There are certain features that make a shoe minimalist or even barefoot and the amount of cushioning is one of them.
Cushioning (also referred to as 'Stack Height'), falls on a spectrum from Minimalist (zero cushioning) to Maximalist (a thick slab of foam).
Broadly speaking you can divide shoes into 4 levels of cushioning:
- Barefoot - No cushioning at all.
- Minimalist - Significantly less padding than a normal shoe.
- Moderate - The cushioning level that's found in most conventional shoes.
- Maximalist - Large amount of cushioning through the entire shoe.
So which level is for you?
If you're reading this, it's clear that you're trying to move away from the moderate and maximalist side of things so we'll only focus on Barefoot and Minimalist shoes.
Barefoot shoes put the least cushioning between your feet and the ground.
- Provides a more natural experience of moving.
- Forces the body to adjust to minimise ground impact since the shoes are no longer absorbing it.
- Strengthens the feet and legs and can improve posture.
- Prevents heel striking (which can hurt and injure you more quickly).
- Allows the toes to spread out.
- Barefoot shoes require learning to move in a specific way.
- If you're used to conventional shoes and don't transition properly, injuries can occur.
- Can take a long time to feel comfortable wearing them for long periods.
Barefoot shoe enthusiasts would consider minimalist shoes to have too much cushioning. In reality, that 'thick' sole is actually pretty thin compared to normal shoes which typically have much thicker soles.
- Great for slowly transitioning to barefoot shoes, especially if used to conventional shoes.
- Can be more comfortable to wear for long periods.
- Much better than conventionally thick shoes.
- Less ground feel and proprioception.
- Thicker soles are a crutch and can help you hide bad moving habits.
- Foot and leg muscles will work less to balance and so may not grow as strong.
Should You Care
There's an argument to made that this feature of your shoes is the least important compared to the other important features of minimalist/barefoot shoes.
If a little bit of cushioning persuades you to take the jump towards a more mindful, movement-oriented way of being, makes the process less intimidating and potentially less painful. Do it! Work towards your goals one step at a time and don't worry about a couple of millimetres.
Minimalist or barefoot shoes are the best choice for beginners. They're a great tool for developing proprioception, balance and strength in your feet. As long as you're moving in the right direction, go with what feels right for you.
Real change takes time.