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Minimal Footwear

Do you suffer from foot pain? Do you end the day with feet that feel cramped or even numb? Do your toes all clump together or look permanently clawed? Do you ever need to stop or slow down an activity due to foot pain? Then perhaps you would be interested in finding shoes that don't hurt your feet.

The aim of minimal footwear is to allow the feet to behave as much as possible as they are designed to while still providing the protection of being in a shoe. Shoes have been around for thousands of years, keeping our feet warm and letting us walk over challenging terrain such as thorny brush and sharp rocks with less care. However, the human species spent millions of years without shoes, evolving our feet exactly the way they are today. Minimal footwear recognizes this history as well as the fact that shoes are still useful and sometimes just socially expected.

Whenever you make a change in the way you move, such as starting up a new exercise routine or buying new shoes, it's best to make the change gradual so your body has time to grow and adapt. When you are working to build strong, resilient feet, you don't want to create new issues along the way.

Five Characteristics to Look for in All Your Shoes

1. No elevated heel. Most shoes on the market today have a heel that is higher than the rest of the sole. Even a little bit of heel elevation makes the body act like it’s standing on a slight downhill slope all of the time, putting extra pressure on the front of the foot, and causing the rest of the body to compensate. You want to be able to stack your body weight over your heels, which you can only do if your feet are on level ground.

2. Wiggle room for the toes. Many shoes squeeze the toes together—a primary cause of bunions, nerve issues, neuromas, and more. Your toes should be able to wiggle and spread, even inside a shoe. Look for shoes that are actually shaped like a foot, particularly ones that have a wider “toe box.”

3. A flexible, thin sole. You want your feet to be able to move and respond based on the surfaces you are walking on. When you put a stiff, thick sole between your feet and the earth, your foot muscles, joints, and nerves stop being able to do their jobs well. Being able to sense the ground will help you balance and navigate obstacles without falling.

4. Fully attached to the foot. If you need to clench your toes with each step, as with flip-flops and clogs, the muscles within your feet will become overworked. This creates extra tension within the foot, making it hard to have feet that are flexible and mobile. The ideal shoe will let your feet do their thing without giving them extra work.

5. No toe spring. Some shoes lift up in the front, pulling the foot muscles into an unnatural position. This is another feature that adds unnecessary tension to the muscles of the foot, can cause issues like “hammertoes,” and prohibits feet from being able to move naturally.

This boot lifts the toes up off the ground.

Budget-Friendly Ways to Make Your Shoes Healthier Right Now

Take a look at the shoes in your closet. How do they match up to the above characteristics? Perhaps you want to start making some changes, but don't want to buy a whole bunch of new shoes. Luckily, there are some changes you can make to the shoes you already have. It’s also great to start here because these are the shoes your feet are used to right now.

1. You can take the insoles out of your shoes. This makes the inside of your shoes a little roomier, giving your toes a bit more space. It also removes a bit of the cushioning between you and the ground, giving your feet slightly more availability to feel the terrain beneath them.

2. You can saw off the heels of your shoes. When I realized how much the heels on my shoes were hurting me, I ended up sawing the heels off all my running shoes, hiking boots, and snow boots. Yes, it meant I lost some of the tread on the bottom of the shoes, but I personally noticed no ill effects and the benefits I felt in my body were much more valuable than my shoes' integrity.

3. For flip-flops, or other slide-on shoes, you can add a lace to go around your heels so they fully attach to the foot. This means you can keep wearing your favorite summer shoes while letting your toes relax, too.

Next, you might be interested in starting to buy shoes that are slightly more minimal than what you currently have. Don’t automatically go for the most minimal brands right away and take your time letting your feet get used to the new footwear. Minimal shoes will likely have less support and less cushioning than your feet are used to. While that is a good thing in the long run because your feet will be forced to do that work of supporting themselves, it may feel like a big change at first. Take your new shoes for short walks, do errands, or wear them around the house a bit before you start increasing your mileage. Another tactic is to carry an old pair of shoes with you, so if your feet get tired of the new ones, you can put them back in the familiar cushioning and support at any moment.

You can also spend some time going barefoot. As long as you can walk without pain, this is an especially great way to start strengthening your feet safely and effectively. With no barrier between your naked feet and the ground, you’re going to easily feel when your feet have had enough for the day. Pick a place to walk that is appropriate for your feet, such as a soft, grassy soccer field if it’s your first time. Again, carry your shoes with you so you can put them on the moment your feet stop enjoying themselves. Over time, you can transition to walking on rougher ground, and you will start to know how much your feet can do safely.

How to Find Minimal Shoes:

Most shoes you find in the store are not going to be minimal. It can be pretty hard to find ones that meet all of the criteria listed above. I highly recommend checking out because there is so much information on all kinds of minimal footwear on her site, including categories such as footwear for children, snow, work, and dressy occasions.

Once you start successfully transitioning to healthier shoes, you may be shocked at what your feet have been putting up with for all those years. If at any point your feet don’t feel amazing, that’s a sign to slow down your progression and possibly check in with a professional.


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