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How I Prevent Injuries & Get Stronger With Barefoot Shoes

An athlete’s career can evaporate in the blink of an eye. Anything we can do to prevent injury increases the odds of a long, rewarding athletic career.

I suffered quite the ankle injury (video at bottom of post) early into a championship rugby match. I made the naive mistake of limping my way through the final 70 minutes. Weeks and months passed and daily rehab didn’t heal my ankle.

I looked into my options, other rehab workouts, and alternative healing modalities. One day I stumbled upon what sounded like a ridiculous idea.

Wear no shoes at all. Go barefoot.

Not exactly feasible, but a new suggestion. I found online forums, videos, articles, and some research on the not-exactly-new idea. The more I looked, the more I encountered.

I decided to look for the most “barefoot” resembling shoes I could find.

I’m not going to tell you to run to the store and buy a pair of toe shoes. Shoes should look good and feel comfortable. Early barefoot and minimalist shoes wouldn’t do. Equally importantly, the shoes must not impede my performance.

“Most running shoes today are designed and constructed in such a manner as to make correct technique impossible (and therefore cause chronic injuries to the people who wear them).”

Gordon Pirie

You have many options to make your movement more efficient, and protect yourself from injury. I walk many miles every day, and don’t want the hassle of spending even more time exercising small muscle groups when I can simply change my shoes.

Walking on layer after layer of foam and air feels good today. What about tomorrow?

What Are Minimalist and Barefoot Shoes?

That begs the question, what are these “barefoot” shoes.

Minimalist and barefoot shoes both feel closer to actually being barefoot than your standard shoe. Both types of shoes share similar characteristics:

  • An extremely thin layer of sole between your foot and the ground
  • Very lightweight and flexible
  • “Zero drop” meaning that your heel is not elevated

Yes, calling a shoe “barefoot” is in itself an oxymoron. So what’s the difference?

  • Minimalist shoes slightly resemble traditional shoes and are the ideal hybrid.
  • Barefoot shoes are more extreme with even thinner soles, lighter, and as close as you can get to running barefoot while still covering your feet.

You Should Consider Going Minimalist

Living barefoot passes the ancestral sniff test. Humans walked, jogged, and ran barefoot or in minimal shoes up until recent times. Until my injury I didn’t think much about my feet, ankles, or walking.

My shoe choice came down to color, style, and brand.

stan smiths

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the mistake of ignoring the feet and surrounding musculature. The tissues used to move (your kinetic chain), starts at the feet and goes all the way up to the head. A weak link early in the chain causes problems the rest of the way up. Pretty important to get it right. Most of us don’t.

Including professional runners.

You've Been Running Wrong.
I found a video of natural running coach Tony Riddle re-teaching the elite ultra-endurance runner Rich Roll running basics.

I’m not a fan of frequent, intense, long running sessions. I wrote about the rarely-discussed reasons running is bad for you.

Consequences of improper running technique include additional strain on the feet, ankles, knees, back, and hips. You become a ticking time bomb. No wonder more than half of the running population gets injured every year.

Going barefoot improves your movement efficiency, strengthens your natural stabilizers, and keeps you active.

You Will Move Better

For something we do effortlessly, movement takes great coordination. Large groups of muscles fire together at precise timings as they go through varying angles and planes. Introduce one small tweak to that delicate system and everything shifts.

Movement starts with the feet and ankles. Get an angle wrong here and you misalign everything above.

I didn’t love geometry, but I learned the importance of angles early on in my sports career.

Muscles generate more power in very specific angles. Tiny 170-pound wide receivers strategically use this knowledge to move giant 250-pound linebackers. The closer we get to barefoot running, the more optimal and powerful the angle we use to strike the ground.

Athletes listen up: The better your angles, the more force and power you generate!

These angles carry all the way up the body. Hip and torso mobility greatly improves. Over time your limited range of motion expands, enabling you to do more with increasing effectiveness.

Use or Lose Your Stabilizers

Stabilizer Muscles in Legs & Feet
100+ muscles in legs

A common biology adage that holds true with your foot and ankle muscles: use it or lose it. You probably don’t want weak stabilization muscles. That would be a lot of loss. To my surprise, you have over 100 muscles alone in your feet and ankles.

Modern shoe technology promises to stabilize your feet, ankles, and protect against injury. They do a great job. So great that those muscles get to shut down. 100 shutdown muscles that atrophy and shrink with disuse.

How does this compare to going barefoot?

The limited research indicates that it significantly changes gait for the better, and another found improved stability and physical function in middle-aged adults.

Muscles of the foot and ankle engage to support movement. Constant engagement strengthens them, leading to great stability. It may not seem like a big deal, but strong stabilizer muscles prevent injury.

Alleviates Pain and Reduces Injury Risk

Back to traditional footwear.

The more you rely on footwear to absorb impact, the less your body needs to handle. Your body does the logical thing and focuses on sending nerve signals to areas of the body where they matter more. You become less sensitive to subtle feedback cues.

Dr Joel Seedman points out that seemingly disconnected problems throughout the body can stem from this:

  • Poor spinal alignment
  • Low back pain
  • Neck impingement
  • Shoulder injuries
  • Inhibition/weakness of the upper extremities

A small tweak to your foot or ankle could fix a lifetime problem.

Best of all, you have nothing to lose from strengthening these muscles.

Why I Made the Switch

How much activity can you do barefoot? I failed this basic test and knew I needed work.

My injury spotlighted that I neglected my feet, toes, and ankles in my years of “full-body” training.

I saw little downside in trying something new.

I began walking barefoot more. Sometimes —almost always, really— I felt socially pressured to wears shoes. I wasn’t exactly ready to show up at my office barefoot. I made a less drastic change. I retired my UltraBoosts, and strapped on my first pair of minimal shoes. They felt like walking barefoot with a few sheets of paper under my feet. No real cushioning.

I already walked barefoot on occasion, so I knew what to expect, but I hadn’t experienced foot and ankle soreness like I did the first few days. They became my daily wear and I noticed new subtle sensations. A few weeks later I wore them on one of my occasional runs. I remember feeling looser than usual after that run.

Several months later I noticed my ankle pain had greatly subsided and I could go deeper into my squat than before.

I still wear normal shoes on occasion, but given the choice I’ll pick the minimal shoes every time (unless the other option is toe shoes).

What You Can Do

I completely understand not wanting to make the jump to a whole new style of shoe. The transition took a week to feel completely normal, and it also means upheaving your wardrobe — something I’m still begrudgingly doing.

You shouldn’t avoid strengthening the feet, ankles, and toes. They deserve training like every other body part. You have many different training options, and I will cover why I prefer minimal shoes.

Incorporating Stability into Your Gym Routine

Functional Fitness Bosu Ball

Gyms have all kinds of gear that I don’t know the function of. For years I thought the strange half ball pictured above, called Bosu balls, was a waste of time, effort, and money.

I wouldn’t use them to build full-body strength, but they can greatly improve your stability.

Go Barefoot When Possible

I heard a quote recently that you shouldn’t skimp when it comes to your bed and shoes since you’ll be in one of the two 24 hours every day.

That’s true for most of us, most of the time.

Right now I am working from home and don’t need to touch my shoes for most of the day.

Keeping the shoes off whenever possible gives your stabilizers a little attention.

Choose the Sensible Shoes

Directly opposing barefoot shoes, you have high heels and platforms.

They look great, and compliment a nice outfit for special occasions. Not much of an issue.

Thick, padded sneakers and platforms worn on a daily basis? More of an issue.

The higher and less natural the foot position, the more likely you’ll eventually have problems.

Minimal and Barefoot Shoes I Like

I’ve now tried a few different brand of barefoot and minimalist shoes. On occasion I read reports and review of dozens more.

I’ve come to the conclusion that for most people, minimal shoes are ideal for everyday use, while barefoot shoes are best for running.

I’ve used and heard great things about two brands in particular. Xero Shoes, and Vivo Barefoot.

I personally have the Xero Hana’s and have loved them so far.

They’re a canvas that’s casual enough to wear out, fancy enough for startup wear, comfortable, and backed by a 5,000-mile sole warranty. It comes in multiple colors but I’ve been long overdue for a black pair.

Worn Xero Hana Canvas Barefoot Minimalist Shoes
Side profile of my semi-new shoes.

Check them out.

Build Your Stabilizers For Long-Term Fitness

Our stabilization muscles could use the extra attention. Strong stabilizers improve your movement efficiency, generate more power, reduce the risk of injury, and can alleviate pain all throughout the body.

I had tried many different approaches before I found barefoot shoes. I didn’t see immediate results, but over time I’ve noticed significant recovery in my ankle and feet. I move better, squat deeper, and my shin splints have disappeared.

You don’t need to buy new shoes. Instead, you can add stability work into your fitness routine, spend more time actually barefoot, or pull out your thin-soled shoes.

No matter what method you choose, start slow. The last thing you want is to cause pain or injury from transitioning too fast.

I hope that you decide to prioritize your stability!

Oh, and by the way, here’s that video I mentioned. You might have to watch a few times to see the ankle:

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