Feet have a significant number of nerve endings compared to other areas of the body. These sensory receptors provide the brain and body with all kinds of feedback so we’re able to move most efficiently. Knowing where our limbs and body are relative to the environment (proprioception), balance, posture and muscle activation are all impacted by the messages we get through our feet.
Thick-soled, rigid shoes garble up communication from the feet and turn the volume down so low that the body often can’t recognize the message. And shoes that “support” the arches of the feet actually contribute to weakness in the muscles of the feet and legs, further dampening the feedback from the ground that is essential for moving well.
All those muscles, nerves, joints and connective tissue in our feet are there for a reason – let’s make sure we use them!
I’m a big proponent of minimal, foot-shaped shoes that allow your forefoot and toes to spread naturally and have a thin enough sole to let you feel the texture of the ground. The options for shoes like this are growing – more companies are popping up as the awareness grows about the impact our feet have over human mobility and health.
Some of you have already been transitioning toward more natural shoes and noticing improvements in your mobility as well as having fewer aches and pains. And for those of you who are interested in making a change in footwear for better movement, I’ve outlined some steps to get you started:
- Start by taking a photo of your feet from above. You’ll be able to compare the photo to others with good forefoot width and toe splay plus you’ll have a starting reference when checking your own progress. Compare yours to mine – the photo on the left is my foot in its natural form and the photo on the right is with my toes taped to mimic the shape I see in a lot of other feet. Which does yours look like?
- If your toes are crunched together, get to work on making changes through self-treatment. Use your hands to mobilize those toes, gently creating space between them. Watch this video for tips.
- Look into wearable toe spreaders like Correct Toes. If you try these, wear them for only a few minutes at a time, several times a day so your toes and tissues of your feet can adapt gradually to a new position.
- And last but not least, get some foot shaped shoes. Here are my favorites right now from left to right in the photo below: sandals and ballet flats – Softstar Shoes; next 2 pairs – Vivobarefoot; running shoes – Altra.
Softstar and Vivobarefoot shoes also have very thin, barely-there soles for a close to barefoot connection with the ground. Altra has several shoe models with soles of varying thickness and cushion, but all of their shoes have a wide toe box and zero drop (ie. heel is level with the forefoot). This is certainly not an exhaustive list of natural shoe companies; these listed are just the ones I wear. There are several other companies out there that make natural-feet shaped shoes and sandals. I’ll be getting a pair of sandals for summer from Shamma Sandals and I’ll let you know what I think of them later.
To wrap up, find shoes that give your toes the freedom they need to move and function properly. After you’ve gained more mobility and toe-splay, it might be time to transition to thinner-soled shoes to further improve your foot and whole-body health. Slow, gradual changes will be most effective as tissues need time to adapt to new positions and build strength.
Get in touch if you’d like some specific guidelines about transitioning to minimal footwear.
What do you think of Topo footwear. Most are 3mm drop–is that still reasonable for foot health and function?
Hi Howard – thanks for your question. I just recently order a pair of Topo shoes for running, but haven’t tried them out yet so I can’t really comment on their shoes. But as far as a 3mm drop compared to a more traditional drop of 10-12mm, 3 is certainly closer to natural and would be good for a transition level. The width of the toe box and the thickness of the sole are also important factors when considering a shoe to improve the health and function of your feet. I know that Topo shoes also have a wide toe box so the toes can splay naturally – hope this helps. If you have some specific concerns, send me an email – I’d love to help out.
I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see the picture of your foot. It looks just like mine. I have struggled my entire life so find women’s shoes that are even remotely comfortable. If the toe box is wide enough, my heel slips out without a strap or laces. About a year ago I started having pain in the ball of my big toe. A foot specialist couldn’t recommend anything except cortisone, which did nothing. I finally thought if shoes constrict my feet uncomfortably, maybe spreading my toes would help. Using athletic tape, I held foam between my big and second toe. One overnight experiment and no more pain.
Do the shoes you recommend have much of an arch? That’s the other unique characteristic of my feet, high arch.
Best regards, Patty
Thank you for reading this post. Good to hear you discovered how to alleviate the pain caused by your constrictive shoes. Most minimal and natural foot shaped shoes do not have arch support so the foot can function optimally. Having a high arch (or a low arch) is not necessarily problematic, it’s how your foot functions and adapts to surfaces while you’re walking that matters. The many bones and joints of the foot are meant to move and they create a unique system of mobility and stability during walking. Locking the foot into stability with an arch support may lead to problems in a healthy foot because the joints are not able to go through their intended range of motion. Hope this helps!