Functional Footwear: What to look for
Updated: Nov 13, 2019
I am not writing this article to try and argue that barefoot/minimalistic shoes are good for you. (FYI - They are.)
There's already too much good literature out there for me to try and compete with (I've put ideas to some of my recommended reading materials at the bottom of this article).
This article is for anyone who has done their research already, realised that our current version of shoe 'norm' is completely insane and works totally against the natural biomechanics of the body, and wants some advice on what to look for when it comes to buying the perfect pair of shoes. Of course, that is, if you're motivated by having a fully functional and pain free body, rather than by fashion.
The easiest route to follow is to purchase a pair of 'barefoot shoes' from brands like Vivo Barefoot, but these can be expensive and people can be nervous to make the initial investment when they aren't quite sure what to expect. (However, I promise, once you've gone Vivo, you'll never go back.)
A good way to initiate yourself into wearing more minimalistic shoes is knowing what to look for and trying to buy a regular pair from a shop that fit all the criteria below. You'll soon realise that this is extremely hard because most of the high street are working in the realms of fashion, not function.
I have constructed the list below for things to bear in mind when purchasing shoes that will help, and not hinder, the way your body moves.
Ideally you want a pair of shoes that tick off every one of the points below.
N.B - If you're in pain and the person you go to see for some form of pain relief (whatever that might be) doesn't talk to you about the importance of naturally strong feet, how your footwear might be working against you or prescribes you orthotics as a long term solution to your pain without teaching you how to wake up the muscles in your feet and hips, seek advice elsewhere immediately.
1. Protection not alteration
Shoes emerged as our ancestors spread across the planet and settled in places with a colder climate.
(I took this picture of these 1000 year old viking's shoes whilst in Norway. They protect against the elements but don't disrupt the movement of the feet - win!)
Shoes should be for protection against the elements (eg. cold or hot temperatures) or against infections (eg. stepping on something manky/sharp). Shoes should not be things that cushion, support or alter the movement of your feet.
Most modern shoes are crafted in such a way to 'aid' gait patterns. They don't aid your gait patterns, they interfere with them!
2. Zero Drop heel
We're stuck in a world where wearing high heels every single day is normal and many people do not even realise that they are wearing high heels.
The worst and most insidious of offenders? Your regular pair of trainers. You're increasing the gravity pounding through your joints whilst wearing high heels which have thrown the alignment of your entire body off. What a clever idea! (Read the sarcasm!)
A 'high heel' is basically any elevation of the heel which is higher at the back than it is at the front.
Look at the pairs of shoes you can see around you right now ... I bet you that most of them will fit into that category. Men's dress shoes and supportive 'sensible' sandals included.
The vast, vast majority of 'normal', Western shoes are actually high heels.
You are looking for a pair of shoes which is no higher at the back than it is at the front, this is a zero drop heel.
A pair of Converse, for example, are an example of a zero drop heel ... BUT ...
3. Thin, Malleable Sole
Lots of modern shoes are very thick in the sole. This inhibits balance and makes muscles switch off. Try standing on one leg on a pillow, it's much harder than doing it on the hard floor ... this is why we don't want thick soled shoes.
You're looking very a bendy, thin sole where you'll be able to feel the ground beneath your feet, but where you're protected against the elements.
A ballet pump, for example, is a shoe with a thin, malleable sole ... BUT ...
4. Wide, Toe Box
Our big toe and fifth toe should be the widest point of our feet. Toes should be able to splay like hands.
Because of a life-time of Western foot binding in modern shoes, most Westerners have toes which taper off into points. This means loss of control of the toes.
Our feet have moulded into a shoe shape, rather than our shoes fitting our feet.
Toe splay and control over the little muscles in our toes (especially the big toe joint) IS SO IMPORTANT to a functional body.
If you look at any shoe you have in your house, I bet you it tapers off into a point rather than being wide and round for the toes to stretch out.
Your toe box should be wide enough that you can comfortably wear a pair of Toe Separators in your shoes. These will also help stretch out a lifetime of toe deformation and I recommend spending as much time in them as you can.
5. No cushioning/support
Repeat after me, your feet DO NOT NEED CUSHIONING OR SUPPORT. Got it? Good.
Functional feet are brilliantly engineered to be strong, springy and both supple and rigid at the right time.
Unfortunately, some guy named Bill Bowerman in the 1970s decided to create a billion dollar industry which told people their feet (which had been perfectly happy without cushioning or support for millions of years) needed bolstering.
Any element of cushioning, arch support or any 'stability' product is hindering your foot from moving correctly and therefore switch off muscles. They make you weaker over time and, funnily enough, dependent on cushioned shoes. It's almost like a clever marketing ploy from a billion dollar industry isn't it?
Birkenstocks are a good example of a shoe with unnecessary support under the arch (and a very stiff sole).
6. Attach well to the feet
"Ah, perfect!" I hear you say, "All this means I can wear my flip flops all the time."
Unfortunately not, flip flops ask your toes to grip onto the shoe to hold it in place. This is a contributor to claw/hammer toes.
We want a stable shoe (which is different to being supportive or cushioned) which do not ask an extra demand of our toes.
In my mind, the best example of functional high street shoes would be something like a gladiator sandal.
Run through the tick-list ..
1. Protection, not alteration
2. Zero Drop Heel
3. Thin, Malleable sole
4. Wide Toe Box
5. No cushioning or support
6. Attach well to the feet
We have a match!
However, if like me, you live in the UK, you'll realise that these types of shoes aren't practical in January.
This is why the barefoot shoe industry has sprung up.
The high street, in my experience, simply does not offer shoes which tick off each of the above, so people are led to buy specialist barefoot shoe brands.
Barefoot shoe brands enable you to make the healthiest choice for your feet, without having to worry about ticking the boxes!
Having said all of the above, I need to issue a warning. Some people can struggle with transitioning to more barefoot shoes aka they feel pain.
No one should go cold turkey into wearing barefoot shoes. You will need to test your body's reaction to them and potentially do some muscular rehab work to prepare yourself for them.
You've been wearing shoes for x amount of years which (combined with chronic chair usage) have been making you stiff and dysfunctional. If you completely alter your shoes overnight, your body isn't always going to be ready for it (lots of people are fine though).
It's a transitional process where muscles will probably need to learn to wake up better, before your body will be happy and ready.
If barefoot shoes/being barefoot causes you pain, it's simply that you are receiving feedback from your body for the first time in a long time. You are now feeling how dysfunctional your movement patterns are.
The movement patterns were still dysfunctional when you had your fluffy shoes on, but the fluff soaked up the feedback (pain) you should have been hearing.
So, you were damaging your joints whilst wearing the fluffy shoes, but you just weren't able to hear the pain signals from your body asking you to change something.
The fluff is disguising, not taking away, the pain.
Your body wants you to move differently if minimalistic shoes cause you pain.
The great news is that now you can actually listen to what your body is telling you and change how you move. Fab!
This is what I do with my clients all the time. Many of them initially struggle with transitioning to more minimalistic shoes - they get foot pain, they get back pain etc.
After some coaching and some hard work from them to wake up their feet and hips, miraculously, it's not so bad after all. Moving becomes easier and more fun.
You might ask "what's the point in wearing minimalistic shoes and going to lots of effort to wake up muscles if I can simply wear cushioned shoes and not suffer pain?"
a) You have no idea how different/much better moving is when you wake up your feet.
b) You have no idea how dysfunctional feet can contribute to pain all over your body. I have seen TMJ syndrome, migraines, back pain, hamstring pain, knee pain and more originate from dysfunctional feet.
c) Your joints are probably wearing away if you cannot be barefoot without pain. Knee and hip replacements aren't so fun.
You cannot complain about chronic pain unless you are willing to reconsider your footwear and wake up your feet and hips. Your footwear will be a massive influence on your dysfunctional movement patterns. Dysfunctional movement patterns = pain.
N.B PLEASE don't trial your barefoot shoes for the first time doing a 10k (or more) race ... you will need time for your body to wake up sufficiently and get used to them.
Just like you wouldn't run a marathon with no training, don't run a marathon with new footwear and no training!
Take it slow, give yourself plenty of time and let your body adapt. Start with ten minutes a day of barefoot shoes/being barefoot and build it up from there.
Like I said at the beginning, I haven't written this article to argue the benefits of wearing barefoot shoes, as all the work has been done so well by many others before me.
Please feel free to read/watch the below if you need a bit of extra persuasion.
(I'd also challenge you to find any unbiased scientific research that supports the argument that cushioning/support/heels etc help your body/feet function better.)
What the Foot - Gary Ward
Balanced and Barefoot - Angela Hanscom
Born to Run - Chris McDougall
Whole Body Barefoot - Katy Bowman
I hope you found this helpful and you have a better idea of what you're looking for.
Good luck and happy shopping!