by the Urban Barefoot, Jeff Shub, MD
Whether it’s soccer or basketball, hiking or rock climbing, there is a specialized shoe on the market for every sport. For instance, hiking shoes are typically high topped boots with deep tread and rigid soles to offer the ankle and foot extra support for traversing rough terrain. Basketball shoes also cover the ankles to provide support for quick lateral movements. The point of all of these specialized shoes is to aid the foot in one way or another.
On the other hand, if you’ve heard about “barefoot shoes” or natural footwear, then you know that they are shoes specifically designed to offer no foot or ankle support. Rather, their purpose is to allow the foot to move as if it was barefoot, unleashing the foot’s biological technology. If you are transitioning into natural footwear, you may wonder what is the best footwear for these different activities. How do these specialized shoes fit into the barefoot world?
what is natural footwear?
Let’s begin with covering the qualities that make up a natural, barefoot shoe. I happen to use my last name, Shub, to list the components of healthy footwear.
- S is for sole
- H is for heel
- U is for upper
- B is for toe box
For maximum sensory feedback and mobility, footwear should have a thin, flexible sole. The foot is a very powerful sensor, and relies on input from the ground to direct movement. However, the thicker the shoe, the less information your nerve endings receive. Flexibility is also important to allow your foot to contour to the ground surface as it would if you were barefoot. Moving over different textures actually strengthens your foot intrinsics.
While most tennis shoes have an elevated heel, healthy footwear should be totally flat from heel to toe. A wedged shoe creates negative postural changes and increases pressure at the forefoot, while a flat shoe allows better alignment for your pelvis.
The upper should completely secure your foot to the sole of the shoe. If a shoe has all the other components of a natural footwear, but slides around on your foot (think flip flops or slides) then it does not allow your foot to truly mimic barefoot movement. Flip flops and other such shoes cause you to grip your toes to keep them on. These types of movements can lead to foot problems.
Lastly, natural footwear will have a wide toe box to accommodate the widest part of your foot, the toes. Most footwear tapers off from the ball of the foot towards the toes. Even shoes that most people believe to be healthy, have a tapered toe box. But when feet are squeezed into shoes with this narrow toe box, over time, they begin to take on the shape of the shoe. Bunions are a prime example of a condition caused by poorly fitting shoes. If you look at a foot with severe bunions, you may recognize the pointed shape the toes have morphed into. A wide toe box will allow your toes to splay. This splay increases stability and can prevent a number of toe issues.
Shoe technology vs. Foot technology
The purpose of wearing natural footwear that meets these criteria is to honor the foot as the best technology that exists to move and support our bodies. The shoe’s sole purpose should be to provide a thin layer of protection from the elements. That’s it. When you are participating in different sports activities, you may be told you need to wear a certain type of shoe to enhance your performance. Although these specialized shoes with extra support here, or restricted motion there, can help you kick harder, or run faster, if they were worn all the time, your feet would suffer. Restrictive toe boxes can cause a number of toe deformities. Shoes that offer too much support do the work for the foot, thereby weakening the foot.
So, if you want to improve your performance for competitive reasons, you may consider wearing specialized shoes on game day or race day. However, consider training barefoot or in natural footwear to really optimize the strength of your feet and whole body. Think about how specialized bicycles are for cyclists. You can buy the fanciest bike in the world, but if the actually rider of the bike is not conditioned properly, it does not do much good. The real test of performance is how the individual does without all the extra bells and whistles.
natural footwear for the win
If you are not competitively involved in sports, natural footwear will be sufficient enough for your needs. In fact, shoes that don’t insulate your connection to the ground will help you to move the way your body needs to in order to avoid injury. Take running for example. Your body has a natural pace at which it wants to run. Wearing conventional running shoes with a thickly cushioned heel may allow you to run faster or have a longer stride than your body is ready for. Whereas, going barefoot or wearing minimal footwear will enhance your connection to your body’s needs. There is no masking your inefficient gait patterns with extra cushioning.
You will notice when you wear natural footwear that you can reach a higher level of performance organically, and at the pace that your body can handle. Taking this route is the best way to avoid injuries as much as is possible. And, when you do run into injuries, you can heal faster and progress in a more connected and sustainable way.