If you have ever had foot, toe or ankle problems then you understand.
Painful feet at the end of the day.
Limping while walking, especially after a night out in those killer heels
Considering, or wearing, special shoes or inserts that make you feel 80 years old.
No matter what your foot issue is, it's frustrating.
And it's not like they're not optional body parts- although I have been asked (pleaded) to refer someone for toe removal. No, there wasn't any trauma or severe birth defect. Just a lifetime of increasingly severe toe pain and deformity.
Are orthotics the only option?
Well, let me introduce you to an alternative that has many fervent supporters: the barefoot crowd.
The footwear and concept behind it also goes by "minimalist" or "primal"- though there shoes are pretty high-tech and there's nothing "caveman" about it.
I was first introduced to this concept during my medical school years by a Portland functional medicine Chiropractor Tim Irving DC, and have since continued to learn more, try it out for myself and now have recommended this footwear to countless patients who have seen the same positive results for themselves.
So what is minimalist footwear?
It is shoes that all have a few common characteristics.
First, the toes, ball of the foot and heel are all the same amount of distance from the ground. It's called "zero-drop," as in if your toes are 3mm from the ground, the ball of your foot and your heel will be as well.
That means no heels here, ladies.
Second, the soles tend to be very thin, just a few millimeters in thickness. To make up for that, the soles are very dense but flexible.
Third, and this is one of my personal favorite attributes, the "toe box" or part of the shoe that surrounds your toes is much wider than standard shoes. So just the last 1/3 of the shoe (by and around the toes) is wide.
A wide toe box isn't the same thing as wide shoes, which are also wide in the arch area and even heel area. In fact, minimalist shoes usually seek to hug the arch area and back, but are roomy in the toes.
And yes, if you're wondering, I love this feature because I have wide feet- and my toes hate being cramped. My mother says we can blame her German side for the wide feet. And that's ok by me.
Why? Why the weird shoe shape?
The creation of minimalist shoes stems from research and publications by Dr. William A. Rossi DPM, a podiatrist who encourages people to wear footwear that mimics natural, barefoot movements. He has published numerous articles in major podiatrist publications about the ill effects of arch support, cushioned soles and other commonly held beliefs about shoes and their components. (see the resources section at the end for future reading)
So who's into this?
From the pro-barefoot camps came barefoot running, either literally barefoot or with minimalist running shoes. That caused more demand in the production of barefoot running shoes, thus the majority of barefoot or minimalist shoes are athletic and geared towards runners.
So what can this minimalist footwear do for me?
(I am not a runner!)
There are a wide variety of foot, toe and ankle disorders that are caused by, or greatly worsened by our footwear. Traditional, stiff overly supported shoes lead to toe and foot joint diseases of many types. Some of the most commonly treated conditions by natural footwear supporters such as Dr. Ray McClanahan (Portland podiatrist) are: bunions, hammertoe, plantar faciitis, corns, calluses, sprained ankle, and even problems in other parts of the body such as knee, hip and low back pain.
Where can I find minimalist shoes?
There are a few locations in Portland such as at NW Foot & Ankle clinic, and footwear stores such as Pie Footwear and Fit Right NW- though you have to specifically ask for minimalist shoes at the stores. The greatest variety (just like anything) will be online, Amazon mainly.
Top brands for barefoot shoes are Vivobarefoot, Vibrams, Altra and Lems. If you want to try out this type of footwear, make sure you inspect the shoes for those features I listed above. Many other companies have jumped on this band wagon and offer their version of "minimalist shoes" such as the Adidias Adipure "minimalist" shoes that have a miserably squished toe box and cheap foam non "zero drop" sole. Because these phrases aren't trade marked, there's a lot of fakes out there.
Can I just start wearing minimalist shoes tomorrow?
(my friend tried those and said her feet hurt afterward)
Since this article just explaining minimalist shoes ended up being far longer than anticipated, the following article will be devoted to reviewing a few brand from personal experience, along with tips and tricks to wear minimalist shoes without suffering any transitional aches and pains. This will be particularly helpful for you who want to wear minimalist shoes in everyday life and those exercise activities besides running (because I am not a runner and there are countless barefoot running blogs, experts and clubs out there).
Thank you for reading, and as always please don't hesitate to ask me any questions.
'Til next time,
Dr. Rossi's articles
Dr. McClanahan's explanation of natural foot shape and his use of corrective toe braces, Correct Toes, in conjunction with minimalist shoes.
photo credits: http://minimalistrunningshoes.org/vivobarefoot-gobi