Last month, I wrote about the need to properly assess your own foot size when buying running shoes. And judging by the number of emails I continue to get from readers on this topic, I feel it’s important to address these concerns once again.
First, abandon the notion that you have a shoe size. Instead you have a foot size. Wearing an ill-fitting shoe offsets the benefits of going to a minimalist shoe.
A proper fit accounts for the natural expansion of the foot upon ground contact. Excess waste is eliminated, along with everything that inhibits your foot’s natural motion. So your foot is free to move and work the way nature intended it to. Call it toe-wiggle freedom.
When I look at what is an ideal shoe, I base it on what is ideal to complement natural foot function. Let’s start with the hypothesis that the foot is designed to work on its own without the need of modern bracing, cushioning, and motion- control technology. One may deviate some from this to compensate for a specific structure or foot-strength issue. The goal is progressive rehabilitation toward the ideal and getting the walker or runner in the least amount of shoe that is safe for them while they work on the functional corrections. To me this is the definition of minimalism.
So what are the four simple features of an ideal shoe:
- Level Heel to Toe (zero-drop) and close to the ground. Our arches are designed to be supported at the ends, and that means heel, ball, and toes in level and balanced contact. This facilitates stability and balance in mid–stance. A shoe should not have “toe-spring” either. This upward curving of the shoe places toes in extension and contributes to extension deformities (hammer toes). Level shoes also complement a proper posture.
- Flexible Last. Your foot naturally bends in all directions as should your shoe. Most shoes are stiff in the middle and stiff where your toes bend at the ball of the foot (MTP joint)
- Wide Toe Box. When the big toe is compressed to be out of alignment the front end of the arch does not work. The big toe is not allowed to aid in balance, stability, and propulsion.
- Not too soft or too thick. The thinner and firmer the shoe the more ground feel (proprioception) you have. The increased ground feel allows your body to adjust to the forces of running in a more efficient way and is optimal for learning natural running form and technique. Without a firm message to the nervous system our body does not know which muscles to use, how hard to turn them on, and how long to keep them on for. To get a clear message in thick/soft shoes we are forced to strike the ground harder and drive the foot onto a firm surface to give us the feedback we require.
Bottom line here: You need to let your feet come and splay. Obviously, given a lifelong addition to poor-fitting shoes and designs, an addiction that is not necessarily the fault of the consumer but is the result of media and market manipulation, many runners and walkers aren’t always ready to go straight to minimalism.
At my store, Two Rivers Treads, we see many customers who have a structural, strength, or mobility issue that does not allow the ideal foot function.So we give them specific corrections with exercises they can do all day. If they have the hallux valgus deformity we suggest they use Correct Toes. Metatarsal pads are useful for toes held high in extension as the client works on getting toes down on the floor through the toe-yoga exercises.
Does this mean they cannot get into a “minimalist” shoe? Absolutely not. Walking and running are two different activities with very different forces. Running has 2.5 times your body weight 1200 steps a mile while balanced on one foot. Walking involves at most 1.1 times your body weight balanced on both feet. This is why it is rare to see a “walking injury”.
If a runner is strong in single leg stance, has anatomically correct foot, nice flexible heel cords, and a good gait already, he or she is ready to roll pretty quick and does not need much “transition” to minimalism.
For almost of us, get in a flat shoe all day — for walking and standing. Wear the thinnest and most flexible shoe you can to aid in foot retraining.