The question of what a minimalist shoe is and what makes a minimalist shoe minimalist does not have a black and white answer.
To simply state a shoe is minimalist (or not) does not take into account the many factors that influence your experience with a shoe.
I think a common understanding of what a minimalist or closer-to-barefoot shoe is that it allows for an experience more like being barefoot. That, of course, is quite vague and broad, and it doesn’t take into account the varying degrees of how minimalist, or close-to-barefoot, a shoe actually is.
There are shoes we feature here in the catalog that are actually quite far from being like barefoot. However, in my opinion, I think “less minimalist” shoes have a purpose for different people and circumstances depending upon where one is on their journey of transitioning from conventional footwear.
In finding the minimalist footwear that is the right fit for you and the activity you plan to wear the shoe for, it’s important to understand the features that influence just how minimalist a shoe is.
When the concept of wearing minimalist footwear started to gain popularity about a decade ago, there was research on the benefits of minimalist footwear. However, the research has continued as more people have experienced the benefits of changing what they wear on their feet
With that research has come a useful tool that can help us better understand and answer the question, “What makes a minimalist shoe minimalist?”.
In 2015, researcher Jean-Francois Esculier and his team published a consensus definition and rating scale. They consulted an international panel of 42 experts on this topic to establish the standards. In doing so, they hope to better define degrees of minimalism to allow for improved recommendations when it comes to switching to minimalist footwear and decreasing the likelihood of injuries.
The definition they came up with through this inquiry is the following:
“Footwear providing minimal interference with the natural movement of the foot due to its high flexibility, low heel to toe drop, weight and stack height, and the absence of motion control and stability devices.”
This is helpful for you because by understanding the features of a minimalist shoe, you can pay more attention to your experience in that shoe and determine what you may need differently (either more or less minimal) when it comes to purchasing your next pair of shoes.
What is the Minimalist Index (MI)?
The Minimalist Index is a rating scale to help communicate how minimal a shoe is. The scale ranges from zero to 100, with zero having no minimalist features whatsoever and 100 being very minimal in all the criteria measured.
There are five main categories with a range of zero to five points given depending upon specific criteria.
The Minimalist Index categories are:
- Stack Height
- Heel-to-Toe Drop
- Stability & Motion Control Technologies
This rating is based upon the weight for an individual shoe. A weight less than 125 g (4.4 ounces) gets the maximum rating of 5. Higher than 325 g (11.5 ounces) and the shoe gets a zero. There are ranges for each score in between.
As measured in the middle of the heel, this is the total thickness of the material between the foot and the ground. Stack heights less than 8 mm get a score of 5. Whereas, 32 mm and higher get a score of zero. Like with weight, there are gradations in between.
The heel-to-toe drop is the thickness measured under the metatarsal heads (think ball of the foot) subtracted from the stack height (thickness under the middle of the heel). A difference less than 1 mm corresponds to a score of 5, and greater than 13 mm gets a 0 score.
Stability & Motion Control Technology
This type of technology would be features included in the shoe that create a rigid structure around the foot to minimize the natural movement of the foot. Within the conventional paradigm of shoe design, the foot needs these structures from a shoe because it is incapable of functioning without them. From a minimalist perspective, having these supports in place diminishes the strengthening of the feet making them more susceptible various ailments and injuries.
The stability and motion control technologies considered by this index include:
- Multi-density midsole
- Thermoplastic medial post
- Rigid heel counter
- Elevated medial insole under arch
- Supportive tensioned medial upper
- Medial flare
To get a score of 5, there should be none of these features. Five or six of these features present earns a 0.
This category is split into two components with each receiving a score out of 2.5. Here we are looking at the longitudinal and torsional flexibility.
Longitudinal flexibility is looking at the degree to which toe the can be flexed upward and how far it comes to reaching the heel. Being able to roll onto itself greater than 360° earns a 2.5. If a shoe’s toe can barely be flexed upward, the shoe gets a 0.
Torsional flexibility looks how well a shoe can flex in a spiraled fashion. If you had one hand on the toe and the other on the heel, you would apply force in the same directions like you’re wringing out a towel. For a 2.5, the sole of the both the toe and heel would be facing in the same direction (ie, it flexes at least 360°). If it barely moves when applying torsional force, it gets a 0.
Those are the five features the minimalist index is looking to rate just how minimalist a shoe is. Next, we should consider what the Minimalist Index isn’t taking into account.
What’s missing from the MI?
I don’t know about you, but once I was able experience shoes that didn’t cramp my toes, putting my shoes in a tapered-toed shoe felt a bit like torture. I don’t keep a shoe if my toes feel constrained.
A pointed shoe seems to have the very awful long-term consequence of changing the actual structure of the foot by encouraging the toes to point inward and contributing to bunions. This limits the very important functioning of the big toe.
While I’m not an expert in the study of biomechanics or podiatry, I have a challenging time seeing how this feature was not included.
I agree with Dr. Ray McClanahan of Correct Toes®, who was on the panel of 42 experts consulted for this study, that thinks toebox width should be considered when evaluating how minimal a shoe is.
In theory, a shoe could score a 100 on the minimalist index and have the toebox of a high heel shoe. It’s not a shoe I would wear despite its high score.
My point is that this is one limitation of the index to be aware of, and I hope it will be reevaluated in the future by the powers at be.
Minimalism in footwear is a spectrum and the Minimalist Index as a useful tool
The Minimalist Index demonstrates my point above that a shoe is not either minimalist or not.
All shoes fall somewhere on this spectrum, showing there is degree of minimalism when it comes to a shoe.
We can use this spectrum as a tool to help us choose the footwear that is appropriate to our individual needs.
For example, let’s say you are brand new to the concept of minimalist footwear, but you want to see if it’s something that you could benefit from. Your conventional footwear may, for example, get a score in the 20’s.
Let’s say you don’t spend a lot of time being barefoot. It would very possibly be a shock to your body to suddenly put on a pair of shoes that scores in the 90’s. That’s too fast and drastic, which could very possibly be setting you up for an injury.
This is not an uncommon scenario where one goes to an extreme when transitioning away from conventional footwear and decides minimalist footwear is not for them because it hurts. It’s not necessarily that minimalist footwear isn’t for them in this situation. It’s more that they did too much, too fast.
Katy Bowman talks a lot about the idea of the casts in our lives. These are things or behaviors that contribute to immobilization and an ultimate atrophy of our tissues and abilities. Shoes are one of these casts.
If you take a cast off, the atrophy will likely result in differences in capabilities relative to if there were no cast to begin with. It’s unrealistic to believe that we should be able to go from a shoe that allows for very little movement or strengthening to automatically having full function without that cast.
For this reason, the Minimalist Index can be used, and was created with this intention, to help one choose the appropriate shoe for one’s particular needs.
More minimalist isn’t necessarily better if it means you’re getting injured. Whenever I see someone asking about an injury when they are trying to start running barefoot, the response I see from experienced barefoot runners is to listen to your body. The pain is feedback from your body. This doesn’t necessarily apply only to runners, but this is where it is most often studied.
Picking less minimalist shoes, which you can choose by paying attention to this index, may be how you’re able to listen to your body. As you become more experienced and less confined by a rigid shoe, your body may tell you to find something more minimal.
Where to find the Minimalist Index for a shoe
As of now, shoes as they are advertised on a company’s website do not have a MI score associated with a shoe.
However, many times, they do provide the information for a shoe in regards to each of the categories. So, you can get a general sense of how minimalist a shoe is. Once again, here’s the Minimalist Index rating scale.
You can fill in the blanks and come up with the score as you shop.
Our catalog offer the ability to filter by many of these categories, so you can find a shoe that fits your needs based upon these features.
As we make reviews of individual shoes, we will also include a calculated Minimalist Index on those shoes.
We hope you found this information useful. Does this help you understand better what makes a shoe minimalist? Will it change how you purchase minimalist shoes in the future?