It’s summer time, and a great time to think about your feet! Summer footwear (and my 2019 article on wearing flip flops) tend to bring about many questions from clients wanting to keep their bodies healthy while freeing their feet. The worst part- there is lots of conflicting information out there on what is “good” for your feet.
Both fashion and medicine have had a large influence on what most of us believe about footwear. Many of us have been sold on “stabilizing” shoes because we were told by a professional we needed more support. (I ran for years in “ultra-stabilizing” shoes that were wide and stiff because a doctor once told me I had flat feet, and should never run in anything else.) The prevailing thought was that everyone needed more support, regardless of their foot complaint: high arches, low arches, it didn’t seem to matter—everyone was sold rigid arch supports and stiff shoes. But their foot troubles continued.
Then a few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of barefoot or minimal shoes. Now let me just say, that the look will not appeal to everyone. We Americans value our footwear fashion, so I don’t expect you to just jump into barefoot shoes after this article, but hear me out.
Let’s start with the basic facts about your feet. Each of your feet contains 33 joints. These joints are meant to allow the foot to adapt to the ground beneath it. An adaptable foot can facilitate efficient movement from the ground up. When some or most of those joints are restricted or “cast” in a “supportive” shoe, the foot becomes less adaptable, movement is out-sourced to the remaining accessible joints (often at the ball of the foot and the ankle) and the opportunity for overuse of those joints (and their accompanying muscles) rises. Meanwhile, the part of the foot that is “fully supported” becomes stiffened and weakened, as the foot adapts to the stiff shoe.
You may have heard this before. You may even realize that going barefoot has become increasingly uncomfortable since you’ve been wearing more supportive shoes. Which brings us to another fascinating foot concept I would like to explore with you.
Your toes should be the widest part of your feet. Have you ever really looked at a baby’s foot? That little foot, with its perfectly long and wide toes should actually be a miniature version of yours. One look at the shape of the shoes you wear will explain why it isn’t. Fashion has left us with a tapered toe (yes, even if it’s rounded or squared, it’s more tapered than your foot would be naturally.) Since most of us have worn shoes most days since we could walk, our toes have learned to squeeze together, and in some cases even curl a bit, until our feet no longer resemble those beautiful baby feet we were born with. Toes being crammed together and forced to curl in can eventually lead to the development of neuromas, bunions and even hammer toes when left unchecked.
So if the shoes you’ve always worn are damaging your feet, what are the characteristics of a good-for-you shoe? Regardless of brand, here are my 4 must-haves:
- Flexible. Be sure the shoe is flexible enough that you can twist it (“wring it out”) with your hands. (Why should it flex and twist)
- Wide. Your toes (not your ball) should be the widest part of your foot, so a shoe with a wide toe box is a must, so those toes can spread. Disclaimer: yes, they look a little like clown shoes at first, but we are going for function over form in this case.
- Flat. In the shoe industry, they are called “Zero-drop” [from heel to toe.] Most shoes are made with a positive heel (yes, even men’s shoes.) That shortens your calves and puts your weight on the balls of your feet, when your weight is most efficiently carried over the arches.
- Thin. Shoes were originally meant to protect us from cutting our feet on rocks and rough ground. We have gotten used to lots of padding, but we need only a little. Choose shoes with the minimal amount of padding you tolerate so you can feel the ground beneath your feet. This encourages efficient movement and improved balance because of the sensory input you can now gather from the surface you’re walking on. You’ll also tend to tread more softly in thinner shoes. Ironically, research shows that more padding in a shoe encourages a harder heel strike and footfall!
Where can you find shoes like this? Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as logging into Zappos and selecting “natural footwear” from the drop-down menu…yet. But here are some brands and sites to get you started. This is not an exhaustive list (by any means,) but these are shoes that many of our clients (and I) have really liked:
Xero Shoes: https://xeroshoes.com/ (These are made in the USA. I wear a pair of these at work daily, and my husband, daughter and I all have a pair of their trail sandals—we love them!)
Vivobarefoot: https://www.vivobarefoot.com/us/ (You can also find these on Zappos and Amazon. This is probably one of the biggest and most widely distributed natural footwear brands.)
Lems: https://www.lemsshoes.com/ (Also made in the USA. I have several clients who have a pair of these and love them!)
Altra: https://altrarunning.com/ ( you can find these on Zappos. These are great if you’re mostly bought into the natural footwear philosophy, but can’t quite give up the padding. Altras have all of the other ingredients, and are especially good if you walk or run on gravel or rocky terrain.)
A word of caution: although I do believe most of us would benefit from returning our feet to their natural capabilities, I also realize that transitioning to natural footwear is not the right option for everyone. There are medical conditions and special circumstances that require stiffer, more supportive shoes. If you need a little help, drop me a line I’d be happy to discuss your specific situation with you.