How shoes affect your feet (and what to do about it)

In this article we take a look at the common side effects wearing shoes can have on our feet and we cover a few ideas for optimal foot health.

Check out the photo of my feet, I made my right foot mimic what it would look like inside a shoe and my left foot is roughly how feet should look.

The most obvious difference between the two is the overall shape of each foot. The human foot is naturally widest at the end of the toes and tapers back towards the heel. Most shoes tend to cause a narrowing effect of the forefoot and especially the toes so that the widest point ends up being across the ‘knuckles’ of the foot. If/when your feet adapt to this position it becomes the foot equivalent of not being able to spread your fingers wider than the width of your palm. Yeah, not great.

It’s definitely strange, but we seem to have a cultural penchant for shoes that aren’t even shaped like feet. Stranger still is that the most highly coveted shoes also tend to be the most destructive on our feet. I’m not saying you have to throw your Jimmy Choos out but it's worth understanding what they do to your feet.

What happens to your feet in [most] shoes:

  • Your toes and metatarsals (the bones upstream of your toes) scrunch together which reduces mobility and dexterity throughout the foot. This also causes the bones of the feet to become misaligned can leave you more prone to injury.
  • Your big toe gets pushed towards your second toe which tends to lead to pronation of the foot (the arch drops). This seems to be a primary cause of bunions. When the big toe is aligned correctly (spread) it causes supination on the foot (the arch is lifted).
  • All toes tend to get lifted up towards the front of most shoes which chronically shorts the muscles in the tops of the feet and causes the muscles under the feet to become weak from underuse. Again, this also increase the risk of injury. 
  • Most shoes have what is called 'drop' meaning the heel is higher than the forefoot. Having the heel constantly raised can cause the muscles in the back of the calves to become short and tight and limits ankle flexibility - which can lead to a host of biomechanics problems throughout the body.

So, now that I’ve fear mongered you into burning anything in sight that has a narrow toe box and a heel, lets take a look at some of the strategies we can employ to help keep our feet healthy and strong:

  • The first step is fairly obvious, stop doing the thing that is causing the problem as much as possible. So limit time spent in shoes, whenever you get the chance to go barefoot or wear unrestrictive shoes, do it.
  • What you do most of the time tends to be what matters, not what you do every now and then. So we want to optimize our everyday shoes before we look at the shoes we break out once a month. Good everyday shoes for healthy feet should be foot shaped (wide toe box) and zero drop or minimal drop (flat sole).
  • Training shoes are an important consideration, for most people a shoe that allows their foot to move as it is designed to is going to be a wise choice. Again, wide toe box and minimal drop is best for in-gym most activities. If you’re a runner and want to make the switch over towards a barefoot running style then you need to make that transition to a minimalist style shoe slowly. Some good brands from training shoes include New Balance Minimus, Vivobarefoot, Merrell, Inov8, Vibram Fivefingers (the ‘toe’ shoes). Nike and Reebok do some shoes that come close too (check out the Nike Free’s and Reebok Nano’s).
  • If you notice your toes are narrowed toward the front of the foot there are some things you can do to spread the toes back out again. The first thing I would recommend here would be seeking out a quality physical therapist. Another option to start to spread those toes out again is to use toes separators such as Correct Toes or Yoga Toes.

This Rabbit hole goes deeeeeep and that’s all I’m going to unpack for now, so if you want to learn more about how footwear can effect out feet I’d recommend checking out this podcast episode and check out this page on Katy Bowman’s website.

by Coach Tom Bold