How to Transition to Happy, Healthy Feet

Continuing on from my previous post, I’m going to lay out a few steps you can take to help build strong, resilient feet that can do their job of holding the rest of your body up all day. When making changes to how you use your feet, it’s important to do it in a way that doesn’t end up creating new issues along the way.

1. Take your time. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you to take care of your feet. Some changes may take months, and some may take years. If in doubt, slow down.

2. Evaluate your current footwear and see how they compare to the minimalist shoe characteristics listed below. Since what you wear on your feet impacts every single step you take, the shoes you choose to wear have a powerful effect on the health of your whole body.

3. Start doing some exercises to help strengthen and mobilize your feet. I’ll share some ideas below, but if you want some more individualized guidance, you can work with me or another Restorative Exercise Specialist. I’d also recommend checking out either of Katy Bowman’s foot books: Simple Steps To Foot Pain Relief or Whole Body Barefoot.

What are Minimal Shoes?

Minimal footwear are shoes that try as much as possible to allow your feet to function as if they were barefoot, while providing some protection from things like broken glass and cold weather. There are five basic attributes that you want to look for:

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.

Take a look at the shoes you are currently using. How do they match up to the above characteristics?

One budget-friendly way to start transitioning is to see what you can change about 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 did notice were well worthwhile.

3. For flip-flops, or other slide-on shoes, you can add a lace to go around the heel 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 buying shoes that are slightly more minimal than what you currently have. For example, if you currently mostly wear shoes with 2 inch heels, try wearing a pair with 1 inch heels. Don’t automatically go for the most minimal brands right away, and take your time letting your feet get used to the new footwear. Remember, minimal shoes will likely have less support, less cushioning, and more freedom than your feet are used to. Take them 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.

Another thing to try is to go completely 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. To help you start out, here are a couple sites that list many options:

Nutritious Movement: Shoes: the List

Anya's Reviews

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. A lot of people have done this before you, so know that you’ve got people you can talk to.