Turns out that just like many other aspects of life that we take for granted (like mobile phones, fast food, and bottled water), our shoes can often do more harm than good.
More and more research is emerging about the problems associated with long-term use of positive heel and overly supportive shoes. As we spend (or should spend) at least half of our day on our feet, our footwear options can affect us more than we realize!
The Problem With (Most) Shoes
Statistically, most of us wear cushioned, supportive shoes with a positive heel (meaning the heel is higher than the toe of the shoe). Typically, the dressier the shoe, the more noticeable the positive heel (especially for women) and the more “athletic” the shoe, the more cushioned.
Heels and supportive running shoes are the norm, but it appears that they may cause more harm that good!
“Cushioned running shoes, which date back only to the 1970s, may seem comfortable but may actually contribute to foot injuries, say Daniel Lieberman, PhD, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and colleagues.”
Supportive and cushioned shoes encourage the wearer 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 (watch babies who have just learned how to walk to see the difference!) and creates a different walking pattern.
“Lieberman and colleagues analyzed the running styles, or gaits, of five groups of people — U.S. adult athletes who had always worn shoes, Kenyan adult runners who grew up barefoot but now wear cushioned running shoes, U.S. adult runners who grew up wearing shoes but now run barefoot or with minimal footwear, Kenyan adolescents who have never worn shoes, and Kenyan adolescents who have worn shoes for most of their lives.
And they say they found a striking pattern.
Most shoed runners, which would encompass 75% or more of Americans, strike their heels when they run, experiencing a large and sudden collision force an average of 960 times for every mile they run, “making runners prone to repetitive stress injuries,” the authors write.”
As nothing in the body exists in isolation, altering a person’s walking pattern will have an impact on joints above the foot (mainly knee and hip) as well.
Even things like arch supports, which seem like a good idea, can actually cause the problem they are meant to fix by over-supporting the arch and causing the muscles in the foot to get weaker from lack of use.
Another problem with most shoes is that they block us from direct contact with the earth, which has many positive benefits of its own, including reduced inflammation.
So, if our feet aren’t meant to be confined to cushy rubber soles all day but social norms frown on walking barefoot in most places, what are the alternatives?
The Benefits of Barefoot (or Almost Barefoot)
While I personally prefer to be barefoot (cue the barefoot and pregnant jokes), this isn’t always feasible. Fortunately, modern technology and age old wisdom have collided to create some great solutions. So what are the benefits of being barefoot? Glad you asked….
- Going barefoot or wearing shoes that allow barefoot movement actually strengthen the muscles of the feet and legs by requiring balance and stabilizing movement. This also reduces injury risk if done regularly and carefully. (source)
- Mounting evidence is showing that many ankle and knee problems may be linked to the artificial way of walking created by overly-supportive shoes and that simply changing to more natural footwear options can help alleviate these problems.(source)
- Going barefoot (or in barefoot shoes) can actually strengthen the arches by requiring the muscles of the foot to hold up the arch instead of providing support that causes the muscles to atrophy.
- Going barefoot (or in barefoot shoes) leads to a more natural walk including a mid-foot strike rather than the heel-strike often seen with cushioned shoes. (source)
- Removing the heel lift of most shoes helps the Achilles tendon and calf muscle stretch and lengthen and may reduce injuries, such as calf pulls or Achillies tendinitis caused by short, tight tissues.(source)
Surprisingly, it appears that the natural walk that occurs without shoes actually has physiological effects on the body beyond just the motion of the legs and feet: “A recent article in 2011 in the International Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that when you run barefoot there is a 5.7% lower oxygen cost on the body and “ that at 70% of VO2 max pace barefoot running is more economical than running shod (with shoes)… and there is a more than a 10% increase step rate.” (Carey Rothchild, National Strength and Cond Association Journal volume 34).”
Spending time barefoot outside has additional benefits thanks to the direct contact with the earth:
“Our bodies are made up of about 60 percent water, which is great for conducting electricity. The earth has a negative ionic charge. Going barefoot grounds our bodies to that charge. Negative Ions have been proven to detoxify, calm, reduce inflammation, synchronize your internal clocks, hormonal cycles and physiological rhythms. The best places to get some negative ions through your feet are by the water. Everyone knows how good it feels to be barefoot on the beach – now we know why!”
[Read more about the benefits of earthing/grounding here, including how to get these benefits while sleeping!]
Best Barefoot Alternatives
While in an ideal world, we would all have the chance to walk around barefoot in perfectly soft green grass every day, this certainly isn’t always the case (though if you can- go for it!).
For those of us used to wearing cushioned, protective and heeled shoes, switching to barefoot and barefoot alternatives requires a careful adjustment period to make sure that the muscles of the feet and legs have time to adjust.
I certainly don’t recommend jumping in to barefoot running (or running in barefoot shoes) without working up to it by barefoot walking and correcting any form problems (like heel strike). Why not? Personal experience… I was so excited when I got my first pair of five fingers that I decided to go sprinting… on cement… A week of sore ankles later, and I don’t recommend jumping in cold turkey!
Thankfully, there are some great barefoot and minimalist shoe options available, and even some that allow grounding/earthing! Below are a few of my favorites that I’ve tried personally. They are in order from most supportive/least barefoot to the most natural/barefoot. I’ve tried to also include options that are feasible for different occasions as even though I love five fingers, they certainly aren’t the best for Church, or business dinners, etc.
New Balance Minimus are the most “normal” of the minimalist shoes I’ve tried. They look like a regular running shoe but offer minimal cushion and support and don’t have a positive heel so that the wearer gets the effects of being barefoot. They are incredibly comfortable and unlike toe separating versions, don’t take much adjustment.
Pros: Looks more normal. Incredibly comfortable. Lots of color options. Available for all ages. Protects feet from sharp objects on ground
Cons: No toe separation. Blocks feet from direct contact (grounding) with the earth. Not wearable in all situations.
Verdict: Pretty good in general and great for beginners just switching to barefoot or those wanting to get the benefits without all the weird looks.
Vibram Five Fingers are still probably my favorite barefoot shoe, especially the komodo sport version. Yes, they look a little strange and aren’t optimal for every situation, but they offer toe separation and foot protection. I personally don’t mind the weird looks and “why are you wearing toe socks” comments, and use them as an opportunity to explain the benefits of being barefoot, but they aren’t for everyone. They also don’t go very well with skirts or dress clothes (though my hubby has black ones that he has worn to several formal events…).
Pros: Toe separation, Very comfortable. Lots of options. Protects feet. No artificial support or cushioning.
Cons: Look “weird.” Block feet from direct contact with earth. Not optimal for all situations. Can be difficult to get toes in at first.
Verdict: Pretty good. One of my favorites, but not for everyone.
Though not specifically designed as a minimalist shoe, Toms are actually a decent option for those wanting a “normal” looking shoe that doesn’t offer too much cushion or have a positive heel. They are also incredibly comfortable, and apparently pretty popular right now. I like that they also donate shoes to those in need around the world. Toms certainly aren’t the best option, but for someone looking for a good compromise they offer some of the benefits without being too weird.
Pros: No positive heel. Minimal arch support. Protect the feet. Lots of options.
Cons: Not for working out. Block feet from direct contact with the earth. Do have some cushioning and won’t necessarily help correct a heel strike.
Verdict. Ok, but not great.
Juil Earthing Shoes
I must admit… I absolutely love flip flops. They have been my go-to shoe for years, and in warmer months, they are often all I wear. That being said, they do require un-natural foot movement to keep them on your feet, so from a barefoot/minimal perspective, they aren’t ideal. I did finally find a brand that is moderately supportive but doesn’t have a positive heel and it has a huge added benefit: it builds in the benefits of earthing/grounding by using copper conductive inserts in the soles.
I would never give up flip flops, so Juil flip flops are a good compromise for me. Even better, they now come in dressier options like patent leather, gold and copper, so they can be worn with sun-dresses and fancier outfits, or with jeans and shorts.
Unlike the other shoes I’ve listed so far, these also allow electric contact with the earth, so they are especially good for times when I’ll be outside and standing on the ground. Juil also offers closed toe clog versions which are the only earthing/grounding shoes I’ve seen that are suitable for cold months.
Pros: Allow direct contact with the earth. Minimally cushioned and minimal heel. Much more versatile.
Cons: Not a strictly “barefoot” shoe and does require gripping.
Verdict: Good. A great option for flip flop lovers and has the added bonus of the grounding.
I recently got a chance to try a minimalist/grounding shoe that is truly the best of both worlds for those who are serious about foot health. Earth Runners combine minimalist design with grounding for a shoe that reminds me of what might have been worn long ago. These shoes are actually made by hand according to your foot trace to get a perfect fit and have a non-cushioned minimal sole and added copper grounding elements.
These certainly aren’t for everyone, but I definitely see them being one of my favorites this summer. Since they are designed specifically to my foot, they are incredibly comfortable and I actually love the look of them (they remind me of a greek sandal, especially since mine lace up…)
Pros: Minimalist. No positive heel. No cushion or arch. Grounding/earthing benefits included.
Cons: Style may not be for everyone and won’t be optimal for every opportunity.
Verdict: Great for both grounding and barefoot walking. I’m planning to try running in them as soon as it warms up a little and as soon as I’m not super-pregnant!
Have you tried any of these shoes? What are your favorite shoes and why? On board with the barefoot trend?