The Ideal Running or Walking Shoe Complements Natural Foot Function

Posted on 08 December 2011

Photo courtesy of RunWashington.com

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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7 Responses to “The Ideal Running or Walking Shoe Complements Natural Foot Function”

  1. Gary says:

    What type of shoes would you recomened for working in a workshop. I run in racing flats for the last 4 years, but I struggle with steel toe capped boots as it makes my big toe joints sore, I have tried walking boots still the same. As the moment Im using a old pair of red Nike streaks which are comfy but a little eye catching. I am up for ideas?

    • MarkC says:

      Gary,

      Great question. we carry many flat walking shoes at Two Rivers Treads. Inov 8 288 Goretex boot is the fav for the crowd that needs something tough…..but it is not steel.

      Dr. Mark

  2. holger says:

    Dear Dr. Mark,
    firstly, thanks for your great blog and sharing your expertise on bf running.
    i’ve always known that i feel best running form barefoot on sand, the infield, on track and in middle distance spikes with no heel but never cottoned on to the possibilities of minimalist shoes for endurance. now, age 40, i’ve transitioned to vivo breathos whithin a month and am loving it. running in minimalist shoes has fulfilled all my expectations and the few days of sore calves were a low price to pay .-) now i’ve started looking at my collection of high tech shoes very sceptically. my question is: does it make any sense to mix running in minimalist shoes with running in high tech ones?
    best regards, holger

    • MarkC says:

      Holger,

      once you go minimal donate the the shoes. your body will reject them. like eating crap after you have discovered real food.

      Mark

  3. Holger says:

    Hey Dr. Mark,

    now that’s a great, straight answer :-) .
    I suspected as much.
    going…, going…, gone!

    cheers for that,

    Holger

  4. Audrey says:

    Hi, I am looking to go minimal – but for walking only as I have hallux rigidus I n both feet so running isn’t possible. Do the same principles apply when transitioning and buying a vino barefoot shoe. Good luck in the Boston marathon!

    • Jo says:

      Hi Audrey. I think I can answer that. I recently took up race walking, and bought minimalist (flat-soled Merrell glove line), I love them, and there was no transition needed. Flat-soled shoes are the best for walking also, but because of the low impact compared to running, I had no problem.


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