What are ‘Healthy’ Shoes
What I’m calling ‘healthy’ shoes are known as ‘minimalist’ or ‘barefoot’ shoes, because they put the feet as close as possible to how they move when barefoot.
In other words, ‘healthy shoes’ are ones which allow your feet to move like feet! For the toes to be spread wide, the muscles of the arches to be engaging and working as a spring (load absorber and force generator), and for the ankles to dorsiflex and have good range of motion to help you adapt to any surface.
Gait, or the natural human walking pattern, is a complex three-dimensional dynamic movement which puts your feet through a whole range of connecting positions. Wide toes, strong arches and mobile-enough ankles are imperative for that natural movement to happen. When these three things are restricted, as when wearing typical shoes including trainers, crocs, flipflops, flat sandals, slippers, there will be a knock on negative effect in the knees, hips, pelvic floor, and how the body coordinates in walking and all other movement, which can be a big factor in long term poor movement habits. If you want to move well and easefully, your foot health REALLY matters.
We have come to think of modern style shoes as normal, but they are incontrovertibly damaging to our feet. By acclimatising to modern shoes from childhood, generally to some degree, our feet become weaker, narrower, stiffer and less responsive to the ground. This is why in the movement world shoes get nicknamed foot coffins!
Foot problems like bunions are often considered hereditary, but before you resign yourself, take a look at what some of the leaders in this field have to say. There is a lot of evidence and clinical experience which agrees that painful feet issues come from feet becoming shaped like shoes instead of feet which move like feet.
Happily, there is now a whole shoe industry of natural foot movement healthy shoes for all kinds of activities and weather. It’s perfectly possible to find loads of choice in trainers, smart work shoes, winter boots, summer sandals, which enable your feet to move naturally. Links below!
Healthy shoes have five key features:
- A wider toe box (rather than the toe part of the shoe being tapered.)
- Flat toebox (rather than raised toes – many trainers/shoes lift the toes up which is a prime cause of hammertoes or curled toes apparently).
- Zero drop heel i.e. your heel is close to the ground rather than raised (even trainer heels are raised; as a result your ankles can’t bend (dorsiflex) properly.
- A flexible and thinner sole – so your feet move in all the ways they do naturally and can sense and respond to the ground.
- A firm attachment of your forefoot and ankle to the shoe, (so not flipflops).
In summary, healthy shoes have a wide flat forefoot/ toe area, a completely flat heel and a bendy flexible sole so that your foot moves more.
Three Steps for Transitioning to better footwear
So once you understand the far-reaching benefits for your whole body movement, and what you are looking for in a healthy shoe, the next step is how to transition your feet which have been used to typical shoes for decades, to healthy shoes. You are asking your feet to reshape to some degree, right down to the position of the bones, and the muscles and other tissues to reshape and to work harder and in different ways.
So there is a balance to be struck between switching to healthy shoes to provide the conditions for your feet to move well and training your feet to have better movement capacity. The shoes can’t do it all for you, your feet may be over-challenged and uncomfortable dealing with too much too fast – more pressure from the ground, foot arch muscles needing to contract more for example. So you have to incrementally build time in healthy shoes while also doing regular exercises. It’s vital to train your feet into moving well.
When you’re talking of changing body tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments, connective tissue) and bone position, wise yogis know this of course is a long term, gradual process via consistent exercises. While change starts to happen really quickly with the right inputs, the transformation can continue for years, depending on the condition of your feet to start with.
The good news is this requires simple, easy to learn exercises, ones we do regularly in my classes, easy to build a few minutes into your day. Using tools like toe spreaders can also help.
So my advice for a smooth transition to healthier feet and minimalist shoes is as follows:
Step 1 ) Get to know your own feet
What is going on with them? Do you have bunions? Bunionettes? (this was a discovery for me!) Or flat arches, bent, crossed or squashed toes, stiff ankles, overmobile ankles, calluses in certain areas? Do you ever feel foot pain or discomfort and if so specifically where? Do you know which exercise will best help you? What’s going on with your knees, hips, pelvic floor and low back?
This exemplifies such an important part of a yoga practice I think, which is taking responsibility for your own body. To be in charge of how you want to engage with yourself. Of all physical changes, I notice a common tendency to want to ignore the feet in particular….(Is this a British, cold, damp country thing?) so the feet are a great metaphor for all that we do in yoga self enquiry.
Yoga /movement practice helps improve our sensory awareness of our feet and ankles. What we can feel better we can move better (thank you @JennPilotti for that one). Waggling our toe joints and rolling and pressing your foot into a ball or other non flat surfaces gets tissues moving in new ways, yes, but they also start to send more afferent feedback to the brain, to help our brain ‘map’ the feet better.
Step 2) Commit to regular foot and ankle exercises, maybe add some other tools like toe spreaders.
Here is a combined practice to put some exercise together for a daily foot practice.
Reminder: pushing into real discomfort with these exercises isn’t necessary or that beneficial. You want your body to register safety with new movements. If your feet feel really tender, just make it manageable and see how it feels easier over time.
Here is a recommendation for toe spreaders and toe socks.
There is a range of prices for toe spreaders. I do use these Correct Toes toe separators the most expensive ones, as they seem the most versatile and effective to me, designed by a specialist. (I have no affiliation with them) You could think of these as a one time investment, with low cost per use, or try some much cheaper options like here.
Remember shaking hands with your feet is free and effective! Toe waggling, also no cost.
Step 3) Adapt your feet to new healthy walking patterns.
This means changing to healthy footwear. Take your time with choosing your first barefoot shoes. These reviews can give you an idea of what’s available. Trainers to go for walks in are often a good first choice in the UK climate.
Think of gradual step changes with your shoes, you can find shoes with just some barefoot features rather than straight to minimalist shoes with those 5 features. For example, if you wear heels a lot, you could go for some flatter and wider hoes, trainers with some arch support and heel lift but a wide toe box, but not necessarily completely minimalist.
It’s not a good idea to just buy a pair of totally minimalist shoes and go for an hour’s walk. There could well be some strain somewhere in the lower body chain as the muscular teamwork has to find new patterns of coordination. If you feel discomfort or pain, remember there is nothing ‘wrong’ with your barefoot shoes or your feet. Your tissues need time to adapt to their new requirements. Just as you wouldn’t expect to do another physical challenge like run a marathon or triathlon without training, it’s the same with the feet.
Best practice would be to start with adding short periods of walking in healthier shoes. This could be 10 minutes a day paying close attention to how that feels – noticing your feet, knees, hips etc. Let daily walking be a mindful practice, so that discomfort doesn’t seem to appear out of the blue.
There are many good blogs already on transitioning to barefoot, if you’d like to read further
The barefoot naysayers!
You might hear some mixed reviews and outright ‘warnings’ about minimalist footwear. First of all let’s make a distinction between running and minimalist footwear for everyday life and walking. problems come up when people (often runners) do not acclimatise their feet enough, nor do enough exercises to strengthen, mobilise and realign their feet, so minimal footwear gets a bad rap. As we have already established, the transition needs to be super gradual and might take years before you go for longer walks or run in barefoot shoes. It depends on the condition of your feet to start with, but if your feet are toe-squashed, narrow and weak, that happened over years, so putting on minimalist shoes and heading off on your usual run or doing high impact exercise could cause problems. Running puts around 15 times your body weight load on your feet, significantly more than in walking, so it’s in another league for the foot prep required.
If you’re doing regular foot exercises, going to your weekly yoga class, using some kind of toe spreader if necessary, daily walking in one pair of minimalist shoes will be a really effective and important part of your goals for feet which move well, improving your balance, easeful hip movement, a responsive pelvic floor, and comfortable lower back! You can’t ignore the crucial impact of what you wear on your feet. You just need to go slowly and gradually, adjusting along the way. Sometimes your feet might grumble and you need to backtrack a bit. Give yourself all the time you need. Enjoy watching the changes, and know you’re on the right track!
My Barefoot Adventure
You might wonder, when did I become a barefoot shoe expert as well as a yoga teacher?? Well, I’ve sought some expert guidance and I’ve got some personal experience behind me, so this is what I’m sharing with you.
I transitioned from pretty good shoes to properly minimalist shoes about four years ago. Since then I’ve learnt alot about why this can be so helpful for our overall movement and health. As a yoga practitioner, all the physical movement I enjoy is based on the understanding of interconnection. It’s a no-brainer to me that just as we spend time cultivating healthy spine movement, or doing whole body coordinating yoga poses, then having feet which can move and support us optimally is an important element of moving well in an integrated way. I feel the benefits of foot work in all movements.
Also living right on the South Downs, like many of my students, I love walking and running, pretty much daily. I work on my own strengths and weaknesses in movement patterns and feet so that I can keep enjoying exploring and being outdoors until a ripe ol ‘ age.
My transitioning to barefoot is still ongoing. This year I’m focusing on running. I can wear minimalist shoes all the time in my daily life and walking really comfortably, but running is an ongoing experiment! I have had issues from my own long term imbalances, with my ankle swelling up, calf seizing up, and with one new pair of shoes recently, knee pain. With each issue I have adjusted my training (trial and error!) to help, including doing weights and knee strengthening exercises.
I’ve sought out experts in movement and gait, to help me navigate all the information available and to have my questions answered. Then I pass on what I have learnt to you! I’ve linked to some of the best and most straightforward info resources which I think might be helpful.
Please do let me know what you find useful in this whole discussion on healthy feet and healthy footwear, or if you have any questions or experience to share. I think it’s helpful when you’re starting out on this journey to hear about other people’s experiences.
Try these guides for getting started with choosing minimalist shoes:
If you really want to learn more about making the footwear transition, this book, Whole Body Barefoot is a great guide.
Katy Bowman’s website has many resources too. She also wrote Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief
Natural Footwear offer free guides on all kinds of foot issues including bunions, hammertoes, neuromas, plantar fasciosis, runners knee, on using correct toes toe spreaders, etc.
Feet folk to follow on Instagram:
@nutritiousmovement (good for families/kids)