Choosing Shoes for Healthy Feet – a Practical Guide to Minimal Shoes
Have you ever wondered what movement teachers talk about when they get together? The answer is: minimal shoes. Yes, we spend a lot of time nerding out and playing around with movement, but the thing we talk about the most is actually our shoes.
Minimal shoes are seriously our obsession.
We swap tips, experiences, information on sales, and any new brands that we’ve scoped out – because picking minimal footwear is much tougher than you’d expect, and gets expensive fast.
Choosing minimal shoes is also a big decision from a health point of view, because what you wear on your feet makes a huge difference in your ability to have happy, healthy tootsies.
Talking the best minimal shoes is a topic that never gets old, and so I wrote this post to help you find the best possible minimal shoes for your feet right now!
Five Things To Look For In A Minimal Shoe
Basically, the more a shoe allows your feet to move naturally, the better it is for your feet. This means that it will allow the foot to do what it was designed to do without interfering, shortening, straining, pushing, squishing or immobilizing. Here are the big 5 things to consider.
#1 How High Are The Heels?
How much is the heel raised above the toes? Any amount of heel raise will mess up your entire body’s alignment. Can you say lower back pain? Pelvic floor issues? meh. Zero-drop is the term for the most nature-friendly choice.
#2 Are The Soles Flexible?
How stiff are the soles? Inflexible soles prevent the foot from articulating as you walk over bumps in the ground, which means the small foot muscles atrophy and the joints stiffen. Instead, a flexible minimal sole should allow your feet to move naturally across the surface of the world. You should be able to bend the shoe entirely double without effort.
#3 How Much Space Is There For Your Toes?
Almost all North American shoes aren’t actually shaped like feet – your toes are supposed to be wider than the ball of your foot. Squished toes are a big cause of bunions and nerve issues. The part of the shoe around your toes is known as the ‘toe-box’ and you want to find a nice wide one that gives you enough room for your toes to spread out when you’re standing. Try this fun test if you want to see how your shoes stack up!
I prefer the widest toe box I can find, so that I can wear my CorrectToes toe spacers when I walk.
#4 Can You Fully Attach The Shoe To Your Foot?
Look for shoes that can be securely fastened to your feet. If a shoe can’t be stuck to you properly (think flip-flops, slides and other barely-there styles), your toe muscles have to work double-time to grip the shoe. Although using more muscles sounds like it should be a bonus, unfortunately this is not the type of muscle use that we’re looking for. It just creates strain, tension and injuries. So get a shoe that attaches by itself, no toe gripping required.
#5 Do The Toes Lie Flat?
You know how many shoes curve up at the toes? This is a feature called ‘toe spring’. This is a strange addition to shoes by people who seem to have thought that toes like to fly in the air. It is a main cause of hammertoes and over time can really mess up your foot mechanics. Look for a shoe that is either totally flat, or has a flexible sole that flattens easily at the toes when you stand.
So the ideal minimal shoe is the shoe that interferes least with the foot’s natural mechanics – the same shape as your foot, flexible, no changes in height at the toe or the heel, and is solidly attached.
However, your feet have probably spent a really long time in regular shoes. Right now, they’re adapted to whatever shoes you wear the most. The body is very adaptable, but you need to work within it’s capacity for change. Going too fast can create damage and injuries instead of the healthy, pain-free feet we both want!
How To Plan Your Shoe Transition
Here are the two things you need to think about for a successful minimal shoe transition.
First, Ya Gotta Train For It
Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it, you need to prepare your feet for a transition to minimal shoes. A good footwear transition can take months or years, and the way to start is with gentle exercises. It’s easy to forget how hard our feet work and changes that seem small to our brains might be giant to our feet! You will want to mobilize and strengthen your feet – there are lots of ideas in this post I wrote about foot exercises.
Second, Ya Gotta Buy The Right Minimal Shoes
You do not want to go from being a regular high heel wearer to being a Vibram Five Finger wearer over night! Well, maybe you want to, but your body won’t thank you for it. You should make incremental changes slowly. For each change you make, first spend a few months letting your feet adjust, then take the next step.
It’s tricky to figure out the perfect shoe for each change.
But a good rule of thumb is to look at the shoes you wear the most right now. Where are they on the handy chart in this classic post from Katy Bowman?
For your next pair, pick shoes that change the variables a bit, but not all the way. For instance, instead of a one inch heel, pick a half inch heel. Then, let your feet adapt to that shoe for a solid chunk of time before your next shoe purchase.
If you find that your body hurts (could be feet, but could also be back, knees, hips, or anything else) and you think it’s the result of the shoes, then back off. Go back to your earlier shoes, or wear the new shoes for shorter periods.
I’ve personally found that the thickness/flex of the soles and the amount of heel drop are the two features that are most likely to cause pain – you can probably transition right away to a wide toe box and a shoe with good foot attachment. I also really like to rotate between multiple shoes – I usually have about 5-6 choices at a time – so I can pick the shoe that feels best on any particular day.
Remember, go slow, be kind to yourself, & do lots of foot exercises!!
My Favourite Minimal Shoe Options
But I thought I’d save you some time by highlighting some of the ones I know the most about – that I’ve worn, or that my fellow RES teachers love the most.
And here’s my best tip – make sure you check the return policy!!!
Almost all minimal shoes are sold online (because people who want minimal shoes are such a small market. This means that the the more people who wear them, the easier it will be to find them in stores. So tell all your friends!!). Unfortunately, it can be hard to figure out shoe fit online. I’ve wasted a lot of money by not being careful enough. Ask me about this sometime if you want to see me actually cry.
Best Minimal Shoes For Starting Your Transition
Altra’s have lovely big toe boxes and zero drop. But they have lots of cushioning and a toe spring so they aren’t super minimal – which means they’re a great transitional option. Also great for experienced minimal shoe wearers who walk a lot on hard pavement. These are my top recommendation for when you’re just starting out but want a zero drop shoe.
Lems have flexible soles but still some padding. I find the running shoe styles a bit narrow (I have super wide feet though), but I love the width of the Boulder Boots. In fact, I can wear CorrectToes in my Boulder Boots, which is amazing. Plus they’re pretty cute for either guys or girls. Definitely one of my personal faves.
Kalso Earth Shoes actually have negative heels, which can be a help in getting longer calves. But still lots of structure around the sole and often fairly thick soles. Probably better if you’re already used to wearing zero-drop shoes but apart from that a really nice transition with lots of padding and many styles to choose from.
Regular ol’ Converse aren’t marketed as minimal shoes, but they have flexible soles and no drop, people. The super easiest choice if you want to pick up something fast and cheap. Very narrow though and no squishy padding, so best for a narrow and strong foot.
If you focus on Camper’s flats, they have lots of options, especially for transitioning. A bit narrow, a bit too stiff, and often a bit of heel rise, but they’re cute, and especially good for the office.
*A note on transitions* Your shoe doesn’t have to be officially minimal to be a transitional shoe. If you’re coming from a lifetime wearing heels or extremely supportive shoes (because orthopaedic shoes are all about bracing, they typically are exactly what you don’t want to wear if you’re trying to regain foot health), then just pick a pair of similar shoes with lower heels to start with.
I love so many of the Otz Styles! Not cheap but sooooo cute. Note – they only qualify as completely zero drop (and flexible) if you take the footbed out. Good transitional option.
Vivobarefoot is probably the most successful and well-funded of all the minimal shoe companies. They have lots of styles, and make really attractive shoes. These range from super cute hiking boots to runners to rain boots and more. However I find them quite narrow in the toe box, so if you have wider feet, they may not be the best option.
Another company that makes really adorable shoes! Everything from the Drifter Leather is hand made and custom fit and they have lots of really adorable styles and colours. One thing to watch for is that they like to put a little heel riser into the shoe – I prefer to ask them not to include this.
Volcom isn’t a minimal shoe line, but one of my clients has gotten many great zero drop summer sandals from them. Not the most flexible or the widest, as you’d expect from a regular shoe company. And of course, I’d recommend avoiding the flip flop styles!
Linge ballet flats are really super pretty, wide toe boxes and no drop. Plus they come in large sizes. My clients have reported that attractive minimal shoes in larger sizes are extra hard to find so this is basically golden.
Good for the office
I think Tieks are super adorable and back when I worked in an office, I dreamed of these shoes. They’re a lot more narrow than I’d prefer, but they are really sweet (I also can’t stand narrow toe boxes, I find them really uncomfortable. If you have narrow feet, these could be a great choice). Vivobarefoot JingJings are a less expensive alternative.
For the boys! It is so hard to find nice shoes for the healthy executive – most minimal mens styles are really clunky. These are not clunky, they are gorgeous. The Drifter Leather is another good men’s office choice.
What The Pros Wear
Every one of my teaching colleagues who has a pair of Soft Stars raves about them (and they’re great for kids, although maybe a bit expensive). I invested in a pair of their sheepskin Phoenix boots and just love them.
Yes, they look odd, but the way you can feel the ground in these is amazing. Hiking actually turns into a foot massage. I have several pairs and they are by far my favourite-feeling shoes. Can be a bit much for extended walking on pavement though.
Unshoes sandals look great on, and are amazing summer sandals – the perfect flip flop replacement. I wore through mine pretty fast by hiking in them though. They’ve started making loafers now too though I haven’t personally tried these.
I picked up a pair of Xero Amuri Z-Trek sandals last summer and they seem nice and durable so far. On the other hand, I don’t totally love their adjustment and fastening system. A solid pair of sports sandals as long as you don’t have to take them on and off too often.
It’s been truly awful trying to find a pair of minimal boots that can stand up to winter in Toronto. I bought a pair of Vivobarefoot Kulas last year, which are totally too narrow for me in the toes and are super clunky – a total disappointment. If you have serious snow, slush and winter to deal with, learn from my mistakes and try Steger instead – they get glowing reviews.
Many of the Inov-8 styles are really attractive with lots of zero and low-drop options. Like many of the most attractive and stylish minimal shoes, they tend to fit on the narrow side.
Want runners? This is an incredible resource with all kinds of in-depth comparative info about different styles of runners.
So that’s what I’ve got so far in terms of shoes. Have you made the transition to minimal footwear? I’d love to hear about your favorites, and anything you’ve learned along the way!
Post updated January 31, 2017 with fresh links, some new shoe styles and a handy printable gift to help you remember what to look for when you shop minimal shoes!
Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body - and she's always happy to chat about it. When she's not teaching, you'll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.