Shoe talk

Getting minimalist shoes is something to think about – but certainly not a requirement.

I wrote this for a student with osteoarthritic knees. We’ve been working on correcting the way her leg bones spiral when bending and straightening. The correct direction of spiral removes the pain completely. This has been going well, so I felt it was time to address the subject of her so called “healthy shoes”, ultra padded running shoes replete with motion control, arch support and a hidden 1.5-inch heel lift.

To get the knees to work better, it’s going to help if the feet and ankles can do their job in the most unfettered manner possible. When we go barefoot, the foot can change shape and adapt more flexibly to different surfaces and different physical demands. The intrinsic muscles of the foot get strong and flexible. The forefoot and rear foot have the freedom to counter twists appropriately between inversion/pronation and eversion/supination, depending on the stage of the gait cycle. This means that ground reaction force moves up through the body in a way that creates powerful stored elastic tension and spares the joints from pain and wear. Restrictive shoes might jack up the heel, limit foot motion via arch support, control pronation, squeeze the toes, among a few of the  impositions on natural movement.

We tend to think of our hands as sensitive intelligent instruments and our feet as bricks that we shove into padded casing. Your foot has 26 bones and 33 joints. The sole of the foot is a rich landscape of sensory receptors. Our feet have evolved to move in a myriad of directions and relay a rich schema of environmental data to our brain. In shoes with very padded soles, our sensory feedback is diminished. In the absence of good data, the brain protects the body by tensing the feet, ankles, knees, and everything above.

You can test this out. Wear only one sock and have one barefoot foot. Walk around your house. Notice the difference in how your two legs move. Which leg is freer and more fluid? Which foot feels secure? Which leg do you trust? Which limb feels pleasurable to use? If your answer is the side that’s barefoot, you have just discovered the impact of better proprioceptive data on physical movement.

You can assist this process by using a foot roller or other implement to wake up the sensory receptors in the skin of your feet. If you google wooden foot roller, you’ll get dozen’s of results.

Minimalist shoes offer less support and protection to the foot, and can take a while to get used to. I recommend starting with only an hour or two at a time to help the intrinsic muscles of the foot adapt to the new level of work demand.

Personally, I like

Flip flops, although they appear minimal, can be a problem because it’s necessary to squeeze the toes to keep the shoe on. Same thing with clogs. You want your toes to only have to do the work they were meant to do.

And hey, summer is coming. Time to go to the beach and feel the sand between your toes.

P.S. As a final note, it is possible to use your feet well, or at least better, while wearing fashionable shoes. This is the sort of thing that I help my acting students work with. It’s reasonable to choose aesthetics over function to survive in our culture from time to time. I tend to save my fashionable shoe time for tango or the occasional date night. The rest of my life, I like to let my feet roam free.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash


4 replies
  1. Amy McMillan says:

    I have quite severe pronation and have always been encouraged to wear supportive shoes and orthotic insoles. I’ve been told never to go bare foot even at home (although I do yoga so I practice in bare feet). However your approach makes much more sense – would minimal shoes be suitable even for people like me?

  2. Elyse Shafarman says:

    Dear Amy, Yes. I think the advice to “never go barefoot” is insane IMHO. If you are going to start with minimalist shoes, you need to go slowly at first to build up some tolerance. Also, working with the way your feet and legs counter spiral can make a big difference in how well your feet function while moving, regardless of pronation. Interestingly, there’s no evidence that pronation causes injury in running. Here’s an interesting article: Finally, If you are in the SF Bay Area and would like some help with this, contact me to schedule a session. Also, although I don’t give Alexander Technique lessons over Skype, I do can coach you through better foot use via the Reembody Method on Skype.

  3. Ann Grogan says:

    This article rang a bell with me vis-a-vis a point that Dr. John Sarno makes when writing about how he would counsel his back and neck-pain patients. He suggested that they throw away their back braces, neck collars, hot pads and other “helps”, or as I call them, analgesics. This kind of going natural he felt brings us back to our foundation, as we work on the brain’s and our unconscious’ mis-communication to us that we are injured when our back hurts. He believed that deep-seated anger lay beneath much modern back/neck pain episodes, but I think it also involves fear, even more than anger. Beginning to rely daily on braces, medicines and other crutch-like external supports now to me seems like diverting my natural body from a grounded approach to better health and minimal back pain. I use corsets when the pain or discomfort trigger has been completely physical, for a short period of respite while the body heals, but I am now learning to use my breath, fewer muscles, and a more relaxed and proper stance in daily activities to carry me forward into the best health possible–even bare feet or soft booties — thanks to Elyse and her magical lessons!

  4. Elyse Shafarman says:

    Dear Ann, thank you for your comments. I agree that fear is really at the root of most the ways that our body compensates. I strongly believe in helping the body/self feel safe before tossing away artificial supports. We want our body to like it’s freedom, to like using bones and muscles instead of orthotics, so the approach must be gentle and reassuring. Sarno’s approach about facing our anger is very interesting as well.

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