What is Natural Footwear?
At LatitudePT, we believe that exposure to a more natural way of walking or running is beneficial for everyone. Most people in our society will experience foot dysfunction and pain at some point in their lives, but they may not feel the first signs of it until the 4th or 5th decade of life. Think about common foot problems: plantar fasciitis, neuromas, Achilles pain, hammertoes, and bunions, to name a few! What's the cause of all this pain and dysfunction? A growing community of people including anthropologists, health professionals, athletes, and everyday people willing to
disseminate the evidence and put it into action, believe it is our shoes. One study even found that when prescribed a shoe according to their foot shape, which is a common practice among podiatrists, chiropractors, physicians, PTs, and shoe store clerks, injury rates actually increased. Although the verdict is still up for debate, there is still a huge lack of evidence for athletic shoes even being preventative towards injuries. Other contributors outside of footwear are a lack of exposure to natural surfaces and a more sedentary lifestyle. But in places where restrictive footwear was never introduced, cases of those diagnoses listed above are infrequent at best.
It is not our goal for everyone to go barefoot, however, we want to encourage you to consider the importance of regular exposure to the variability of natural surfaces. Also, consider the impact of prolonged use of restrictive footwear on your foot and overall musculoskeletal health. We can focus on fixing the foot, not putting the foot back inside of the problem, or both. Combining efforts to improve your foot function with shoes that allow your feet to just do their thing, can have profound effects to improve the alignment and strength of your feet and the rest of your body.
Two characteristics of typical modern footwear directly interrupt the natural biomechanics of the foot, ankle, and the rest of the kinetic chain. One, typical footwear does not allow for proper alignment of the foot. Changing this alignment compromises one of the most important areas of the foot responsible for both shock-absorption and stabilization: the windlass mechanism. You should be able to trace a straight line from the end of the big toe to the center of the heel, but this isn't possible inside of most shoes. Put your foot on top of an insole or on top of the shoe itself and spread your toes completely. If your toes extend beyond the borders, then that shoe is interrupting the natural, and once perfect stability system of the foot -- thus causing it to work harder than it needs to.
Second, elevated toes (the "toe spring") and heels not only weaken the foot but also cause postural faults and compensations throughout the kinetic chain. When the toes and heels are chronically elevated, it overstretches the muscles within the foot, thus inhibiting their function causing atrophy over time. You may think your heels are "reasonable" or you're a guy and you don't wear heels, but the truth is unless you've actively sought out zero-drop shoes, most shoes on the market have a significant heel, and any amount of long term shortening will cause tissue shortening over time. An elevated heel is also associated with increased knee osteoarthritis and overpronation of the foot. The truth is typical shoes do not respect the foot's natural shape or function. New technologies that are added every season of fashion are attempts at mitigating the compensations that were introduced by stiff and restrictive footwear with elevated toes and heels.
One last topic of interest is the unusual sensitivity of the plantar surface of the foot. With more than 200,000 nerve endings, very few areas of the human body are more perceptive than the bottom of our feet. This is by design. Thick, heavy and overly cushioned shoes not only slow us down but cushioning has actually been shown to delay the activation of spinal stabilizing musculature. So, although big bulky shoes "protect" the feet, this is at the expense of the rest of the skeleton.
A shoe that more closely mimics being barefoot will promote improved function while stimulating strength and mobility of the foot and ankle. The ideal exposure to natural footwear and a new way of walking and running, however, will depend on the individual and their experience.
When shopping for natural footwear, sometimes called barefoot, zero-drop, or minimalist shoes, it's important to realize that they are not all created equal. How minimal of a shoe is appropriate for you can depend on several factors, thus it is highly recommended to consult with a professional. However, a true barefoot shoe is thin, flexible, wide in the toe box, and has a zero drop, meaning it places the toes and the heel at the same height. If you've become very accustomed to highly supportive shoes, you may want to find something between what you're using now and a completely minimal shoe.
It's important to note that even with improved footwear, old dysfunctional patterns can be persistent, and working with a skilled professional can be very helpful with your transition. Further consideration should be taken if you plan on changing your athletic shoes. Whereas a proper transition to thin minimalist shoes for high impact activities such as running could take up to 2 years or more, depending on the individual, a transition to thin shoes for everyday activities such as running errands or wearing around the office could happen much sooner.
Whether your reasons for wanting to go barefoot are to improve your posture, decrease headaches, improve sleep, or increase foot strength, OR you want to learn how to eliminate common problems such as bunions, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, hammertoes, and metatarsalgia, LatitudePT would love to aid you in your journey. See our Services page to learn about our rates and come pay us a visit in East Austin!
- Dr. Chris Gumbs, PT, DPT, ICDN
Physical Therapist & Running Specialist
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You must walk before you run. When transitioning to minimalist shoes, it is important to allow ample time for your feet to adapt before stressing them with high impact activities. The most important pair of barefoot shoes in your closet should be the shoes you spend the most time in.
VivoBarefoot Primus Lux
Luna Chocolate Mono
VivoBarefoot Gobi II
Professional & Dress
For your friend's wedding or your daughter's graduation, it could make more sense to break out that special pair of shoes for the occasion, but it makes less sense to wear heels and restrictive footwear on a daily basis. Make the right choice for your foot health AND look sharp at the office.
VivoBarefoot Jing Jing II
Carets Fer Cap-Toe
Carets Falcon Wingtip
The thinnest barefoot shoes are great for the experienced minimalist who is looking for good ground feel and minimal interference of nerve impulses from the feet to the brain. Thin barefoot shoes may also be appropriate for the novice while engaging in casual everyday activities.
Luna Venado 2.0
VivoBarefoot Primus Lite
Luna Origen Flaco
VivoBarefoot Stealth II
There isn't a group that dislikes shoes more than this one. Your children will be happier with shoes that allow them the flexibility they need to just be kids. You will be happier knowing you're doing the right thing for their development.
Vivobarefoot Primus School
Vivobarefoot Primus Colour
Softstar Rugged Rambler
Accelerate your adaptation to a new way of walking and running with the right tools. Toe spreaders to encourage good alignment while exercising, mobilization tools, and toe socks so that you can wear your barefoot sandals year round!
YogaBody Awesome Toes
Standard Foam Roller
Toe Socks from Luna
Gaiam Hot & Cold Foot Roller
Soft Foam Roller
Wool Tabi Socks
Foot Alignment Socks
Gaiam Acupressure Mat
Use code "latitudept10" for 10% off
The effects of habitual footwear use: foot shape and function in native barefoot walkers
- Walking in Minimalist Shoes Is Effective for Strengthening Foot Muscles
The American College of Sports Medicine's brochure about selecting running shoes
Injury Reduction Effectiveness of Assigning Running Shoes Based on Plantar Shape in Marine Corps Basic Training