Minimalist Shoes... Why Are They Awesome?
"Don't your feet hurt in those?" and "Can't you feel everything in those shoes, like all the rocks and sticks and all?" or some such variation is the most common question I get when I wear my weird Vibram five finger shoes.
Funny Story. I always thought that the Vibram five finger shoes looked SO weird and that I would NEVER wear them... Ha ha! The universe has a funny way about bringing things back around. Never say never my friends.....
Anyway, these shoes always get me noticed and commented on. And normally people are just plain weirded out and are trying to understand why a normal(ish) looking woman would wear such weird foot fashion!
The big question.... Why? What's wrong with the comfy traditional athletic shoe?
Let's talk about our feet for a moment. They are our foundation and knowing a little about how they should work will help us discus how we would dress them.
Our feet have 26 bones and 33 joints. About 25% of both our bones and are muscles reside from the ankles down. Lots happening down there. Our toes are individually wired, both neurologically and muscularly to work independently from each other. Our toes should be able to move separately from our foot and from each other. Try this, can you wiggle your toes? Can you wiggle your big toe? Your little toe? How about your third toe? It's ok if you can't do any of this right now. Most of us don't even know how to feel our third toe, much less can move it! This comes with practice and practice!
Muscles and nerves are amazing, the more they are used, the healthier they are. The inverse is also true, the less they are used, the unhealthier those tissues become. Now there are two groups of foot muscles, intrinsic and extrinsic. Now the intrinsic muscles are muscles that have both connection point inside the foot. The extrinsic muscles have one point in the foot and another connection outside of the foot, like up in the calf for example. Now when one set of muscles work less, like the muscles inside your feet, your intrinsic muscles, this forces your other muscles, the extrinsic muscles, to have to over work. Have you ever played the party game where you have a present and you have to race to unwrap this gift with snow mittens on? One, it's fun, and two, you have to use a lot more of your body to get that gift open when you can't wiggle your fingers to open that thing up! Now this is a fun game, but it would require a lot of you if you had to live your whole life this way.
Now minimalist shoes have these basic parts we look at:
The sole: one that is thin and flexible, even to where you can feel the ground, and all the rocks and sticks
A neutral heel: or 'zero-drop', where the heel of the foot is the same height as the forefoot and toes
A fully connected upper: the part of the shoe that connects the foot to the base of the shoe, where there is no need for toe gripping to keep the shoe on
Spacious Toe Box that isn't curled upwards: no squished toes, room for them to spread wide and flat
What you wear on your shoes affects the rest of your body. Remember when we said that when we move muscles, they are healthy? When they move, they get fed oxygen and are nourished. When we put footwear on our feet that prevent any movement into this entire area, and shift the weight from the heel (which is designed to carry the weight) into the forefoot (which is not designed to carry most of our weight), we get unhealthy feet, feet with pain and dysfunction.
But good news! If we can slowly introduce more movement into these muscles, we will start getting more nourishment and strength there!
"But wait a minute! I heard that those Vibram shoes got sued for people wearing them and getting hurt! These barefoot shoes can't be healthy if people get hurt wearing them! Right?" Great question! Let's say we found a random person who had never run before in his life and we asked him to run a half marathon today. Would we expect him to experience pain after this experience? Yes, we would. We had gone to muscles that hadn't had to perform much at all and asked a very large task of them, too large, and they got injured. The same thing happens in our feet. If we take our feet, that have been living in inflexible shoes where they haven't had ANY movement and lots of support and then ask them to walk with our any external support and lots of new movement in these muscles, you can expect injury.
So, what needs to happen is a slow increase in movements, rather than an all or nothing mindset. I know, I know. I love the all or nothing paradigm too, until I hurt myself. Then I remember, small steps equal big change.
Should EVERYONE wear minimalist shoes? No. But do I encourage everyone to get a little more movement in their feet than they have now in one way or another? Yes. We tend to be an all or nothing society and I like to reframe things. Your feet aren't strong or weak, in minimalist shoes or not. They could always use more movement intrinsically, and more oxygen to nourish those cells, which of course happens through movement.
What I do recommend is starting to introduce new movements into your feet for shorter periods. I have a blog post with examples and a short video of a fun foot exercise HERE. Then, wear some shoes that are more minimal than the ones you are wearing, for a short walk around the block every day, and slowing up the amount of time and types of terrain you walk on. Train your feet like you would train for a marathon, with intention and respect for the challenge you are asking of your feet, to carry the load of your body with less external support and more movement! It took me about 18 months to be able to walk in my Vibram five fingers with total comfort and strength, and I was focused on this!
Have fun slowly transitioning more movement into your foot muscles and bones and watch your tissue health improve!