Selecting appropriate footwear for athletic and recreational activities can be difficult due to the array of options we have available today. Couple that with contradictory research or claims made by shoe versus barefoot and "minimalist shoe" advocates, and it is easy to see why so much confusion exists. Do shoes help or hinder our performance and health? Are some shoes better than others? Were humans ever meant to wear shoes in the first place? These are all questions that commonly occur when debating footwear selection. The answer(s) however, is not so clear-cut and requires a deeper understanding of human locomotion so that an informed choice can be made.
The standard athletic shoe was developed to provide greater foot and plantar surface protection for walking, running, jumping, etc. as well as reduce unwanted pronation when running. In addition, shoes have been shown to increase traction during athletic activities (i.e., running, cutting, jumping, etc.) and reduce the likelihood of injury occurring by way of cuts and abrasions. These are all great things, and it can certainly be argued that the advances in footwear have led to a net positive gain in athletic performance over time. Soccer and American Football players can make more precise and accurate cuts in competitive play thanks to cleats, marathon runners can train outdoors despite freezing temperatures and ice, and hardwood sports like basketball or volleyball can wear shoes that provide greater ankle stability during gameplay. Without these things would humans have adapted, anyway? That's difficult to say, but at this moment we are certainly not equipped to handle these things without proper footwear.
All of that being said, not every shoe is created equal and not everybody should or even needs to train with shoes all the time.
Why Not Shoes?
A large number of individuals will advocate for tossing your sweet kicks in the garbage and using what mother nature gave you to train instead of your bare feet. While that may seem foreign to some, the barefoot advocates may be on to something. It appears that running barefoot promotes less "heel strike" and greater forefoot patterns as well as the potentially greater running economy, lower prevalence of foot disorders, and even lower force impact. (2, 4, 5) In addition to barefoot running, training barefoot in exercises like the deadlift may result in a greater rate of force development (RFD) overtraining in shoes, that evidence however is still rather limited (1). Essentially, ditching the shoes can help us feel what's happening better than keeping them on due to shoes potentially decreasing sensory perception and causing us to underestimate perceived loads (3). Anecdotally speaking, I am a major advocate for individuals whom I train to do at least some portion of their workout barefoot, particularly when warming up for squats/deadlifts and other ground-based movements so that a heightened level of kinesthetic awareness can be achieved.
Of course, there are always two sides to the story. We know that there may be benefits to going barefoot at times, but what about the negatives? All of the benefits previously mentioned that pertain to the benefits of wearing shoes would inherently become a risk with not wearing them, and there is always the issue of too much too soon. It is commonly recommended that if one wishes to make a transfer to barefoot running, jumping, etc. (that is, where they wear shoes far less than they don't) that they ramp things up very slowly, particularly in activities such as running that require and a high volume of repetitive forceful actions. This is because doing too much too soon could perhaps lead to overuse injuries and the body may not be able to adapt quickly enough to the new stimulus. The literature is inconsistent, to say the least on how one should best incorporate or transition themselves into barefoot training but airing on the side of caution and informed decision-making Is always best.
Is There An In-Between?
Most people who have contemplated training barefoot have likely stumbled upon the popular minimalist shoe option that is widely available today. These shoes are commonly made with nothing more than a small layer of rubber, nylon, or other materials that cover the bottom of the feet and the toes, perhaps even the top of the foot as well. What these are intended to do is provide the individual with the benefits of reduced cuts, abrasions, etc. as well as a small amount of support/stabilization while still allowing for the majority of barefoot benefits to come into play. Some individuals swear by the use of minimalist shoes and feel as though they get the best of both worlds when training, while others argue that they can serve as a "bridge" to transition from shoe-wearing to barefoot training. There have been studies, however, that have examined the injury risk of wearing these types of shoes versus going barefoot and wearing regular shoes. One study in particular (6) found that "partial minimalist" shoes specifically caused a three times greater rate of shin and calve injuries versus barefoot or regular shoe training. Again, similar to regular athletic footwear, there is a wide variety of minimalist shoes available today and the one that is chosen appears to greatly affect the training outcomes.
What's The Right Answer?
As you may have already concluded, there is no one size fits all (no pun intended) answer to what one should wear regarding footwear or lack thereof particularly in athletics. it is imperative to always consult a specialist who can help you select the best option for you, but if you want to decide for yourself it is important to do your research first. There appears to be pros and cons to both wearing and not wearing shoes while training, but the activity you select, your unique individual anatomy, training environment, and personal preferences will all come into play. Competitive athletes will often be required to wear footwear in competition, and it is rather obvious that footwear is essential in certain situations. Above all else remember that we select our footwear or lack thereof to enhance our overall performance, as long as that remains the focus you will likely come to a proper conclusion.
1. Hammer ME, Meir RA, Whitting JW, and Crowley-McHattan ZJ. Shod vs. Barefoot Effects on Force and Power Development During a Conventional Deadlift. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 32: 1525-1530, 2018.
2. Hollander K, Argubi-Wollesen A, Reer R, and Zech A. Comparison of minimalist footwear strategies for simulating barefoot running: a randomized crossover study. PloS one 10: e0125880, 2015.
3. McPoil TG. Athletic footwear: design, performance and selection issues. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 3: 260-267, 2000.
4. Mullen S and Toby EB. Adolescent Runners: The Effect of Training Shoes on Running Kinematics. Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics 33: 453-457, 2013.
5. PERL DP, DAOUD AI, and LIEBERMAN DE. Effects of Footwear and Strike Type on Running Economy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 44: 1335-1343, 2012.
6. Ryan M, Elashi M, Newsham-West R, and Taunton J. Examining injury risk and pain perception in runners using minimalist footwear. British Journal of Sports Medicine 48: 1257-1262, 2014.