. They mean that the shoe hits the ground in advance of the foot thanks to the “dangling” sole. And the marginally extraneous material on the front or sides of the shoe can snag or stub on the ground.

Solving the problem of roomy-toe-box-leads-to-a-loose(and/or extra)-shoe represents a significant design challenge (particularly for manufactured shoes which aren’t custom fit to a foot). Generally, most shoes use some binding mechanism (straps, laces, elastic) over the simplest, least dynamic section of the foot (the middle) to “tie on” the soles.

Once you see this problem, you start noticing how other “barefoot shoes” have tried to solve it. The Merrell Barefoots are snug around midfoot and have a sole that curves up around the arch. The Merrells match their snug midfoot with a roomy toe box; thus, the foot has room to wiggle at the end, but the shoe still stays “locked on” thanks to wrapped-on middle of the shoe. The New Balance Minimus Trails use a similar approach with a stretchy rubberband-like material immediately before the roomy toe box.

Finally, there is the heel problem — how do you keep that heel up on the foot? Most shoes use a cupping mechanism that also puts some pressure on the Achilles tendon. I actually think this usually works pretty well though putting pressure on a tendon doesn’t strike me as ideal. Generally, shoes wrap around the ankle and then use the tightness at the ankle to keep the sole at a certain distance from this point.

Perhaps there’s still some solution to adhering soles to heels.

« The Elegant, Uber-Minimalist Huarache Sandal »

Of the 5-in-1 solutions, huaraches arguably provide the most ingenuitive solution for sole attachment in that they pull the sole up via one strap through the big toe slot (thong) and two straps on either side of the heel. Elegant in it’s simplicity, the huaraches sole stays right on the foot at the foot’s two least dynamic points, which are also the primary points of contact with the ground. Thus, the huaraches sole provides an ounce of protection where it’s most desired while leaving the foot almost entirely bare everywhere else, free both to breath in the air and flex, twist, and bend.

The huaraches solution works incredibly well at solving problems 1 through 3 (above) assuming the wearer has acquired the artful skill of huaraches lacing. It’s necessary to dial in the lacing of a pair of huaraches in order to prevent the sole from sliding laterally or front to back. This skill requires a good bit of trial and error, in my experience; the pay off is a custom-fit pair of sandals that you can run miles in (or just walk around). Finally, I’ll note that huaraches use the strap around the ankle as the “garter” to keep the sole up on the heel. This works very well—I wonder how a custom-molded heel cup attached via the huaraches strap mechanism would function … Hmm.

My only complaint with the huaraches approach is that when my foot dorisflexes (toes point skyward), the extra inch and a half sole past the strap doesn’t go anywhere, and depending on the rigidity of the rubber used in the huaraches, can sometimes snag on the ground, rolling under my foot. Speaking of rubber rigidity, the huaraches require a slightly more rigid, flat (though it may mold/curve with use depending on the material used) sole material than you can get away with in a pair of leather moccasins. So a drawback to huaraches is that ground-feel is reduced.

In short, as 5-in-1 solutions go, both moccasins (and other shoes) and huaraches go a long way towards foot functionality, but tend to fall short when it comes to having soles that reflect the dynamic nature of the foot.

Toe Shoes: Five Pockets for Five Toes Mean Locked-On Soles

Flexing my toes in a brand new pair of KSO FiveFingers. The toe pockets mean that I can flex my big toe up and my little toe down and the sole will flex in concert with my foot.

Moccasins, huaraches, and other new-fangled 5-in-1 toe box shoes work well (Better and better as more producers design foot friendly shoes!) as foot friendly solutions for all activities. However, from where I stand (I am, of course, expressing my own preference and judgment), I think toe shoes are presently the best compromise between a shoe that protects and a shoe that lets a foot be a foot. And it’s because toe shoes have a pocket for every toe.

Though that isn’t everything (Hold this thought).

Why Toe Shoes Work.

A pocket for every toe as with shoes with articulated toes is the hybrid love-child of the 5-in-1, typical shoe solution — a.k.a. the single-toe box — and the thong solution employed by huaraches sandals. The results are easy to see:

  • The sole is locked in place at the ball of the foot as with huaraches.
  • The sole lifts in concert as toes dorsiflex (see the photo above)
  • The shoe ends just past the end of the toes.

Toe shoes move dynamically, in concert with the foot by design and minimize extraneous materials around the foot which helps maintain the proprioceptive (“place in space”) of the foot.

But are Toe Shoes Perfect? Not So Fast!

I’m not arguing that toe shoes are the end all be all of minimalist footwear. They aren’t. First off, if you glue a rubber sole onto your foot, there are some important additional considerations:

  • You’ve got to have a flexible sole. Look at Vibram FiveFingers Classics, Sprints, or KSOs for quite flexible rubber soles that minimize resistance against your foot when it flexes. I say minimizes because it takes some work to curl toes down or up in these most basic Vibrams.

    Comparatively speaking, Fila Skele-toes have a too-stiff rubber sole in my opinion (read my review for details), and while some might not mind this at all, for me, it feels too constrictive on my feet. In fact, toe shoes with overly stiff soles start feeling a bit like a custom foot cast (and that’s no good). I’m hopeful that future iterations of Skele-toes won’t be so skeletal!

  • Ideally you’d have custom length pockets set to your feet. Just as extraneous material on 5-in-1 barefoot shoe solutions can snag and reduces the proprioceptive sense of the foot, so, too, do too long toe pockets on toe shoes. Not sure how to get custom-made rubber-toed soles (yet).
  • For barefoot feel, the sole must also not be too thick or cushy. For feet to function naturally they must feel the ground! Don’t forget it!

To the extent that toe shoes aren’t flexible and compromise ground feel, they begin to lose that which makes them great shoes in the first place: they let feet be feet! So here’s hoping toe shoe manufacturers are paying attention and remembering the core qualities that make for foot friendly shoes (Hint: wheels are still round: that’s why they work!).

To date, the design concept behind toe shoes is the best solution for functional, barefoot-friendly footwear. Matched with a flexible rubber sole (as with Vibrams), you get a great deal of ground feel while wrapping the foot in some protection and still maintaining the dynamic flexibility of the foot and proprioceptive sense of the foot.

So over three thousand words later, that’s my very complicated answer to a very simple question: “Why toe shoes?”

In short, it is my opinion that toe shoes are the present best solution (Which is still a compromise of the full functionality of the bare foot) for optimizing the natural function of the bare foot while still being shod — toe shod as it were.

If you’re looking to pick up some toe shoes, might I recommend starting your research by reviewing the toe shoes we’ve covered here at BirthdayShoes here.