Since there are so few Restorative Exercise Specialists in the world, and we’re spread out all over North America, Europe and Australia, we communicate primarily through Facebook. Although many of our discussions are about super nerdy technical stuff, the most popular topic, and the one that comes up again and again on the board, is definitely shoes. Shoes, shoes and more shoes.
We swap tips, experiences, information on sales, and any new brands that we’ve scoped out – because picking minimal footwear is much tougher than you’d expect, and gets expensive fast. It’s also a big decision from a health point of view, because what you wear on your feet makes a huge difference in your ability to get them happier and healthier. So we come back to it again and again, every season, and I thought I’d post this week in the hopes of helping you make your own better footwear choices.
If you want to move naturally, you need feet that are able to move naturally too. That means foot coverings that interfere as little as possible with the way your feet work (this applies to everyone – even people with flat feet or who wear orthotics – these are muscle-related issues and can be addressed with exercise and a very careful and gradual transition to minimal shoes. I’ll be talking flat feet in more detail in an upcoming post).
Here’s what to look for:
1. How much is the heel raised above the toes? Any amount of heel raise will mess up your entire body’s alignment. Can you say lower back pain? Pelvic floor issues? meh. Zero-drop is the term for the most nature-friendly choice.
2. How stiff are the soles? Inflexible soles prevent the foot from articulating as you walk over bumps in the ground, which means the small foot muscles atrophy and the joints stiffen.
3. How wide is the toe box? Almost all North American shoes aren’t actually shaped like feet – your toes are supposed to be wider than the ball of your foot. Squished toes are a big cause of bunions and nerve issues. Also if you have enough toe box, you can wear toe spacers all day – super bonus.
4. How well attached is the shoe? If it’s not stuck to you properly (aka flip-flops, slides and the like), your toe muscles are working double time to grip the shoe. Although that sounds potentially like a good thing, as we obviously want muscle use, it’s not the type of muscle use that will translate to a better health outcome. So get a shoe that attaches by itself, no toe gripping required.
5. It’s best to avoid toe spring as well. This is a strange addition to shoes by people who seem to have thought that toes like to fly in the air. It is a main cause of hammertoes.
So the ideal footwear is the shoe that interferes least with the foot’s natural mechanics – the same shape as your foot, flexible, no changes in height at the toe or the heel, and is solidly attached. But, and it’s a big but, your feet have probably spent so long in regular shoes that a quick transfer to minimal footwear is going to cause more harm than good. That means two things –
1. You need to train your feet with exercises and stretches so they’re more able to move the way they were meant to.
Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it, you need to prepare your feet for a transition to minimal shoes. How? I’ll be blogging and facebooking exercises through April and May (you can start by unsquishing your toes). You can check out Katy Bowman’s awesome new book, Whole Body Barefoot. And you can stay tuned to my News and Events page as I’ll be doing a foot workshop this summer.
2. You’ll need to plan for a slow footwear transition, gradually moving towards a lower profile shoe.
This is a bit tricky, but a good rule of thumb is to look at how your current shoes fall on the chart in this classic KB post. Pick a pair of shoes that change the variables a bit, but not all the way (so instead of a one inch heel, pick a half inch heel), and let your feet adapt to that shoe for several months before your next shoe purchase. If you find that your body hurts (could be feet, but could also be back, knees, hips, etc.) and you think it’s the result of the shoes, back off – go back to your earlier shoe choice, or wear the new shoes for shorter periods. I’ve found that the thickness/flex of the soles and the amount of heel drop are the two factors that are most likely to cause pain – you can probably transition right away to a wide toe box and a shoe with good foot attachment. Go slow, be kind to yourself, & do lots of exercises.
What about actually picking shoes? There are great lists of shoes on Katy Says, for summer and for winter. But I thought I’d save you some time by highlighting some of the ones I know the most about – that I’ve worn, or that my fellow RES teachers love the most. And here’s my best tip – make sure you check the return policies. It’s hard to figure out shoe fit online, and I’ve wasted a lot of money by not being careful enough. Ask me about this sometime if you want to see me actually cry.
Good for transitions
Altra – these have lovely big toe boxes and zero drop. But they have lots of cushioning and a toe spring so they aren’t super minimal – which means they’re a great transitional option.
Lems – these have flexible soles but still some padding – I like mine a lot. And you can wear CorrectToes in them, which is amazing. Toe spring in most models though not all.
Kalso Earth Shoes – these shoes actually have negative heels, which can be a help in getting longer calves. But still lots of structure around the sole. Probably better if you’re already used to wearing flat shoes.
Converse – Flexible soles and no drop, people. The super easiest choice if you want to pick up something fast and cheap. Very narrow though and no squishy padding, so better for a stronger, healthier foot.
Camper – If you focus on their flats, these have lots of options, especially for transitioning. A bit narrow, a bit too stiff, a bit of heel rise, but they’re cute, and especially good for the office.
*A note on transitions* Your shoe doesn’t have to be officially minimal to be a transitional shoe. If you’re coming from a lifetime wearing heels or extremely supportive shoes (because orthopaedic shoes are all about bracing, they typically are exactly what you don’t want to wear if you’re trying to regain foot health), then just pick a pair of similar shoes with lower heels to start with.
Otz – I love so many of these shoes! Not cheap but sooooo cute. Note – they only qualify as zero drop if you take the footbed out, and so their sandals are out.
Vivobarefoot – lots of styles, some of which I think are pretty attractive. I find them a bit narrower in the toe box than I would like, so probably better for narrow feet.
The Drifter Leather – super customized – made to fit your exact feet, and lots of cute options. One thing to watch for is that they like to put a little heel riser into the shoe – make sure to ask them to skip it.
Volcom – one of my clients got great summer sandals from Volcom last year. Not all their models are minimal though so pick with care.
Linge – Super pretty, wide toe boxes and no drop, and they come in large sizes. My clients have reported that attractive minimal shoes in larger sizes are extra hard to find so this is basically gold.
Good for the office
Vivobarefoot Lisbon – for the boys! It is so hard to find nice shoes for the healthy executive – most minimal mens styles are really clunky. These are not clunky, they are gorgeous. The Drifter Leather is another good men’s office choice.
Soft Stars – Every RES who has a pair seems to rave about them (and they’re great for kids). They’re on my list for this fall. No toe spring!
Vibram Fivefingers – Yes, they look odd, but the way you can feel the ground in these is amazing. Hiking actually turns into a foot massage. Love them.
Unshoes – These look great on, and are amazing summer sandals – the perfect flip flop replacement.
Steger Mukluks – It’s been truly awful trying to find a pair of minimal boots that can stand up to winter in Toronto. I bought a pair of Vivobarefoot Kulas last year, which are totally too narrow in the toes and are super clunky – a total disappointment. Learn from my mistakes and go Steger instead.
Inov-8 – lots of zero and low drop options – I find them a bit on the narrow side.
Want runners? This is the most in-depth comparison and review of minimal shoes I’ve found anywhere. Go to town!
So that’s what I’ve got so far in terms of shoes. Have you made the transition to minimal footwear? I’d love to hear about your favorites, and anything you’ve learned along the way!