What you need to know about barefoot shoes.
Why barefoot shoes?
It Makes Sense.
It’s really quite simple and for most people we talk to, once you realise the difference, it really makes us wonder why “normal” shoes became shaped like a bullet in the first place!
Feet are naturally supposed to be widest at the toes. In order to function properly, the big toe should be in a straight line from the bone through the joint. The shape of conventional shoes with a tapered toe-box has caused most of us to have a big toe that is angled inwards towards the other toes. Oftentimes, the other toes are sitting above one another after spending so much time in shoes that don’t allow them to splay.
If you want a foot that looks like this AND causes poor mobility, posture, balance, gait, pain and deformity then this is the shoe for you.
If you want a foot that looks natural AND is strong, functions well and without pain then barefoot is best!
Foot Function/Whole Body Function
Each foot has 26 bones, 31 joints and over 100 muscles, ligaments and tendons. They are designed to move. Just like every part of the human body, it operates with a “use it or lose it” system. If feet are locked into tight, rigid shoes that don’t allow them to bend and flex, they lose their ability to move. That inability to move then affects the whole chain further up. Ankles, knees, hips and back have to start adjusting to compensate for what is not functioning properly in the feet.
You just have to try them for yourself! We have overwhelming feedback to show that foot-shaped shoes are more comfortable. They are a real game changer in terms of comfort. Particularly for people on their feet for long periods of time. But consider yourself warned.. Once you go barefoot, you’ll never go back!
The Case Against Arch Support
As it is a common question - “Don’t we need arch support?”
In most cases, the answer is no. Again using the ‘use it or lose it’ principle, the muscles in the foot need to be used in order to gain strength. If we allow the shoe to do the work, it doesn’t allow our foot muscles to develop and strengthen in order to do the job they were designed for.
Also, the arch is SUPPOSED TO FLATTEN somewhat as we land. It creates the motion to enable us to push off the ground properly.
Of course, there are cases where support or clinical devices may be required. This advice is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace medical advice. But remember, not all medical advice will be the same. Choose your practitioners carefully.
What to look for in a shoe
The idea of a barefoot shoe is that it allows your foot to function as it would naturally without the shoe. It follows your foot rather than forcing it into a certain shape or movement style. So when we are looking for great shoe options, we look for the following:
1. Completely Flat
Also referred to as ‘zero drop’. This just means that the distance from the bottom of the foot to the ground is exactly the same from the heel to the toe.
2. Foot Shaped / Wide toe box
It has a forefoot shape that is not tapered at the big toe and is wide enough for your toes to splay.
The sole should bend easily. Ideally, in all directions. The upper should also be flexible enough to allow the 26 bones and 33 joints in each foot to move.
There are various levels of thickness in barefoot shoe soles. Particularly when you take into account transitional type shoes. However, the aim is to be able to feel the changing textures beneath your feet in order to stimulate the nerves and give better awareness of how we are walking.
5. No arch support
A barefoot shoe has no arch support. They allow your foot to build and strengthen the muscles naturally.
6. No Toe Spring
A toe spring is when the shoe curves upward to make it easier to propel forward. This helps counteract the effect of a stiff sole which prevents your own foot mechanics from working as they should.
7. Secure to the foot
If you were thinking that thongs fit the description so far, this is where we ditch them. The shoe (or sandal) needs to be secure to your foot so the toes don’t have to grip to keep it from sliding off.
The lighter the shoe, the less the foot has to adapt to walk or run.
How do I make the change?
Don’t rush it….
The time it takes to transition depends on your starting point, your level of movement and your own body's ability to adapt. We are all different. The most important thing is to pay attention to your body and how it responds.
For some people, it is a straight swap and no need to look back. In my experience, this is mostly the case for kids, people without existing injury or pain and people who already spend the majority of their time barefoot. But for many people, while you will find the new shoes incredibly comfortable and probably never want to take them off, you may have to alternate between the new and the old for a little while. The more your feet have been confined, restricted and unstimulated, the more gradual you should make the change.
Transitional shoes are often a great option to help ease your way into barefoot shoes. These will still have all the features of a barefoot shoe but with a little more cushioning. They won’t squish your toes and they’ll be totally flat but there may be a stack height of 15-20mm rather than the 4-5mm of a truly barefoot shoe.
There are a number of foot exercises you can do to work on strengthening your feet. This will undoubtedly make the transition smoother. Toe yoga (or toga as we’ve come to call it), resistance band exercises, toe spreading and mobility exercises are all easy to find online and you can do them while you're sitting or standing at your desk, chatting to a friend or waiting in line!
But don’t forget that the everyday stuff counts too. Make it fun. I like to kick my shoes off whenever I’m at the park with the kids and balance along the poles and logs with them or walk barefoot over the rocks at the beach and don’t forget the hacky-sack for a great fun game with a side of foot workout..
If you are anything like me, you will want all the tools available to help get you to where you want to be, faster. Toe spacers, sensory mats, balls, elastics and other aids can be purchased to aid progression.
Find a barefoot professional
If in doubt, or if you have any trouble along the way, find yourself a barefoot professional to help. Strengthening your feet is such a worthy goal and it would be a shame to give up when you hit an obstacle. We are, unfortunately, still a long way from seeing the majority of podiatrists, physios and other medical professionals see and teach the value of natural foot health. So, look for someone who aligns with your goal when you seek advice. Here are some great options. Ask about online/phone consults if they are not in your area.
Gemma Stevens - Podiatrist (WA) FITFEET Podiatry – Podiatry in Pearsall, Yanchep, Alkimos & Sorrento
Paul Thompson - Podiatrist (NSW) https://www.thebarefootmovement.com.au/
Marion McRae - (WA) Physio https://www.movement-solutions.physio
Ruth Tetley - Physio (NSW) The Barefoot Physio
Michelle Bergeron Physio (VIC) michelle.physio
Melbourne Soft Tissue Home | MSTT (melbournesofttissuetherapy.com.au)
Also, for the runners, check out The secret to running fast and injury free - Older Yet Faster