Why Toe Shoes?

The benefits of toe separation for barefoot feel and shoe functionality

“What are those — toe 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:

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 Xero Shoes or go fancy and get some 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!).

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.

Tell me what you think in the comments below.

By Justin

Justin Owings is a deadlifting dad of three, working from Atlanta. When he's not chasing his three kids around, you'll find him trying to understand systems, risk, and human behavior.

85 replies on “Why Toe Shoes?”

Justin, this is an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of minimalist shoes. I’ve happily run in Vibrams (a marathon last fall) but like many I needed a cold weather alternative. I’ve been happy with the Reebok Green Silence and just bought a pair of Newton Gravity shoes–which I’m told are a great help to people who are still working to find a more “natural” motion. Have you had any experience with the Newtons? Any thoughts on their design and effectiveness?


There’s one point I think you left out though: While any decent minimalist shoe allows the toes to splay, only separated toe-pockets allow toes to “grab” the ground the way they are supposed to. In my Vivobarefoots and my Soft Stars, the only thing my toes are grabbing is the inside of the shoe.

The best “toe-grabbing”, of course, is still done barefoot. Even VFFs significantly reduce that ability.

I’ve been transitioning from seriously restrictive footwear (read orthotics) for nearly 2 years now and VFFs played a huge part in that. However now that my feet are strong and happy I find that my stubby toes just don’t fit the one-size-fits-some toe pockets.

For work I use Vivo Oaks, for walking in the city (at least through the winter) I use Vivo Aquas and for hiking this winter I had a pair of the mis-constructed Vivo Franklins. Now that spring is approaching I’m looking forward to shedding those last two and just letting my feet be free! Nothing beats nothing, but I find for socially awkward situations like working in a corporate environment, Vivos offer the best of all worlds.

I have to agree with Peter above, that it’s imperative that a true-barefoot feel footwear product be a sandal vs a shoe product, and be something that allows the toes to grip and, well, FEEL! Anything that isn’t a sandal form is restrictive to how the foot would naturally move/operate, if a surface is impinging on its surface.

I loved my Invisible Shoes so much that now I work for them! I’m a former NCAA Division 1 cross country and track athlete for Florida State, and our CEO is an All-American Master’s Sprinter, and so the sport of running as well as promoting overall health & wellness is a passion of ours, clearly. We both love running in our Invisible Shoes, and find that they’re an effective tool for barefoot running/walking anywhere/anytime…plus they let you into restaurants wearing them =)

As a former track athlete, I do enjoy wearing the Saucony Kinvara for tempo runs or a Nike free to walk around in, or a New Balance Minimus for longer intervals here or there, there is a distinct difference between barefoot-plus and minimalist. I’m not an evangelist and against minimalist products– I’m not even against normal shoes– I love a nice pair of high heels to go out dancing in, I’m a girl. But the Invisible Shoe is the only product that really makes me feel like I’m running truly barefoot, while still offering a thing layer of protection– the VFF’s and Merell True Gloves just don’t cut it in this category– sorry. Invisible Shoes make you feel free!

Check ’em out- you can make your own or have us customize them for you: http://www.invisibleshoe.com/

Great! This is the write-up I have been waiting for – I’ll always remember the first run in my KSOs two years ago and after trying(and enjoying) some of the other minimals(EVOs and Trail Gloves in particular) , there is no getting around it : VFFs are far and away the best!

This topic needs to be extended, after all the toe pockets are the main characteristic feature of VFFs. Other minimalist trait are generally found in other shoes (zero heel-to-toe drop, thin and flexible soles, wide toe box).
More than half the article is devoted to describe the 2 basic types of minimalist shoes (moccasins and huaraches) to finally conclude that toed shoes offer a combination of the advantages of each type.
Several aspects related to toe pocket functionality, design and arrangement hasn’t been tackled. For instance, toe pockets may represent an improvement in relation to the effect of the shoes in the development of the foot over 5-in-1 shoes. It’s likely that a shoe with toes in separate toe compartments won’t cram your toes, toe compartments will dissipate the tension of the shoe upper against the natural tendency of your toes to splay in different directions, whereas in conventional shoes such forces will predominantly push your toes together.
The shape adopted by Vibram in their sole design can be also matter of discussion. In my opinion it isn’t neutral, but rather it’s been adapted to the foot shape of an average Westerner who has lived all his life in shoes. People who have been barefoot in their first two decades of life have more separate toes, most significantly the 1st and 2nd digits with the 1st toe aligned with the first metatarsal. In fact, the 5 toes are usually perfectly aligned with each correspondent metatarsal.
The length of the toe pockets is also a variable to consider. It will affect to capacity to bend your toes separately and the force applied to do it. For whatever reason Vibram opted for rather short toe compartment design limiting the range of motion available for your toes. A related feature only present in some sole design is the presence of grooves in the tread to facilitate the natural flexion of your toes.

Great analysis. I wear FF all day long at work, but when I come home it’s barefoot. Barefoot cutting the grass, gardening whenever, where ever shoes aren’t socially required.

Another very important aspect not adequately addressed as of yet (IMHO) is the “proper” way to safely transition to minimalist shoes, sandals, etc… Just looking at the various forum topics on this site, and others, it’s clear that people need A LOT more guidance. While barefoot or near barefoot may be the ideal, we haven’t addressed how one safely gets there. I think too many people are just throwing their shoes away and rushing into things a bit too quickly and their suffering the consequences. But how much is too much? So what is the best or are the best approaches? Keep in mind we are talking about very novice runners who may only run a handful of miles a week, to seasoned running veterans who’ve been running in traditional running shoes for years and may run relatively high mileages…

Oopps, hit send too quickly.

I think the most important aspect for “healthy shoes” is eliminating or reducing the heel-to-toe drop. A lot of shoe manufacturers are picking up on that and so there are many more options cropping up. As a hardcore, technical trail runner I appreciate having some level of “trail feel” and a flexible outsole really helps with traction, however I need enough protection underfoot to avoid rock bruising, foot fractures, etc… So too much ground feel is not a good think in all situations. Also split toes are another foot fracture possibility just waiting to happen on rough trails. Like I said in an earlier post, for me at least, split toe shoes and huaraches et. al. are not “do all” shoes for all situations. I love my VFF Classics and KSOs but as tools as part of an all encompassing training regime.

If the goal is to be as close to barefoot as possible (while not actually being barefoot), I agree that split-toed is the way to go. But as Rob points out, for most runners, having less on your feet isn’t really a valid goal in and of itself. Rather, being barefoot or close to it is a means to an end, that end being more enjoyable, injury-free running. And I have to agree with Rob that there are times when being closer to barefoot is actually counterproductive for many runners (maybe there are exceptions).

For most of us (runners), the biggest benefit from the whole minimalism movement is not being barefoot per se, it’s having no heel-to-toe drop. It’s the heel-to-toe drop of regular shoes that ends up making most of us heel strikers, and it’s the heel striking, not being shod itself, that leads to the impact injuries. That’s not to say that ground feel, toe splaying, and reduced cushioning aren’t important because they are. The cushioning in particular is important because too much will allow bad habits, even if there’s zero drop. But it’s eliminating the pounding that’s really at the heart of this for runners.

Now, that’s just runners, which is where I’m coming from. For those who wear VFFs for other activities and other reasons, I think the split toes are important because in other situations, getting closer to barefoot may be less of the means and more of the end.

Completely agreeing with Rich. The end goal is better running. To get there we need proper form, and to get proper form we need sufficient ground feel and feet feedback. IMO, sufficient doesn’t necessarily mean 100%, or even as much as possible. To me it means enough ground feel to tell you feet to how to react to the surface and minimize impact to the body.

On smooth surface like cement, one may need to (personally I say one should) go all the way down to truly barefoot to get that ground feel. But on rugged rocks, rough gravels, even in something with a little EVA sole like the Merrell Trail Gloves, one can already feel enough of the ground that any improper form would produce instant pain feedback, then is there a need for any more (less?) minimalist shoes in those situations?

Justin, a thoughtful piece. After wearing VFF and experiencing their unique fit and feel, I will always have a few pairs in my running shoe inventory. Having toes truly separates them from all other shoes and Justin has done a great job pointing out why. No matter how other shoes are designed, they will not have the same feel and function as toe shoes. What surprises me is how long it took for someone to come up with the idea. We have had the option of gloves for who knows how long but it took until 2006 or whatever to come up with the idea of foot gloves, wow.

With all of that said, I still don’t believe that there is a single running shoe that is the Holy Grail. While VFF are wonderful for certain types of runs, we know there are better options for other runs. An obvious example is that VFF are not a good choice for -20F in ice and snow.

For the high mileage runner, I really don’t think it is wise to wear VFF every day for all of your miles. Giving yourself a break by introducing different dynamics through different running shoes can go a long way in reducing overuse injuries. I am thrilled that NB came out with the Minimus trail and Nike has the Free 3.0. There are also many other alternatives as well. Alternating other minimal shoes with VFF can offer variation to your bio mechanics allowing you to run high mileage while remaining healthy. I think it is also a good idea to even wear a more traditional running shoe from time to time in the spirit of variation. I know, they feel like wearing boots after spending a lot of time in 6 or 7 oz shoes. What is great is when you return to your ultra light shoes.


I see that some runners, particularly trail runners, find advantages in different kinds of minimalist shoes. I can imagine that VFFs might not be ideal for any number of extreme situations, athletic and occupational.

But for ordinary use, which in my case includes walking, running on pavement, playing basketball and baseball, they can’t be beat. I wear Vivo Barefoots for cold wet weather and when more conventional shoes are called for, but I take them off as soon as I can. They feel too much like shoes. VFFs are still the only true revolutionary foot glove.

No opinion yet on huaraches, but plan to try some as the weather improves. I also plan to spend as much time barefoot as possible.

Feet function fine without shoes.

This was the most articulate, insightful and brilliant article I’ve ever read on why VFFs are the just the greatest! I’ve tried new types of minimalist shoes for running-I have both versions of the Evo (toe box too narrow, don’t like the feel), I tried on Merrell TrailGloves(hate the way it presses on my arch), I keep coming back to my VFFs. I have Treks (favorite), Treksports, KSOs (use for weightlifting), Bikilas, (road running), (Flows (they kind of suck).
The only downside to VFFs is toes get cold in the winter, which is the only reason I look at the other types of shoes.

With all due respect to those who insist on giving Justin a hard time, the man has done his homework! …(Or should I say footwork) If VFF’s aren’t the right shoe for you, that’s fine. I find they are the “next best thing” to actually being barefoot. If you go barefoot every day, you’ll find cold isn’t usually a problem if above freezing. If running in VFF’s (or any other shoe) is giving you blisters or stone bruises, I think it’s clear you are still running wrong. Yes, I said it… wrong. Feet have been this way for millions of years. Perhaps they are just right, and we’ve forgotten how to use them by being shod. Be patient, listen to your feet, and get a book. For the price of one pair of running shoes, you can buy great books by Jason Robillard, Michael Sandler, and (soon) Ken Bob Saxton! That being said, I have never run a race, and never plan to… I run to feel free and have fun! To me, racing is an external influence on running that encourages tuning out your body and possibly hurting yourself.

I forgot to mention… I DO acknowledge the need for shoes sometimes. However, 80 times out of 100, my VFF KSO’s fill that need. 10 times my 99cent flip flops, and 10 my KSO treks. I still have to wear closed toed/closed heel “conservative” white(ugh) shoes at work, so my white softstar mocs live at work, and never leave the building!

@energymonkey: If you actually did race you’d realize that what you said about it: “racing is an external influence on running that encourages tuning out your body and possibly hurting yourself” is about as far from the truth as one can imagine. If anything the opposite is true. I love to run, I sometimes love to race; it’s all good. To really compete at a high level, to really realize your potential you MUST tune into your body and mind and focus. But hey, I understand racing isn’t for everybody. BTW, I love my VFFs for when I want to have that barefoot experience. But I also love to fly down technical single track trails, an activity that would destroy my feet in VFFs and take away from the whole experience if I just tip toe along. So to each their own, but saying “shoes-are-bad-for-you” is simply not the truth. I think people are just wearing the wrong shoe, too much shoe or, like you said, aren’t running correctly. We might have evolved barefoot, but we are a lot different creatures these days than we were millions of years ago. Unless you start going barefoot from birth 24/7 it’s likely you’re going to have some sort of foot issue if you suddenly up and throw your shoes away and go barefoot or in VFFs too quickly. The human body is an amazingly adaptable machine, I don’t think running in the right kind of shoe is going to destroy it, in fact it might actually make the whole running experience better for many folks at a certain period in their lives (as a transition shoe, or to get over some ailment for instance).

I had hoped that this article would address if it was more beneficial to have the toes separated like in VFF’s than the closed toe minimalist shoe offerings. I have Bikilas, Komodos, Trek Sports, and the new Merrell Trail Glove and I feel like the closed toe option is better for me. With the VFF’s I feel like the toes are TOO spread out in that I wind up pushing off my toes more when I run. This does not happen when I run barefoot on the treadmill or walk around in the Trail Glove.
Has anybody had any experience in this? I’ve been running in VFF’s for the past 2 years.

I have not found that the VFFs help me grip the ground much better than the minimalist moccasins or sandals do…and I’ve found that some of the other minimalist shoes I have actually give me a BETTER overall flexibility and ground feel than VFFs do (Softstar, Zemgear, Unshoes are great….Jinga would have been great if it had a wider toe box). I find the footbed and particularly the toe pockets of the VFFs too thick to allow for much toe flex and movement. My toes tend to strain for freedom in them causing them to bend in unnatural ways, which ends up in discomfort. I can’t believe that that is a natural movement for the toes. I wish they’d make the footbed thinner, at least in the toe joint area, so my toes could move. Mind you, I have very small feet and toes. I think the VFF Performa would be more my speed but it looks like they discontinued the size 35s!

I read the book Born To Run a couple years back and I didn’t buy into the idea so easily as the book was more a story than a reference. But as more and more reviews come out on the barefoot movement I was slowly opening up to the idea. A couple of months ago I bought a pair of Bikilas for running. I love them and am working hard to get my miles up in them. The thing that impressed me the most was that you can splay your toes and flex your foot at anytime while wearing the vibrams.

Do you know why Vibram fivefinger toe shoes only start at size 10.5 in men’s?
My shoe size is 9.5 and I really would like to purchase a pair. Fila skele-toes are not the same. Do you have any

I have an update to my above comment. I just bought the VFF Performas in a size 36 and they fit well. I know these are supposed to be indoor shoes but I wear them outside all the time on the street and in the subway with no problems at all. I (probably) wouldn’t go running in them or anything, but I do love the toe grip in these and the ground feel is just amazing. I am getting rid of my VFF Classics–way too stiff and hurt my toes because of the stiffness and thickness of the soles.

Theophilus, I think you’re confusing shoe size with foot length. Check out the section on Size + Fit on the VFF website.

the biggest benefit from the whole minimalism movement is not being barefoot per se, it’s having no heel-to-toe drop. It’s the heel-to-toe drop of regular shoes that ends up making most of us heel strikers, and it’s the heel striking, not being shod itself, that leads to the impact injuries. That’s not to say that ground feel, toe splaying, and reduced cushioning aren’t important because they are

What about someone who suffers from Plantar Fasciitis? Typically, cushioned footwear is recommended.

So has anyone found any 5 toe shoes that don’t COST YOU your toes to buy?

ALSO what about 5 toe “dress” shoes. ie shoes you might where out but they have 5 toes ie instead of the “hiking” look?

would also love some 5 toe ankle shoes (think hitops) in bright orange 🙂

JudyW, I can’t speak for anyone else but walking barefoot and minimally totally corrected my Plantar Fasciitis.

BTW that link from JP caused my Malware Bytes to alert me. Might want to remove it.

Chris, I have lots of work shoe recommendations but have you ever considered just soft soled leather-bottomed moccasins?

“We evolved without shoes.”

We also evolved without asphalt and concrete.

Seems like that’s a key component oft-overlooked by anyone advocating running barefoot or in minimalist shoes.

As a kid I was barefoot all summer. Then I spent 20 years in the Navy followed by another career as a ranger.
Then my back went out. Learning to exercise and walk from the ground up has helped tremendously Now I’m learning to wiggle my toes and feel the ground again.

From an evolutionary perspective, there’s a ton of support for mocs and sandals. Humans have been running in mocs/sandals for thousands of years. I doubt the toe shoes have improved that experience or functionality. Also, worth mentioning, the Vibram’s can cause issues in some folks with defined (high) arches like myself, especially some of the newer models with the arch piece under the sole. Lastly, forcing toe separation isn’t natural either.



Though it’s certainly possible, I’m skeptical the human foot evolved to wear sandals or mocs specifically. As for toe slots improving functionality, I think I explained why I believe they do — that said they are imperfect and do apply negative force against the foot when you dorsiflex — that aint natural.

Not a perfect design, but I’m not suggesting it is — just saying it’s a design that most matches the dynamic nature of the foot, a feat accomplished specifically due to the toe separation.

1. Effective treatment for plantar fasciitis includes a) regular stretching of the calf muscles and sole of the foot (especially first thing in the morning); b) TEMPORARY elevation of the heel to shift the weight more onto the forefoot and take stress off the plantar fascia while it is healing (especially for people who spend most of the day on their feet); c) short term nonsteroidal antiinflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen to decrease inflammation and pain; d) aggressive strengthening of the foot and calf muscles, so that they will support the arch the way they are supposed to, and take the load off the plantar fascia for the long term. The strengthening exercises are done barefoot (or in socks), and involve toe raises and walking around on the toes (works even better done with eyes closed), in multiple sessions daily. Gradually increasing time spent walking barefoot once out of the acute phase can only help prevent recurrence.

Heel cushions are often recommended, but they don’t really do anything for plantar fasciitis; they are more appropriate for someone who has heel pain due to pounding the heel against the floor during heel strike – especially if the natural fat pad on the heel has thinned with age, steroid use, acute injury, or chronic pounding abuse. Not all heel pain is plantar fasciitis. However, this sort of heel pain is also alleviated by developing the foot and calf muscles and avoiding pounding the heel against the ground when walking.

2. I with I could wear, or at least really try, the Vibram five fingers. I have congenital curly toes – the fourth toe on each foot has curled under the third toe ever since infancy. I inherited it from my grandmother who had the same deformity. It’s completely unrelated to footwear. Anyway, when I tried on a pair in the store, I could only get one on with difficulty, and the other I simply couldn’t contort the fourth toe to get into at all.

3. I agree with the caveat about forced toe splay (I have mixed feelings about toe socks, which I’ve worn before to try and prevent curly toe-related blisters from the third toe walking on the fourth toe, when wearing normal shoes). If the material is too thick, the toes can’t move as close together as they “want” to when they are not in the weight bearing phase of gait. This is especially true when it comes to flexing the toes *down* – which I do a lot while sitting, and I sit all day at my job. I find a really flexible sole (or no shoes at all) to be the most important factor in this aspect of comfort.

4. The other thing that is extremely important for me is the ability to quickly and easily doff and don my shoes at will, as I don’t like wearing any shoes any more than I have to. I get annoyed with having to tie and untie ankle boot moccasins; I can only imagine taking time to stuff my toes into a foot glove would not be any better.

5. I’m not a runner – my primary goal is comfort.

6. I really want to like the VFFs. But for me, moccasins and thin-soled flipflops have been my best solutions when I can’t be barefoot. I may try the Invisible shoes, and/or the Soft Star moccasins (I’ve been wearing Taos Indian Maids; Minnetonkas are made on a standard skinny-forefooted last). I’m also really cheap and just can’t see spending upwards of $100 for something I’d rather not be wearing at all.

Anyway, that’s my 12 cents.


I’m new to toe shoes….I bought a pair of KSOs but the toes were too floppy…now have a pair of Sprints which seem to fit well and KSO Sport Treks in a smaller size which I like, but I might run into the floppy toe situation again (little toe seems to wander out of the pocket).The Sport Treks are very comfy otherwise, with a little thicker sole for the rocky trail and the coconut fiber upper which is lovely.

I do like the feedback from my feet in minimalist shoes…makes me lighter on my feet, more agile. I figure those are good things.

Interesting — the Invisible Shoes (which intrigue me enough to try) are almost exactly the same as my Jelly sandals of the 1980s (held on by a single shoelace) that I pounded the pavement of Manhattan in, 20 blocks to work and 20 blocks home. Now at 54, I wonder if my feet will take kindly to a lack of support on pavement. I agree we are born to be barefoot, but also agree with another comment that we weren’t born to walk on pavement, but many of us spend a lot of time there. So how are older Invisible Shoe wearers experiencing them with lots of pavement walking?

I am using these shoes mostly for walking, on pavement, trails, and treadmill with a little light interval running thrown in from time to time. LOVED the feel of run/walk on my forefoot in the KSOs on the treadmill, though went at it too hard (against the advice of the REI salesperson) and had VERY sore calves for a week. Took a break, then went out onto the trails and ran wrong (on heels…haven’t totally made the transition to ball of foot running) and my Achilles tendon is sore. Cushioned the foot in Alegria slides yesterday and walked in Nike Free TR today and its healing, so I am tooling around the house in my Sprints.So continue my shoe adventures. Stay tuned. 🙂

Justin, I hear you! Well done, nicely written and researched article and I hear your central point that there is no perfect minimalist shoe but that the ideal is to find one that mimics the foots natural action.

That is exactly what lead me to the Vibrams in attempting to rehabilitate a ankle injury. My gut instinct was that the muscles in my foot could repair themselves and thus positively affect the ankle.

I am not certain yet if they are right or not. I do feel that sometimes the splayed toes can be a problem, even though they allow more grip. It is as others say, a bit unnatural. But what I’m doing now is walking barefoot in grass (it’s summer) and walking with the Vibrams on the trails.

Anyway I really appreciated your article as you articulated a lot of what I’ve been thinking about as well. Thanks for sharing!

While it seems clear that the human race evolved barefoot, would it be fair to argue that the environment in which our feet in has changed drastically? For instance, we no longer walk upon sand or dirt on a regular basis. With concrete or wood flooring being most common, are toe-shoes really the best option? And what about occupations that require prolonged periods of time standing, such as nursing, waiting tables, or police work? I doubt our early ancestors spent a majority of their time standing on foot. My argument is that the stress placed upon our feet has changed, do toe-shoes sufficiently provide enough support and protection in any environment?

I’m not trying to diss on the au naturale foot movement, but what happens if you step on a stone or God forbid, a Lego. I can just picture myself in tears on the floor cradling my Vibram FiveFinger Shoe.

The lego comment is pretty funny buy overall the thing about thin soled shoes and stepping on sharp objects is that you feel the things early enough to avoid putting your full body weight onto the step – so you don’t hurt yourself. That is sorta how it works and why close to barefoot improves your running form.

As a child you could not put me into a shoe. I simply detested them, but I also grew up in the south were it is usually warm. I didn’t even mind hot pavement. After years of wearing every shoe you can think of, I recently realized that I enjoyed running in flip flops. Minus the fact that my feet paid for it the next day. I have had numerous injuries to the over all foot area. Torn tendons, broken toes, achilles tears, loss of toe nails, numerous sprains, etc. All while wearing high end shoes! I for some reason am just now coming back to my “roots”. After reading this wonderfully informative post. My biggest question is, what about the arch! I have a VERY high arch. No shoes I have ever worn can accommodate it. Even high heels, or insertables.

@Heather: I’m no expert, but you may want to consider looking at arch support in a different way. Do arches really need to be “supported”? An arch is one of the strongest support-providing shapes. Maybe our weight is intended to go on our forefoot and heel, and be supported _across_ our arch. I’ve heard and read that healthy, experienced barefoot runners have arches that are “springy”, neither low, nor high, but going up and down to accommodate what the feet are doing.

Perhaps someone else can elaborate better and provide some evidence-backed details. But, like elevated heels and padded soles, I believe arch support is another unfortunate misconception in modern footwear.

Just food for thought and experimentation. 🙂

Good luck.

Albuquerque, NM

>> The lego comment is pretty funny buy overall the thing about thin soled shoes and stepping on sharp objects is that you feel the things early enough to avoid putting your full body weight onto the step – so you don’t hurt yourself.

So, logically, this should also be true of anyone who steps on a bit of lego, four-sided dice, three-pin plug, etc in bare feet. They should immediately rearrange their weight, and it won’t hurt…

Trust me. This is not true 🙂


Do you walk around barefoot or in minimalist footwear often? Do you do it outside your house on abnormal surfaces?

I actually stepped on a lego the other night barefoot — mind, I have memories of doing this in “life before minimalist footwear” — and while I certainly noticed it this time, I did, in fact, adjust my weight.

Our shoes condition our behavior and the more we are accustomed to having soles to protect our natural soles (our bare feet), the more we stomp around more heavily than we would otherwise. This is also why, again in my life before minimalist/barefoot shoes, a weekend spent at home barefoot on hardwoods left my feet hurting — I was walking too hard. I can’t recall having this problem in the last 18 months (I’ve been pretty exclusively in minimalist footwear now for about two years).

Dear Birthdayshoes .com
Please reveal the name of the person who has quoted the following which eshtablises the relation between foot and footwear

“The naked human foot is a bone-filled, muscular, nerve-laden body part; one that has …………….of a bare foot would be an incredible feat of engineering”.

Hi there!

I can’t run (well, I’ve been heavily advised not to unless I want to do further injury) due to damaged cartilage in my knee. Basically, the damage is a hole that goes right down to the bone of my patella where some cartilage came loose (from poor training in Martial Arts and running) that had to be removed via orthroscopy.

I now use a cross-trainer to do my “running”, which doesn’t hurt my knee because it’s no-impact, but obviously it’s not a natural range of motion. And my right leg is still not strong enough since the original injury despite loads of different kinds of training (japanese yoga has helped the most). Would anyone care to comment on experience using fitness equipment (such as this) while wearing “bare feet” shoes? I also suffer from Plantar Fasciitis and weak arches (yay! Argh).

Funny- I used to walk around in bare feet all the time as a kid, got told off that it would be “bad for me”, now I have awful aches and pains unless I wear heavily cushioned shoes!

Advice is appreciated 🙂

for me, the huaraches (luna sandal) style is the best. As someone put it, it makes the earth covered in whatever the sole material is. The VFFs are OK, however there is probably a reason the feet have more sweat glands per area than anywhere else on the body… all the strength that is needed and friction of motion generates a lot of HEAT. The only way to really let air cool the feet as well as layer the earth with something consistent is a huarache…

I think I am one of the rare individuals who not only grew up barefoot, but did so in the rugged wilderness of Northern California. Throughout the summers of my childhood, up to age 17, I spent every summer barefoot, and I hiked cross-country everywhere. I even ran downhill over jagged, loose, rocky steep hillsides, leaping in the air and landing sideways (deliberately, to surf/slide/ride the rubble downhill) with bare feet. It was possible because the ground was giving way and I had thick pads on my feet. I loved running, downhill, cross-country, and was a natural fast runner, good at both sprinting and long-distance. Reading through the article and comments, I keep feeling as though I have insight and experience that could be helpful… One thing is that the toe separation is very important because toes become atrophied by being in ordinary shoes. I used to have strong independent use of all my toes to grip boulders and such, but after a few years in shoes I discovered – to my horror – that my little toes could barely be moved independently anymore — they don’t grab on the way they used to! They feel numb (compared to their earlier selves)as though they’re just there, useless tabs that might get stubbed and broken off because they’re not responsive enough anymore. For me I feel like the toe pockets on VFFs are a God-send, as a figure of speech, because they are helping my toes to spread out again like they should, and they do not have the strength anymore to do it on their own. It’s almost like a corrective brace!
For people who’ve said their toes aren’t strong enough to move independently or grip in the fivefingers, I think the problem is that most people’s toes are weak and uncoordinated from disuse and being in normal shoes, or when barefoot, just walking on even terrain all the time.
As far as stepping on sharp things, I’ve done plenty of that in my life, and sharp objects jabbing your feet will certainly sharpen your reflexes! Hehe! Whenever I hit something large, hard and sharp, especially on my arch with bare feet, I bent my knee and dropped to the ground in a flash, before I got injured. That’s how the reflex developed, but you know how these fast-dropping reflexes have really saved me? With ankle injury prevention. I always drop so fast when my ankle rolls that I have never once had a sprain or twist that caused pain for more than a minute. I am very quick and nimble on my feet due to all my barefoot wilderness experience, and I’ve always been a strong advocate of being barefoot. It is one of your primary senses, a way to be in constant physical contact with your environment, that goes right along with seeing, smelling, and hearing. To wear shoes is to cut off one of your senses. My only use for shoes is in towns and cities where I do not consider it clean enough to go barefoot. I am so happy to be able to have VFFs for that, and for long-distance running! I have Classics for everyday use, and the Sprints for running. Of course, nothing can beat going barefoot whenever possible! I am so happy more people are catching on to how wonderful being barefoot is!

I love minimalist shoes. I particularily like vibrams and their split toes, but I have been in a couple of situations of actually trying to defend the seperate toes themselves vs just a bigger toe box … largely because that is what makes vibrams a bit freaky / abnormal looking. They definately help with toe flexibility (individually gripping and feeling surfaces, not just vertically but laterally too (which a toe box can’t really do at all)) and help the shoe to stay on and snug. When I am running and hiking I don’t much care what anyone might think, but casually? I just can’t often justify having split toed shoes for, say, grocery shopping. Maby if I lived in a different city I wouldn’t feel so self-conscious over it, but here in the midwest / Indianapolis I have only seen one other vibram wearer ever :/

Like many here, i spent the better part of my youth in bare feet. And like many here, I’ve evolved through many styles of sandals and shoes, leather, synthetics, and orthotics, with and without lifts and insoles. Expensive designer business leather, high tech running, court, and trail shoes, and a wide range of comfortable “walking shoes”.

In the end, and at the age of 55, I always come back to my preference for being in bare feet. Backless sandals don’t cut it for me because my feet work too hard to maintain sandal position and less time doing what feet are supposed to do. Backed (Strapped) sandals were a marginal improvement but in the end, felt like I was just wearing regular shoes, just open at the top and around the toes, and without the benefits of independent digit mobility.

It only took me two weeks to purchase two additional pairs of Vibrams after my initial purchase of Komodos. It was a no brainer. To be able to go barefoot on hot asphalt, sand, and sharp gravel without the usual pain and discomfort those surfaces can bring was, in a way, a liberating experience. The only issue I now deal with is shoe fashion snobbery during “functions”. It’s really a non-issue nor my problem.

The foot has three arches and is subject to differing pronations depending on a number of biomechanical considerations. The shoe industry provides numerous subjective interpretations of how the foot should be treated, but generally as applied to “ideal” conditions. Real life is another matter and the flexibility of bare footedness allows each individual to adapt their feet to their posture, gait, stride, load, personal biomechanics, and application. I love all my Vibram FiveFingers because they allow me to adapt to my use and conditions without ever having to “think” about the shoe.

Great idea, nice implementation, looking forward to following the natural evolution of this product.


While I would love to own Vibram FiveFingers, I tried them on and I wasn’t comfortable because I have longest middle toe that overcast my first big toe. And my last two toes tend to snug together. I struggled to fit into Vibram.

So I went for Fila Skeletoes and because of their four toes and stretchable material, I was able to walk in them without any uncomfortable feeling.

I was hoping that Vibram FiveFingers will produce FourFingers later on.

I went clothes shopping a few days ago, and noticed the Fila Skele-toes. I tried on the plain-ole Skele-toes, the Skele-toes II, and the Skele-toes Wetlands. I was not impressed at all by the first two, but the Wetlands were some of the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn, and I bought them for $50. These shoes continue to impress me three days later. They have an easy lace-up system, in which you just pull the nylon-ish laces to your desired tightness and secure the clasp (one of those you push to move and release to stay). The other Skele-toes seemed like they would have been a pain with the multiple straps, and I can’t stand Velcro.

The Wetlands are nice though. I wear the laces loose for casual use and driving – it feels like I’m driving barefoot, which I love – and tight for running with my dogs through all sorts of terrain. I can really push through the mud and the crud with these shoes.

I will probably purchase some high-end “toe shoes” later on, but for now the Fila Wetlands Skele-Toes are getting the job done. I was surprised not to see a review of them anywhere online, perhaps they’re new.

I very much disagree with Merrel and NB solving the drop problem with ‘snug’ midfoot. I tried both and they suck at best because I have fallen arch, not the worst kind but when I stand the arch is almost flat. A good 40% of the population are like this or worse. The rest are in varying ranges of how archy their arches are.
I suspect that even people with perfect arches will flatten a little when they run or walk. The Merrel and NB shoes are unnaturally narrow and constricted. It puts a lot of pressure on the arches, which may potentially result in blisters.
It also seems to me that they designed these shoes using a solid cast of perfect human foot without considering the fact that although our heels are rounded at the bottom, when we stand it splays a lot to be flat or conform to surface beneath to some degree. The sole is very flexible vertically but a little rigid sideways due to narrow width and the strength of the sole. The heel rolls sideway with bad stability issues.
I conclusion, they have a decent toe box but absolutely horrible mid-foot and heel. This is where invisible shoes and soft star shoes are much better. I can’t comment on fivefingers, as I doubt that not all have similarly sized toes and the toes splay in a very complex manner, for instance its different when you squat and run.

I was just wondering what to do about care and maintenance of my VFF. Since I don’t wear socks with them, won’t they get stinky after awhile? My daughter told me that a friend of hers puts hers in the freezer in a Ziploc to kill the germs. I’ve been doing this, but will be going to India in June and want to take them with me. I don’t have terrible foot odor, but will probably be rotating VFF with bare feet. I just don’t want to knock any body out! 🙂

@ Rose: Ziploc method is a joke. Bacteria grows back once its out of the freezer, cuz the dead cell matter and sweat are still there. eg. take chicken out of the freezer and smell it after 3 hours. I believe you can wash VFFs? I am sure you read this : http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/faq/

India and barefoot don’t go well unless its indoors. There’s glass, spit(tobacco), garbage, most roads don’t have sidewalks, its humid where half the population gets (mud+sweat = )cracked heels. You probably know this.
If you’re worried about ruining your VFFs, consider invisibleshoes.com sandals.

PS : If you are not an Indian or been to India before, getting sick is easy for most foreigners, get shots and have some local contacts/friends where you visit. Drink bottled water only.

@Madhu: Thanks for all the feedback, consideration and tact! 🙂 I have been to India twice before and have not gotten sick. And the people I will be with take good care of me. I’m planning on a typhoid shot & malaria pills, as usual. I even use bottled water to brush my teeth! I didn’t want to have to wash my VFFs every night, so was hoping for an easier way. I will look into the Invisible Shoe sandals. Thanks again for your help!:-D

@sarah: thanks, Sarah. I was thinking more like an actual full leather toe sock. It would be a cross between a VFF and a Softstar shoe. The idea is to have a toe shoe with a sole that would eventually break in like a good pair of leather gloves. Any body making something like this?

Great article. Agreed with pretty much everything in it. I’d just like to add some experience I’ve had with my VFFs of late (I have a pair of KSOs).

Although I love the shoes, for the most part, I don’t think I’ll be wearing these particular ones (with individual toe pockets) again. On Easter weekend I was out hiking with my family and I caught my right pinky toe on a root something. I dislocated the toe and it’s been VERY painful for quite a while now (though it is back in place). And it’s now occurred to me that catching toes while wearing VFFs has happened to me a LOT – though not to the extent to which I just did it.

I think that because the Vibram sole rolls up over the ends of the toes, particularly on the smallest toe, what you’re doing is effectively extending the toes’ length as well as putting a rubberized surface on it. So, if you’re a longer-toed individual to begin with, you’re setting yourself up somewhat for potential problems. My wife, for her part, has never had problems like I do but she doesn’t have real long toes like I do.

So as much as I love the proprioception and sensation of the individual toe pockets, I won’t be doing that any longer


Great comments — and pinky toe snags and the resulting damage are a problem a few people have had on trails. One solution is to sew the last two toe pockets together. The bottom line though is that this is a solid example of one of the shortcomings of toe shoes with caps that wrap the toes. Or it could be a general problem to toe shoes, too.

It actually makes me think of some re-design that could be done to minimize the chances of this happening by improving the end-of-toe proprioception. Hmm …

What a great site! I have two pairs of vibrams and I love them to DEATH! I use them for running, hiking, and martial arts (they are hands-down the ONLY shoe to do martial arts in!!) The only bummer is walking in gravel, in my opinion…

@Shanyn – Walking in gravel is one of the things I LOVE to do in VFFs. I love the tingle your feet get after a good massaging walk through gravel or other rougher terrain.

Hi guys,

I was wondering if anyone could recommend me a model for treadmill running?

Note that I’m in the EU, so not all models might be available here… 😉


Just came across this site for the first time, and thrilled to find a thoughtful forum discussing the joy and wonder of running as our bodies were most likely meant to. I’m a stereo-typical toe-shoer: after years in Kayano’s and orthotics, I got sick of having knee pain, regular as clockwork, 6 miles into every run. So after reading Born to Run, I tossed them and started in the VFFs. Now 3 years later, I never run in anything else, and have no problem with back to back 10+ mile days on asphalt.

Marc, as long as they fit you, pretty much any pair of VFFs should do great on a treadmill. Just start out slow, and expect some purple beaten up toes for the first few months!

Justin, great site, keep it up!

ps: pleased to see others are rocking the VFFs in 70.3s … I’ve done two in mine, and am yet to see another pair. I’ll be looking out for them in NYC 140.6 later this year!

I recently injured myself on an escalator while wearing a pair of sandals. My own fault, but it has made me more cautious about foot protection. I was wondering if you had some foot protection reviews available for this style of shoe.

I’m sorry, but the statement “all footwear [has] only been around for hundreds of years” is not correct. As you yourself mentioned further down, there is archaeological evidence for 5,500 year old leather shoes. Fossil shoes with a rigid, non-leather sole are even older and date back as far as 8000 BCE (not because they were invented before leather shoes, but because leather decomposes faster than wooden sandals).

Anthropologists believe that humans have started to wear shoes as early as 40,000 years ago. It would have been impossible for our ancestors to live and hunt in Ice Age Eurasia without thick warm boots. This means that footwear is older and more natural than permanent settlements, agriculture, and animal husbandry. In other words, shoes predate human civilization by 30,000 years.

It is also an understatement that human beings have been around for millennia. While Homo sapiens, the only remaining human species, is a mere 200,000 years young, the human genus has been around for 2.4 million years.

Anyway, we had plenty of time to adapt to wearing shoes. It only took us 10,000 years to evolve adult lactose tolerance, and we have been wearing footwear for much longer. It would be surprising if this habit had not caused morphological adaptations. At this point, walking barefoot is about as natural for us as hunting with spears in the African savannah.


Thanks for pointing out the footwear errors — the comment about humans being around for millennia wasn’t intended to mean that they’ve only been around a few thousand years. Regardless, I updated the article a bit to be more coherent.

The Eurasia boots information is new to me and makes sense. Thanks for sharing it. Footwear would make sense as an early technology to adapt to environments not suitable for bare feet or deal with harsh conditions.

That said, the types of shoe technology used by human beings for the last 10-40K years certainly varied dramatically around the globe. Not everyone was wearing thick boots. I haven’t seen any ancient footwear having elevated heels or foam soles, arch support, etc., either. So while I see the point of your comment — that we have likely evolved to some extent to wear shoes — that doesn’t negate the broader point, which is that we are not likely to be adapted to modern footwear. Meanwhile, even while we may have evolved over the last 10K years, it seems a leap to assume that we necessarily evolved to wear footwear. The feet of babies and children certainly don’t made to fit narrow shoe lasts. Given the massive adaptability of human beings to all sorts of footwear (within one’s own life), I’d also argue that an evolutionary morphological change doesn’t seem very necessary to fitness, survivability, etc. All this is just speculation on my part — any more thoughts on what sorts of morphological changes might have come about in the last 10K years as they pertain to footwear?

I had a *theory* as to the origin of the elevated heel in shoes. My theory is that with the advent of humans traveling on horseback with saddles and stirrups they needed a way to better “lock” their shod foot in the stirrup. A simple way to accomplish this would be for the shoe to have a chunk of material that protruded from the sole at the heel there by perhaps inadvertently creating the raised heel? I think about the most simple boots and shoes; think cowboy boots or more formal patent leather shoes with the heel blocks; perfect for use in stirrups but at the cost of elevating the heel! So I’m thinking the whole elevated heel is (at least in part) a carry over from the saddled horseback riding days… Perhaps somebody more studied in this area could clear this up?

I bought my first pair of Vibrams about a year ago. At first I was iffy as I had just invested in a new pair of Reeboks. I went back and forth at first but finally decided the Vibrams were the best. For a year those are the only work out shoes and pretty much the only shoes I ever wore. Today I went to the gym and realized I left my vibrams at home. I remembered I had an old pair of tennis shoes in my car and decided to use them instead of going back home. I HATED them. They were bulky and my feet felt constricted. I was so upset and after my legs and feet hurt. I will never go back to conventional tennis shoes again!

I need to know which toe shoe out there has great arch support. the vibram bilka grey and red ones i want after reading review on this website says it has no arch support can someone help me decide i need to order the today sao i can over night them because i need them by friday

@Q DatsWho,

Basically no toe shoes have “great arch support” — that basically would fly in the face of the core concept around which toe shoes function — leave the foot to function naturally. The most natural function of the foot is achieved when the foot is bare — and the bare foot has no arch support; therefore, “barefoot shoes” don’t have arch support either. Make sense?

I suffer from Plantar Faciitis and would love to try a basis pair of these shoes, just to walk in. I have heard they actually can help my condition. What do you recommend?

An interesting discussion on footwear. Until modern times very few materials can be hand-made to the shape of a foot. A few years ago a doctor in India designed an artificial leg for people without legs made with rubber with the foot that shaped like a human foot.

The earliest attempt to create footwear with least amount of material including animal hides and the straw sandals. In modern times there is the Birkinstock from Germany to mimic walking in the sand. Back in the 1980s there was a type of rubber sole that just sticks to the bottom of your feet. No straps to tie so you’re literally walking barefoot. And then came Teva sports sandals that you can be camping or mountain climbing.

There are people who wear flip-flops or sandals in hot summer days and those who would stick to sneakers for fashion reasons.

The last time I’ve seen a pair of shoes that shaped like a foot was 2 weeks ago at a local fundraising event walking up 140 floors of a tall building. As a rule sandals were not allowed so some wore these instead…

This article is ridiculous. What you have described is basically a thin layer of fabric between your foot and the outside world, a glove for your foot. You’re still confining your foot in a sweaty, claustrophobic space, but with almost no protection. You’re cutting it off from that nice dust feel without guarding it the harsher physical elements. Shoes are for protection. Many people around the world have jobs and do things that require hard soled and steel toes protection. The point of shoes is that we don’t have to adjust our gate or change how we step. We can just go about walking without worrying about the state of the ground or what we’re stepping on.

If you want to tip toe around, stepping on glass and gravel and stubbing your pinky toe on every heavy object you get too close to, why pay $50 to do so? Just don’t wear shoes.

If only they would make them in a more formal color. Would you mind touching on the tabi boot? Good article, thanks.

Your (and several other’s) definition of proprioception is a bit wrong.
Proprioception is the perception of the position, movement and effort of various parts of the body in relation with the rest of the body. It has NOTHING to do with the perception of the surroundings, including the ground, which is relative to exteroception.
(“proprio”=”one’s own” vs. “extero”=”external”)
Unless regular shoes are so tight to make your feet numb, they can’t impede proprioception in any way.

These people didn’t create those shoes. I saw that same exact style of shoe on and episode of married with children back in 1991. The name of the episode was called,”God’s shoes”

Great article and comments too, thank you for several links included. I’m now seriously exploring 5 toes-shoes and leather lightweight shoes that feel like I’m on bare feet.. almost.

I need to feel the grip with my soles and toes, to feel happy while walking. I don’t run, long walks is what I do. So far, as a preparation, only following my intuition, I’ve done a lot of dancing and excersizes that make my feet strong and my ankles. When I sit with my feet on the sofa, like now, I’m often turning my feet around, flexing and stretching them, so that all muscles are awake.

Also I massage my feet and lower legs almost every day with that yellow colored unrefined palm-oil, which leaves the skin flexible and soft. Specially after a long walk, that massage helps to wake up the next day without any “hang over” in my legs and feet, from the walk.

The surprising effect of that regular massage is, that all parts of my feet are sensitive to touch and movement of bones in my feet, it means that the grip of my soles and toes is strong too.

Giving your feet proper attention with your own hands, which is easy, doesn’t cost you anything and it offers you the benefits of feet-fitness while being outdoors much.

I’m also working on the land, walking between vegetable beds, harvesting fruit, digging out roots or shoveling muck, walking in mud and on clay clumps, in short uneven terrain.

I can’t get used to wellies, wearing them for hours on end and boots with inflexible soles make me feel like walking on wooden clogs, like the Dutch did once upon a time. Those heavy inflexible boots make my feet very tired and leave my knees hurting at the end of the day.

It’s the most natural way of walking, to roll off one’s feet and use the toes and soles of the feet to get a grip. Stepping on rocks, like on Dartmoor UK, where I live, is much better on bare feet or 5 toes shoes, it’s encouraging me to order a pair of 5 toes shoes, made of leather. I like breathable natural material, no synthetic for me.

I so love to jump from rock to rock, I’m a 67 year young Capricorn.
* }v{ *

Does it make it easier to put the 5 finger shoes on if you put some kind of power in them first?

Thank you for your time

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