The development of minimalist footwear
Revealing the background to this style’s development and popularity, as well as its positive and negative characteristics.
Image © marekuliasz | iStockphoto.com
Over the past ten years, there has been a rise in popularity of ‘minimalist’ footwear, which originated in the leisure running community but has started to spread to more mainstream footwear types. Minimalist footwear typically possesses a very thin sole unit and little underfoot cushioning, although the appearance of the upper is generally similar to traditional footwear designs.
The phenomenon of minimalist running footwear originated with some runners wanting to experience a similar sensation to going barefoot. While there are a number of types of minimalist footwear, the language used to describe them is interchangeable and the differences between the types is small. These products may also be called ‘natural’, ‘barefoot’ or ‘zero-drop’ footwear.
The history of minimalist footwear
The actual concept of minimalist footwear is not new. Early footwear designs would have had very limited undersole material, potentially comprising of only a thick section of leather or hide material under the foot with little cushioning material. The moccasin – historically popular among various tribes of the indigenous people of North America – was often constructed from deerskin and possessed only a thin layer of underfoot material. Other minimalist footwear types include the ‘opanak’ (a traditional peasant shoe worn in southeast Europe).
Why minimalist footwear?
The main desire for minimalist footwear is for the wearer to experience as close to the barefoot sensation as possible. The style is characterised by a thin sole unit with little or no additional underfoot or arch support. They naturally possess a low heel-to-toe drop – that is, the elevation of the upper surface of the heel and toe regions. These shoes also have typically wider toe puff (box toe) regions with additional space for the wearer’s toes to splay and recoil during walking or running. There is no universally-accepted definition for minimalist and barefoot footwear and the thickness of soles that they possess with the descriptions being used interchangeably. Minimalist soles are typically 3 to 10 mm in thickness, although the manufacturers supplying barefoot footwear may be towards the lower limit of this range and even thinner.
More extreme designs have been developed, such as ‘glove’ designs where the toe region of the footwear is separated into individual ‘pockets’ for each toe – similar to the fingers of a glove. While the popularity of minimalist footwear started in the running industry, it can now be seen in leisure footwear, everyday shoes and children’s styles.
Sensation science controversy
Advocates of minimalist footwear claim that the human foot is not designed to wear footwear, and barefoot walking and running is regenerative to human health. They claim that modern footwear designs force the wearer to walk and run with an unnatural gait which has been established by consistent wearing of footwear – especially those styles with significant underfoot cushioning. They claim that the foot and leg bones, and musculature are capable of providing all the shock absorption and cushioning required by the individual without needing to rely upon artificial materials. They also claim that wearing athletic shoes has cause an increase in the incidence of injuries during running, including ankle sprains and other chronic lower limb injuries.
The majority of people have become adept at walking and running in padded footwear and must get used to minimalist footwear designs after wearing structured footwear from soon after birth. Supporters of barefoot products admit that transitioning to minimalist footwear – especially for running – requires the wearer to adopt a new manner of running, which involves different muscles than he or she will be accustomed to using. Such adapting must be done slowly to avoid injury, and medical professionals in the USA have reported an increase in such injuries as pulled calf muscles, Achilles tendinitis and metatarsal stress fractures, which they attribute to barefoot runners attempting to transition too fast.
Other risks for wearers of minimalist footwear include reduced protection to puncture wounds, bruising and thermal injuries from extreme weather conditions. Minimalist footwear is also unable to provide specific support for an individual’s needs. In response to these issues, footwear manufacturers – in particular, sports footwear brand owners – have developed a wide range of soling designs intended to provide a more comfortable wearing experience. The development of specific soling material and footwear designs have allowed manufactures to incorporate special features, such as pronation correction and the incorporation of additional arch supports.
A research paper published in 2015 commented on the lack of a standard for minimalist footwear and proposed a ‘Minimalist Index’ (MI) which was developed by Laval University. The index includes a measurement of five criteria: flexibility, weight, heel stack height, stability and motion control, and heel-to-toe drop height. Following an assessment, an index is assigned to the footwear, which is expressed as a percentage rating. The rating system assigns a higher percentage index to footwear with a higher degree of minimalism and a lower percentage index for footwear which exhibits a lower degree of minimalism.
The study did not propose any guideline figures for results, but allowed a comparison between minimalist properties of different footwear. It did indicate that the move between footwear with a higher degree of difference in assigned index values may suggest a higher degree of risk of injury to the wearer if the transition was undertaken in a short space of time.
Pros and cons
While barefoot or minimalist footwear has its proponents, the evidence of the benefits of this type of footwear is inconclusive, and the suitability of such footwear may be a personal preference. Although walkers and runners wore traditional minimalist footwear for thousands of years before modern shoe designs and materials were created, the benefits of modern footwear designs and materials cannot be ignored.
Some wearers may desire more sensory contact for the foot on the ground, but others will prefer the underfoot cushioning offered by the sole and the protection offered against ground hazards and harsh conditions. Wearers with specific medical conditions or foot support needs may prefer the support that is offered by high technology footwear features.
How can we help?
Please contact SATRA’s footwear team (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss the testing of both minimalist footwear and the components being used.
This article was originally published on page 30 of the September 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.