For most of us wearing shoes is as normal as it could be. We’re not even questioning it. Nor giving it a thought. We’re caging our feet in shoes for purposes, other than avoiding injuries, like scratching on rough ground, or not getting dirty feet (at least we’re not thinking about it that way). We’re choosing our shoes to be a fashionable accessory. Like the silk scarf on a hot summer day.

It’s appearance that governs modern shoe industry and trends. Conventional shoes are not always comfortable, but light years away from healthy. And I’m not talking about the feet killing wedding party high-heel shoes only. It’s your sneakers or running shoes, or even your sandals. Most shoes you’ll find on the shelves today boast ergonomic design, cushioning for a softer landing and toe spring to create rocker effect, or thicker soles to protect your feet from hitting on rocks. On the other hand, barefoot shoes or minimalist shoes are trying to get us back to our origins. Which way to go?

Are Your Feet Created So Imperfect That They Need to Be Corrected Through Shoe Design?

Our feet are perfectThe sole of your foot is like a sensitive antenna with over 200,000 nerve endings in it! Part of a neuromechanical-feedback mechanism, they safely guide us through the paths we’re walking, telling the brain about the characteristics of the surface, the position of the foot relative to the ground, helping us balance and remain stable. But we’re losing ground…wearing shoes that isolate our feet from direct communication with the earth beneath. (1) Is that so bad?

A study conducted by Researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, examined 180 modern humans from three different population groups (Sotho, Zulu, and European). The study compared their feet to one another’s, as well as to the feet of 2,000-year-old skeletons. The conclusion states that prior to the invention of shoes, people had healthier feet. In fact, populations, which often go barefoot (like the Zulu population), had the healthiest feet. The Europeans, on the other hand, that tend to be addicted 🙂 shoe-wearers seem to have the most foot related conditions. One of the lead researchers, Dr. B. Zipfel, commented that the American Podiatric Medical Association does not “actively encourage outdoor barefoot walking for healthy individuals. This flies in the face of the increasing scientific evidence, including our study, that most of the commercially available footwear is not good for the feet.”

Types of Foot

There are 3 main foot types – xs pronated, neutral and xs supinated. If you look hard enough you can find those 3 shoe types. Then, you have 3-4 midfoot designs – straight, sl off to the left, wider and another which I can not remember off the top of my head :). Then you have deeper and shallower toe boxes within those designs and types.

Types of Foot
Photo credit: Pointeperfect.com

Modern Shoe Design Features That Might Hurt Your Feet

A recent experiment shows that wearing shoes not only restricted the natural motion of the barefoot but also create a specific foot motion pattern during the push-off phase.

Take a random shoe of yours. Place it on a table and take a look at the toe tip. Is it in the air, slightly bending upward? Most probably – yes. This is known as “toe spring”. It is a design feature created with the sole purpose of imposing a subtle rocker effect. It allows your foot to roll into the next step because wearing shoes actually constrains the natural push-off. If you walk barefoot, your toes curl slightly to grip the earth and create the balance and stability to let you go on to the next step.

How about padding? It might sound weird to read, but wrapping up your feet in cushions to save you from the rough ground…is definitely no good for you either. A study claims that people in expensive cushioned running shoes were twice as likely to suffer an injury – 31.9 injuries per 1,000 kilometers, as compared with 14.3 – than people who went running in hard-soled shoes. Cushioned shoes encourage you to land on the heel of the foot when walking or running, as the shoe absorbs the impact. This alters the natural step and posture.

Setting aside high heels that have never ever been comfortable, no matter what a woman tells you (well, there might be some exceptions, anyway), elevated heel is a feature that most modern shoes come with. Even athletic and runners shoes. Elevating your heel above forefoot level, however, could cause unnecessary stretching of your foot structures, position your foot downward, creating pressure to the front (especially the ball) of your foot. This could affect your posterior lower leg muscles or the muscles at the back of your lower leg.

And if we’re talking about high heels, if choosing the gazelle-like stroll and elegant silhouette over the comfort too often and for a long time, your tendons shorten. The result is it’s only comfortable for you to wear high heels. And heels can increase knee load.(2)

Tapering toe boxes
Tapering toe boxes on the left compared to a barefoot shoes on the right. Photo Credit: http://brucetholmes.com

Tapering toe boxes are simply trendy. Incorporating them into a shoe design has nothing to do with comfort. It’s totally disrupting the natural posture of your toes, sticking them close to one another..or one over the other. I can recall moments in the shoe store, me looking at a shoe (visually more than appealing), and trying to figure it out how could I even stuff my toes in there. Who, on earth, could ever do?! Well, not that I didn’t try, anyway. And not that I didn’t suffer through a wedding in a pair of these.

The problem is most conventional footwear features narrowing toe tips. And it’s just because a shoe design which is wider at the ends of your toes than the ball of your foot looks like…oh, surprise!…like your foot. And shoes are made to look better and conceal the natural form?!! It doesn’t make sense to me. But it should make sense to most people since it’s so hard to find a shoe that imitates the shape of your foot, not the other way around.

Some of the possible problems that could result from this nice looking footwear include athlete’s foot, blisters, bunionettes, bunions, corns and calluses, crooked toes, fungal toenails, hammertoes, ingrown toenails, lower extremity tendon imbalances, neuromas, plantar fasciosis, runner’s knee, sesamoiditis, and shin splints.

Soles that are rigid and lack flexibility provide protection. That’s great. But they are unnatural. This protection goes beyond what’s enough. Shoes with rigid soles go against your foot preventing it from bending the right way to perform its main function – help you move, walk, run. A thin layer of material between your foot and the ground is required for adequate foot protection. Rigid soles immobilize your feet and make you lose the tactile sensation of the ground.(3)

Walk this Way (Not That Way) – Barefoot Walking

The barefoot walking movement is getting more and more supporters and followers nowadays. It teaches human feet were designed for walking barefoot. And most of it makes sense.

As mentioned above, our feet help us keep the connection with the environment, providing useful feedback to our brain and helping us better adapt and balance. Most shoes constrain the motion in the joints your feet experience, weaken your muscles, and reduce the quality of the tactile information that your feet transmit to your brain. As a result, our muscles over- or under-react to brain’s commands, like, for example, making you put too much weight and pressure on your heels when landing. (4) Compare two types of walking – shod and barefoot – on the graphics below.

walking the right way
Photo Credit: http://nymag.com

Released from their shoe prison, your feet walk in a smaller strides, naturally landing mid-foot or on the ball of your front foot. This way of walking doesn’t come right away since you’ve been walking in shoes your whole life. So you need to learn how to do it again (again, because you knew how to do it when you were a kid).

When you start feeling and properly using the tiny muscles and the senses on your feet, you start using your whole body more effectively, warding off future injuries.

As a bonus to avoiding all the potential deformations most types of shoes could cause, direct contact with the ground beneath our feet – ”walking barefoot outside or sitting, working, or sleeping indoors connected to conductive systems that transfer the Earth’s electrons from the ground into the body”, is linked to benefits, including better sleep and reduced pain. (5)

Barefoot is not for everyone. Most people associate it with dirt, cuts from broken glass or other sharp pieces, bacteria or viruses that might spread on the ground. Most of those risks are pretty much exaggerated, still, I admit I don’t tend to ignore them, either.

What To Look For?

For those who aren’t comfortable with being completely barefoot, the chance is you look for shoes with a design to work with the foot, not against it. Like minimalist and barefoot shoes. They are also great for use in places where going barefoot is not the typical or normal state of affairs.

Barefoot shoes provide minimal protection, still enough to keep the foot safe (from sharp rocks, for example), as well as basic protection for your feet not to get dirty. They follow the natural shape and biomechanics of human feet, allowing them to properly perform their function. No interference.

Most Shoes Aren’t Meant for Walking, But These Barefoot Shoes Are

VIVO Barefoot Shoes

VivoBarefootWhat makes VivoBarefoot stand out is…their shoes are really close to giving you the barefoot feeling while walking in the city. Without being barefoot. And what I love about them is they design shoes for different lifestyles, including barefoot dress shoes. Yes, you’ve read that right – barefoot dress shoes. They really don’t sacrifice appearance while trying to design a real barefoot shoe. And that deserves admiration, indeed.

No heel elevation, no tapered toe boxes, no arch support. A pretty natural feeling is what you get. If you’ve been wrapping your feet in cushions and all kinds of supportive innovations your whole life…like most of us…you might feel a bit uncomfortable in the beginning. That’s probably because you are still making wide strides and hard hitting your heels. You will learn how to do it with more practice, and then, you’ll probably never leave your VivoBarefoot at home.

Once you get to know each other (you and your new pair of VivoBarefoot), you might experience better balance. You might feel more mindful while walking, more in control and aware of your body and what it tells you.

Oh, and they’ve got a great kid’s barefoot shoe collection, too!

Earth Runners

Earth runnersIf there’s a shoe to materialize the term “minimal”, this is it! These minimalist sandals consist of a thin sole (between 8 and 12 mm) and a strap. There are several lines to match your lifestyle and activity model. If you are new to barefoot walking or minimalist shoes and just giving it a try, the thickest sole model Alpha might be just the right choice for you.

All models fit so well to the foot, due to the sophisticated adjustment mechanism that makes the strap wrap the ankle and hold the sole to your foot.

You can’t find them all around, in every shoe store. However, the risks of ordering online have been minimized by developing a sizing system allowing you to find the best match, quick and easy. There are size templates on the website that you could print, making the process hassle-free and less risky. No one likes the feeling of looking forward to the delivery of a long craved item, only to find it’s not the right size.

Some of the advantages of Earth Runners that I find worth mentioning include:

  • “zero drop” construction (the heel is at the same level at the forefoot)
  • no arch support (you won’t need it for healthy foot)
  • getting them tied is relatively simple
  • good traction on all kinds of surfaces
  • you don’t lose ground – you can feel it with your feet quite good
  • the straps are soft and the hemp footbed feels quite comfortable, too
  • high durability

I really like their choice of footbed material – hemp! It’s just genius – natural, they don’t even dye it, excellent friction and kind of gives you a soft earthy feeling.

Earth Runners allow your toe joints to move independently, gripping and adapting to the earth. Your toes can breathe, thus, your balance improves.

And they go even further, the manufacturer claims that the conductive laces™ in the strap allow you to absorb the electrical energies of the earth through the grounded circuitry of the lace. The grounded copper plug serves the same purpose – to welcome the flow of vital bio input from the earth.

It is worth noting that Earth Runners are handmade from a small US company. So there is special positive energy, enthusiasm, and experience woven in a pair of sandals. The company defends its reputation keeping quality high, providing excellent customer service and maintaining ethical production model.

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