Minimal or barefoot shoes have become increasingly popular in the last few years because of their health benefits. Vibram claims their shoes will strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs, improve range of motion, stimulate neural function, eliminate heel lift to align the spine, and allow the body to move naturally. Under the right conditions, minimal shoes can absolutely facilitate these changes; however, most of us don’t have feet that are healthy enough for these shoes without some training.
Being barefoot is natural, but our feet don’t function naturally anymore. Two main factors in our modern environment have led to feet that are severely lacking in muscle strength, joint mobility and neurological connection:
- Shoes that have stiff, supportive soles and positive heels
- The lack of natural surfaces in our environment.
The lawsuit against Vibram Five Fingers has been all over the news and social media the last few days. I’m not going to get into it, but you can read the details and an analysis by Katy Bowman here if you are interested. The problem is not that Vibrams (or any minimal/barefoot shoe) are dangerous; the problem is that our feet are deconditioned, and we fail to properly train them before jumping into a minimal shoe. Wearing a “supportive” shoe your whole life and then one day putting on Vibrams to go for a hike is like wearing a full body cast your whole life and then trying to do a cross fit workout. You the lack strength, mobility and neurological connections necessary, and you are going to get hurt. A principle of any good exercise program is a gradual, appropriate increase in the demand you place on the tissues.
My friend and fellow Restorative Exercise™ Specialist, Jennifer Gleeson Blue, put it this way, “You know how you don’t take someone on the brink of death-by-hypothermia and submerge them in a hot bath? It’s the same with minimal shoes. Your feet are on the brink of death-by-stability-shoe. But step one isn’t a five finger shoe.”
5 Steps to Transition to a Minimal Shoe:
1) Stop wearing positive heeled shoes. Switch to flat shoes and make sure they are wide enough for your toes to wiggle and spread. If you can tolerate it, try a shoe that has a more flexible sole. Even some athletic shoes have a heel that is slightly higher than the toes, so look closely!
2) Stretch your calves. Wearing positive heeled shoes causes the calves to become short and tight. We need to restore length to the calves to allow us to safely transition to a flat or minimal shoe.
3) Work on toe and foot mobility. Do these stretches to release muscle tension, improve circulation and neurological connection, and decrease pain.
4) Spend time barefoot around the house and backyard. Try out a variety of surfaces. This allows your feet to start getting reacquainted with FEELING things when you walk around.
NOTE: This transition may take weeks, months, or even years depending on the current health of your feet. Steps 1-4 are important for EVERYONE regardless of whether you intend to wear minimal shoes or not. If your foot has undergone significant damage from a lifetime of ill-use, surgery, or injury, minimal shoes may not be appropriate for you. That’s ok. You can still receive huge benefits from the above steps.
5) Start with short distances and natural surfaces in your minimal/barefoot shoes. Once you are ready to start wearing your new shoes, start with small distances. Slowly increase your walking mileage before you even think about running. (Although I don’t really I recommend running in minimal shoes.) Start with natural surfaces such as grass, mulch, or dirt to start training your feet. Concrete and asphalt are unnaturally hard surfaces and may cause you pain and injury. (I can wear my vibrams all day on natural surfaces, but I can only last about a mile on concrete.) As you increase strength and mobility, you can increase your mileage and try a greater variety of surfaces.
We just got back from a week in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was BEAUTIFUL! I was inspired by “Screen Free Week” to take a tech break while we were there. I used my iPhone only as a phone, camera and map/GPS, and I stayed off Facebook, email, Instagram, etc. It was a great decision for the health of my body and mind. I highly recommend it!
These are pictures from a 5 mile hike up and over a ridge, down into a valley with a waterfall, and back. You can see (in the first picture) how rocky and uneven the ground was. The trail was covered in pebbles, rocks, tree roots, mud, moss…. and my feet, legs, and hips felt great (tired, but great) the whole way and even better the next day! Had I done this hike in Vibrams 2 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have made it all the way, and I definitely would have been in serious pain. I’ve been “training” my feet for 4 years now, so they could handle the workout. Wearing minimal shoes can be a very healthy and enjoyable experience, but you have to do the prep work!