Let Feet Be Feet

Healthy feet are essential. When your feet hurt, you limit your activities and don't venture out as much. Little by little, your world gets smaller. Exercise options are severely curtailed, and ultimately your health may suffer.

One of the best things you can do for your feet is to go barefoot. And when you do wear shoes, make sure that they let your feet be feet.

Surprisingly, most shoes marketed as being good for your feet disrupt the way your feet are designed to function. Even -- and sometimes especially -- the expensive ones.

It goes without saying that feet have been around much longer than shoes. The oldest discovered footprints of tetrapods date back 400 million years, and of early hominids 3.5 million years. Shoes are a relatively recent invention; the oldest discovered sandals are estimated to have been used 10,000 years ago.

Human feet have evolved for bipedal motion, with flexible longitudinal arches that function as springs. Like all springs, they must flatten then rebound, propelling you up and forward.

Shoes with stability/motion/pronation control interfere with this natural process. Arch supports prevent your feet from functioning as shock absorbers while the rest of you, including your ankles, knees, hips and spine, take the brunt of the impact. In addition, the muscles in your feet atrophy because they are not being called into action.

So, is it too much to ask that shoes look like feet?

The Case for Minimalist Shoes

Minimalist shoes are the closest you can get to being barefoot. If they feel very different from what you've been wearing, switch back and forth between them and your previous shoes until you have fully transitioned. Here are the key features to look for:

  • Low (or No) Heels

Raised heels thrust your body forward, forcing you to compensate in order to stay upright. Thick, cushioned heels typical of running shoes distort your stride by promoting hard heel strikes. But your heels are not springs! Zero-drop shoes are of uniform thickness from heel to toe, encouraging you to land closer to the arches.

  • Wide Toe Boxes

Toes help us sense the ground, keep our balance and propel us forward. As each foot rolls forward, the transverse arch that spans the ball of the foot widens, and all your toes spread.

Any shoe that tapers at the tip is keeping your toes from going where toes need to go. If you really want to see how wide a toe box you need, stand on your tiptoes and ask a friend to trace around them. Then compare that to the insole of your current shoe. You'll likely discover that your current shoe is too narrow.

  • Flexible, Thinner Soles

Stiff soles lead to stiff, sore feet. The soles of your shoes should bend generously, especially at the balls of your feet so that you're not fighting your shoes as your walk.

Some people can tolerate paper-thin soles but many of us, especially as we age, need a bit more cushion. Go for the least you need to be comfortable. This is one good reason not to buy shoes online, but in-person. (Sole thickness, in minimalist lingo, is called stack.)

  • Lightweight

Walking in heavy shoes is to your nervous system akin to plodding through thick mud. Exercise, to be sure, but for your 10,000 daily steps or to win the race, go with feather-light shoes.

Where to Buy

Look for minimalist footwear. Some prominent minimalist brands are Vivo Barefoot, Lems, Altra, Vibram and Cloud. Some mainstream manufactures like New Balance and Merrell have a minimalist line, but they can be hard to find. I like Altra because I need a higher stack (cushion).

In Frederick, Trail House on S. Market carries a limited selection of Altras and Vibrams. Charm City Run on W. Patrick is rumored to carry Altra though I don't see them on their website.

My favorite is Two Rivers Treads, in Ranson, WV. It is owned by family physician, marathon runner, creator of the U.S. Air Force Efficient Running Program, and author of Run For Your Life, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella. Ranson is basically a suburb of Charlestown, and only 40 minutes from Frederick, MD. It's well worth the drive because you'll be able to try out many, many models. The salespeople are well-versed in minimalist footwear, and they'll properly fit you with appropriate shoes.