Shoes – What matters and what probably doesn’t
Shoes are definitely not what they used to be. For instance, Yeezys look like space shoes, we used to think Hoka’s looked like our father’s lawn-mowing shoes but are now the preferred shoe for runners, and 5-finger shoes have started to become popular. Buzzwords abound with phrases like “flat feet, high arches, toe splay, zero drop, minimalist”.. and more! But what do these terms actually mean? And is it actually relevant? I will do my best to simplify this a bit, but with a disclaimer: “I am not an expert in shoes and or orthotics, so while this is mostly just my opinion it is based on my current understanding of the research along with my practical history of treating a variety of people, feet, and issues.” – Dr. Samuel Pare, DC, Cert MDT
The type of shoe you may need depends on the task at hand, and there is not a hard and fast rule as to what works best. You may visit Fleet Feet and are told you are an overpronator and need a stiff,supportive shoe. But does restricting motion in your foot really have any long term benefit in improving foot health? The research doesn’t strongly support that. Or maybe you have a high arch, and they want to have a high arched shoe to contour to your foot. But now you are preventing your foot from ever having the opportunity to relax and flatten out. Most research shows that customizing shoes to your feet has little benefit. In fact the military did the largest study ever to determine if customizing shoes to feet impacts injury rates. What they found was that custom shoes are not superior in injury mitigation, and further, the shoes with the best outcomes were the shoes that the soldier found the most comfortable. So in conclusion, trust your feet.
Now let’s focus on minimalist shoes. Returning to the behaviors of our ancestors has been all the rage these days with minimal shoes. The argument being that our feet were supposed to spread, move around, accommodate different surfaces, and that shoving our feet into hard soled shoes does a disservice. This is of course true to a point, but our ancestors didn’t walk on hard pavement, and they spent their lifetime building the integrity of their feet to handle a variety of surfaces and demands. So, while there is credence to this, our modern lifestyles might not be directly applicable to what our ancestors dealt with.
Shifting gears to orthotics, this can often be a hot-button topic, especially among those in my profession. Orthotics do have purpose, especially in cases involving diagnoses like foot instability, mortons-neuromas and bunions. But I think too often clinicians jump to orthotics without appreciating the functional capacity of the foot to begin with. Additionally, custom orthotics versus OTC Dr. Schols have similar outcomes in terms of decreasing pain. However, the use of orthotics, while potentially having short term benefit, can contribute to the chronic dysfunction of your feet over years by compensating for a lack of intrinsic foot strength and mobility.
And in respect to heels… probably best to wear as sparingly. After a long day of walking in them, spend some time rolling your foot out, doing some toe yoga and working on some toe flexor strength.
So, with the lack of concrete research-backed information available to reference,
I will use myself as an example. I prefer to be barefoot when possible, engage in a variety of sports, such as backpacking, have a history of achilles issues, repeated inversion sprains, and have had surgery to repair aspects of my ankle. Oh,and I am guilty of wearing uncomfortable shoes that look good. So, in that vein, I have a variety of different shoes depending on the occasion.
I rock some pretty basic Brooks Running Shoes. I don’t run an incredibly high number of miles per week, so I do not feel the need to “break the bank” for shoes. But those shoes are well cushioned because I run on concrete, and I prefer a wide toe box so my toes can spread, decreasing the chance of my Achilles acting up. For more serious runners, there are injury mitigating benefits to cycling two different pairs of running shoes at time and replacing them every 300-500 miles.
My cross training shoes are Metcons and Nobulls, which are popular weight lifting shoes used in the Crossfit world. They are flexible but sturdy with a wide toe box. Additionally, if ankle range of motion is an issue for you, especially with squats, these are great as they have a mild heel lift that provide a little extra artificial range of motion.
I do own minimalist shoes but only use them sparingly in the city. However, I love wearing them during chill hikes, trail running on soil, near a beach, or at a park. The thin soles help you feel the earth more intimately and provide a lot of feedback when doing activities like trail running. When it comes to transitioning to minimalist shoes, it is wise to expose yourself gradually and allow your feet time to adapt.
Lastly if you live in a hardwood floored apartment, I do advocate for having a house shoe. Standing on tile or wood for 2 hours barefoot, as you may in the kitchen, can cause a lot of soreness. So, when I am home alone and there is no one to judge, I do indeed rock a pair of Crocs.
In conclusion, a variety of shoes is likely the best approach. The type of shoe does not substitute the need for spending time barefoot, strengthening your feet, and working on mobility. This is the best course of action if you are dealing with pain because there is no silver bullet in footwear for orthotics to completely solve your foot pain. And if you are in the market for shoes for running, sports, and lifting, going with what feels the most comfortable is a safe bet.
Key things to take away from this post:
- Shoe choice varies with the task, and customizing shoes may not significantly improve foot health.
- Minimalist shoes promote natural foot movement, but modern surfaces differ from those of our ancestors.
- Orthotics have their place but are often overused, potentially weakening the foot overtime.
- Embrace shoe variety for different activities, transition to minimalist shoes gradually, and prioritize foot strength and mobility for overall foot health.