So you've decided to go minimal. Congratulations! Before celebrating too soon, there's one big question you're bound to ask: How do you choose a pair of shoes among the many options out there?
There are a number of key considerations when picking out a pair of minimal shoes and I've outlined below the ones I think are absolutely essential.
These characteristics can also be used to loosely define minimal shoes. Since the category is quite broad, I look for these things when evaluating whether a pair of shoes qualifies as "minimal" or not.
Toe Box Shape & Width
- When looking at the toe box, we consider three primary attributes: width, inner line, and outer line.
- For width, while most minimal shoes have a wider toe box than conventional shoes, wider isn't always better. You'll need to consider your own personal forefoot width, your ability to splay your toes and whether the shoes accommodate enough space for the toes to spread without the shoes becoming loose or wobbly.
- For the inner line, look for shoes that don't curve inward too much. You should be able to draw a straight line from your heel all the way to the front of that big toe. If your foot curves inward, it may be a good idea to think about strengthening some of the intrinsic foot muscles.
- For the outer line, most shoes curve inward too soon, cutting off space for the pinky toe. But again, you'll need to check on your personal structure and see what the shape of your foot looks like when the toes are fully spread.
Picture from Joe Nimble
- Flexibility of the Sole - A good pair of minimal shoes will need flexible soles that allow for all the movement of those 33 joints mentioned above. This flexibility will allow for the crucial extension of your big toe as your foot moves into the liftoff stage of your walking gait. If your shoes have rigidity preventing this action in the big toe, they could be artificially forcing your gait to splay your feet outwards and over-pronate. This will feel like your back foot is rolling onto the inside edge of your big toe rather than a more natural peeling away from heel to big toe.
- You've probably heard that a zero heel drop - no added height to the heel of your shoe compared to the front - is the true minimal way to go. And after reading the section above on Body Alignment, maybe I was the one who convinced you! But just like the width of the toe box being as wide as possible, zero is not necessarily best for everyone right away.
- If your heel structure isn't ready for it, zero heel drop could mean trouble for overextending the Achilles tendon or too much impact on your heels with the cushioning you're used to gone.
- Check out the lift in the heels of your current pair of shoes. If it's over 8mm, consider trying shoes with 4-6mm heel as an interim shoe.
- If you'd rather make the jump straightaway to 0mm, think hard about how you'll be wearing these shoes. Will you be walking or hiking for extended hours? What other activities will you be taking on?
- Be sure to give yourself the opportunity to switch back to your old shoes whenever you feel discomfort creeping in. Your tissues will need at least 6 months to adapt.
While the above characteristics are the main ones to evaluate, some other qualities that round out the definition of a pair of minimal shoes include:
Attached uppers, so that the foot isn't working to keep the footwear on. This happens with flipflops when the toes need to clamp together to hold onto the thong.
Minimal or no toe rise. Similar to the height in the heel, you don't want the shoe to curl upwards from the front.
Light weight. Lighter shoes mean less interference with how your leg naturally moves.
Environment and Activities
- Considering your personal activities and environment is a huge factor some people ignore when selecting a pair of shoes.
- Will you be running? Walking? Training in a gym? Potentially be caught in the rain or snow?
- Consider the type of surface your shoes will be interacting with and what kind of sole or grip will serve you best. If you live in a city, chances are, you'll need to be on flat concrete surfaces a lot of the time. While minimal shoes attempt to be as close to being barefoot as possible, our foot structures developed to walk on soft earth - not concrete.
- A well designed sole and even some cushioning may be helpful for our urban environments and activities. Exactly how much is determined by your personal movement capabilities and tissues.