It all starts in the feet
May 2, 2009 5:28 PM   Subscribe

I am not a runner or long distance walker, but would I be less tired and achey at the end of a day spent generally on my feet in a 'barefoot' style pair of shoes such as Nike Free or Vibram Five Fingers, or in a regular pair of cushiony shoes?

I can see an argument for both. I trust the millions of years of evolution in terms of body mechanics more than the last 50 years of shoe technology to 'correct' ourselves, but on the other hand standing on a cushiony surface seems intuitive for fatigue reduction overall. I mean they have anti-fatigue mats for this purpose in the workplace. Also evolution probably didn't account for the predominantly perfectly flat surfaces I inhabit.
What say you hive?
posted by GleepGlop to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Without having worn the former, I'd expect that they would help. Standing on a cushiony surface might have advantages, but regularly using "natural" shoes will strengthen your feet and legs - that may be the first step towards comfort, rather than trying to find comfort right off the bat.
posted by Picklegnome at 5:33 PM on May 2, 2009

We didn't evolve to spend lots of time running/jogging. Think about life in the jungle/savanna/wherever. You're either walking around at a leisurely pace or running for your life.
posted by delmoi at 5:44 PM on May 2, 2009

I have high arches ("No," said the woman at the orthotics shop, "you have extremely high arches"), and after a lifetime of varying degrees of foot discomfort, topped off with a fairly bad foot injury a year and a half ago when somebody dropped a bookcase on my foot, I've become a hardcore fan of minimal shoes. The more padding, the more "support", the worse my feet feel at the end of the day. I walk a lot, almost entirely on concrete, and have found that shoes with no padding are, counterintuitively, the most comfortable.
posted by Lexica at 5:47 PM on May 2, 2009

There's a third category, I think, of things like Birkenstocks and Danskos (sometimes called 'comfort shoes'), that are neither squishy nor bouncy nor minimally-soled, but that feature fairly hard contoured footbeds.

Many people, me included, find these very comfortable. It's all YMMV, of course, but it might be worth giving them a shot.
posted by box at 5:57 PM on May 2, 2009

Conversely to Lexica, I have flat feet and tend to need to wear sturdy shoes. I got plantar fasciitis last year. My podiatrist said no going barefoot and no to the cheap, unsupportive canvas shoes I was wearing. I am intrigued by the barefoot-style shoes, but I'm nervous to try them, because I don't any more plantar fasciitis pain.

I had orthotics once, and they felt great for very short distances, but after long distances (such as across my high school) I wanted to cry. My mom said I would have gotten used to them eventually.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:01 PM on May 2, 2009

I wouldn't classify the Nike Free as a "barefoot" shoe, exactly. I got a pair once to see what all the fuss was about and it's pretty padded on the bottom. There's also a significant heal to it, which makes you stand differently from how you would barefoot.

I don't know the answer to your main question about which would leave you feeling better, though.
posted by losvedir at 6:16 PM on May 2, 2009

Actually, humans may have evolved precisely to run long distances. I'm not sure that this type of shoe is going to help much when you are just standing around. I think the theory behind the lightweight shoes being good to run in is that you change your stride to land on the balls of your feet, instead of on the heel.

It might be worth a shot, though. I'd be very interested in how it turns out.
posted by jefeweiss at 6:58 PM on May 2, 2009

I trust the millions of years of evolution in terms of body mechanics more than the last 50 years of shoe technology to 'correct' ourselves,

Really? I wouldn't. Evolution just says you have to live long enough to reproduce, it cares nothing about improvements beyond that. Really, your assumptions here are flawed.

What kind of shoes will work best for you really depends on what kind of feet and legs you have. Personally I have to wear shoes and prescription orthotics all the time to avoid being in pain because I have pretty bad gait problems, I literally don't know stand on my feet properly without support. My boyfriend also finds wearing proper shoes when standing around stops him being achey afterwards because he has low arches (close to flat feet). The type of shoes which we each wear is very different. I know others who have normal feet and gait and prefer bare feet over shoes which push them around in different directions. That's cool and I'm a little jealous. But even they often find some cushioning helpful if standing or walking around for long periods on a hard flat surface. None of us can tell you what kind of shoe to wear and anecdotal evidence is useless for something so personalised.

Forget the evolution thing, it's a red herring. Forget the marketing ploy that tells you 'natural is best'. Instead go to a good sports shoe store and get fitted. Even if you don't buy anything they should be able to tell you if you're normal or have something weird going on and can discuss what types of shoes would work for you. Once I got my orthotics I found it's possible to totally thrash my feet for ten-twelve hours at a time without them hurting either during or after. Previously I didn't think that was possible. This is what you should aim for which ever way you get there.
posted by shelleycat at 7:03 PM on May 2, 2009

You didn't specify whether you'd be running and walking throughout the day, or whether you'd be standing in one place.

I had a job that had me standing on my feet all day. On the days I wore Birkenstocks, my ankles and knees were fine at the end of the day. On the days I wore cushiony running shoes, everything was achy by the end of the day. One of my siblings worked in a restaurant kitchen for a while and he and everybody else in the kitchen wore Dansko clogs.
posted by needled at 7:11 PM on May 2, 2009

Seconding clogs if you're mostly standing for long stretches.
posted by JulianDay at 7:14 PM on May 2, 2009

I've done both ends of the spectrum, starting with shoe inserts after a knee injury by the recommendation of my physical therapist at the time, to then moving onto to orthotics.

I found that the more I isolated my feet and had some shaped into some ideal form, the weaker my legs felt and the more careless my steps were. If I wasn't paying attention I would manage to "tweak" my knee (a sharp pain that would subside in a few minutes and need icing) taking steps, atleast once a week.

Last week my Vivo Barefoots arrived, and I've been very happy with them. It is definitely a learning experience, and my calf muscles are sore in the "being worked" sort of way at the end of the day, but my knees aren't any more irritated than if I were wearing my orthotics. After a week it feels like my muscles are getting stronger, and the irritation is subsiding. No tweaks walking (or running) up stairs also.

As for fatigue reduction, general core exercises and muscle strengthening will help also, as the stronger the muscles are, the better they can hold your body over the course of the day.
posted by mrzarquon at 7:25 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I hate it when I write a comment when I am watching a baseball game.

The short, less typo/grammar error ridden response:

I've had problems with my knees, orthotics were not helping. I have been wearing a pair of Vivo Barefoots for the past week, so far I have found it to be an improvement, but it was not a magic bullet and will require time adjusting (and in my case, re-strengthening weakened muscles).
posted by mrzarquon at 7:33 PM on May 2, 2009

I had a job that had me standing on my feet all day. On the days I wore Birkenstocks, my ankles and knees were fine at the end of the day. On the days I wore cushiony running shoes, everything was achy by the end of the day.

This has been exactly my experience working in the lab, where I stand at a hood all day. Because closed-toe shoes are required, I have the Vibrams.

However, the truly minimalist shoes like Vibram FF require that you have some strength in your feet already, and that you do a minimum of things like heel striking. To some degree, these will fix themselves over time--your muscles will strengthen and you'll avoid landing heavily on your heel because it hurts--but in the short term you can hurt yourself with them. I've slightly bruised myself wearing them, despite being somebody who goes barefoot regularly, because it seems like some part of your brain is wired to think "oh, I have shoes on; let's walk all stupid", and it takes a while to undo that.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:35 PM on May 2, 2009

As you can see Gleep, you're getting completely contradictory answers here. The reason, as shelleycat said, is because everyone is different. What works for me may not work for you. I have done the Nike Free's, the cushioned running shoes, and the clogs. Each had their plusses and minuses for me, but that doesn't matter whatsoever.

What matters is how they work for you. Go to a specialty shop that can determine your foot type, your walking and running gait, the support or lack thereof in your arches, and your pronation level. All those factors are important in determining the shoes that will be right for you... and only you.
posted by netbros at 8:03 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I learned that feet get larger as we age, and add that to the fact that feet are swollen by the end of the day. I plan accordingly. On days I will be standing a lot I wear thin socks and a size larger Danskos. On days I will be walking a lot I wear a bit tighter clogs and sock with wool reinforcements at the heels and ball of the foot.

I run in two bursts in the morning and evening. For that, nothing beats a well made light open shoe with a noticeable arch. Almost barefoot running has been great for the lower half of my body, and relieved my back problems when everyone else said I would be taking pain medicine from the time I first injured my back ten years ago.

Don't soak your feet, it dries the skin out. Let your feet breathe as much as possible.

Commuting in a car seat or sitting at a desk for hours makes the legs and back hurt.
posted by effluvia at 8:22 PM on May 2, 2009

Everyone always says to go see a shop, but so far, every one of these types of places I've been to (and at least one is nationally reputable) does a fabulous job of checking out your feet, describing your arches and pronation, and then recommending a running/walking/pogo-sticking shoe with either a 2 inch padded sole or a 3 inch, depending on your foot. Which is great if you want a "traditional" sneaker, but doesn't help with the actual question here.

The only real way to know is to try a minimalist shoe for a while, which sucks from a monetary perspective, unfortunately, if it doesn't work out for you. On the other hand, I think of all the money I spent on running shoes over the years...
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:38 PM on May 2, 2009

Ballet slipper type shoes with thin leather soles do a good job of mimicing a "natural" shoe because they conform and you can grip with your toes. Plus they're cheap and come in a million and one varities. I wear them all the time. I even have fleece lined ones for winter.
posted by fshgrl at 8:42 PM on May 2, 2009

I've personally made about 1100 pairs of shoes and boots, by hand, start to finish, worked for a major U.S. shoe manufacturer for many years making womens, mens and specialty footwear, and owned a shoe machinery company. I've also sold shoe chemicals and adhesives, and the test equipment which evaluates footwear durability and manufacturing quality. All that, and $1, will get you a cup of coffee, still, in some East Coast diners...

shellycat, netbros, and Dr. Enormous all make good points, above. Foot fatigue, and foot pain can have many disparate causes, only some of which can be helped or corrected by appropriate footwear. The problem for the average person is figuring out, from all the advertising, folklore, "evoluntionary physiology" and "common sense" available about shoes, what can help, and what is Bravo Sierra.

Step One is to figure out if you have innate physiological or orthopedic problems, or combination of issues, that are contributing to your discomfort. In the U.S., that's not as straightforward as you might think it should be, since the "specialty" of "podiatry" is not as long recognized or well regulated as other medical specialties. If you're looking for sound medical advice about possible foot problems, or orthopedic issues with your gait or lower limb physiology, picking a podiatrist out of the Yellow Pages may or may not get you the help you need, depending on the licensing board in your state, and what they expect of people who advertise themselves as podiatrists. Even if you seek medical expertise, you can spend a lot of money getting opinions and evaluations from orthopedists and podiatrists, and unless you have surgically correctable issues, or gross anatomical deformities for which a prescription for corrective footwear can be written, not get much practical advice. But, if you have consistent foot pain after simply standing or normal walking, even for several hours at a time, it behooves you to start with your GP, and get some referrals to reputable orthopedists or podiatrists in your area, to diagnose any underlying problems. Ideally, these people can do X-Rays, MRIs and related medical imaging studies, along with physical palpitation and manipulation of feet and lower limbs, as well as dynamic gait studies to diagnose any fundamental physiological issues that can be readily corrected. All well and good if you have the time and insurance, which I hope you do...

Step 1A is to come to terms with any weight/conditioning issues you have, relative to your feet and legs. To say this as simply as possible, if you have ladies size 5/AAA feet, and you weigh upwards of 200 pounds, foot pain after several hours of standing is going to be your lot, regardless of your footwear choices. A man weighing 250 pounds, wearing size 7D shoe size can expect his dogs to bark, after standing all day, regardless of his footwear selections. Obviously, if you are proportional in weight to you height and shoe size, you can ignore this as a primary cause. Otherwise, be wise, and heed the messages your feet are sending. If you have small feet, you cannot long be a large person, and walk or stand well.

Step Two is to find a shoe store, athletic shoe or not, that employs personnel who can use the Brannock Device intelligently. Once upon a time, major U.S. shoe manufacturers adhered closely to size and width standards, but today, when 90% of shoes sold in the U.S. are imported, sizing and fit is an "iffy" proposition. That's because the international shoe size "standards" in use today offer far less precise size/width specifications than the once traditional U.S. sizing, which was developed largely from data captured by the U.S. government from WWII Army inductee measurements.

You, at least, must be aware of the size/width measurements of your individual feet to have, at least, a baseline, in finding shoes that fit. About 85% of people in North America have one foot that is measurably bigger than the other, and about 1 person in 10 in the U.S. population has feet that differ by a full size or more. If you are one of the unfortunate 10%, you need to know it, and perhaps find a different shoe buying strategy. Even if you have nearly symmetrical feet, you need to know, for sure, your size, width, and arch length, to have any chance of finding well fitting footwear. One of the prime causes of foot pain and fatigue is footwear with an incorrect arch length, or width, causing a "loose heel" condition, causing the wearer to try to keep the shoe from "slipping" in wear by pushing down with toes excessively, during each stride.

Once you know your size(s), the next step in selecting footwear is to forget about whether they are cushy, or firm, and consider only where and how the shoes bend. Generally, you do not want shoes that bend easily (either along the length of the sole, or torsionally, from heel to ball) between the heel and the ball of your foot, because a healthy foot doesn't materially bend or flex between the heel and the ball, except in width, during a normal stride. Good shoes don't either, but at the ball, they bend easily, as does the healthy foot. This is absolutely vital to comfort in wear. Shoes that do not flex easily at the ball of the foot, and only at the ball*, will likely never be truly comfortable in wear!

* "barefoot" shoe manufactures intentionally ignore this. More about that directly....

From the ball to the toe, good shoes are generally fairly stiff, although if the toe is pointed for style reasons, some slight bending relief is generally provided. The "barefoot" style shoes you mention violate this maxim by design, believing that your own foot should provide all the stiffness for a normal gait, that they (the "barefoot" style shoes) don't. All well and good if you possess healthy feet and a good gait, but woe to you, big time, if you are suffering from various tendon issues, major pronation or supination, or have long term problems from previous poor fit, such as "hammer toe, "mallet toe" or "bunions." You can't suddenly correct these problems simply by changing to a new kind of footwear, and you may find that new muscle/skeletal problems suddenly appear if you make a major change with these underlying conditions, as different muscles and joints suddenly take up new duties than those to which they are long accustomed.

I repeat: if you have many pre-existing foot conditions, the notion that changing to a barefoot style of footwear will solve these issues, through some kind of gradual strengthening of the feet in wear, is not, in my experience, well advised. Moreover, if you walk on a wide variety of surfaces in these "barefoot" kinds of footwear, you have a greater hazard for stone bruises and sprains.

All that said, Step Three in your quest for comfortable footwear is to understand what various kinds of soling and mid-sole materials are designed to do in comfort and athletic footwear. Generally speaking, unless you have some obvious orthopedic pre-conditions, running shoes or other athletic footwear are not good choices for general purpose footwear. The reason is simply that they have a lot more "shock absorption" than the normal person needs for walking and standing. They achieve this by incorporating materials like EVA, which work really well, in the short term, for absorbing and redistributing strike shock during the running stride, at the cost of breaking down pretty quickly in use. Running and sport shoes are designed to be replaced fairly frequently, and lose a lot of the their protective effects if you wear them beyond the cycle compression and rebound limits of their materials; they are not usually satisfactory for daily wear, unless you plan on replacing them frequently. In my experience, this is a characteristic shared, greatly, by many of the "barefoot" shoe material designs, although the "barefoot" shoes generally make no claim of providing much shock absorption. The materials of most "barefoot" shoes don't stand up well in abrasion, to say nothing of shock absorption; if you choose such footwear, make sure you are changing them out on appropriate wear schedules.
posted by paulsc at 11:31 PM on May 2, 2009 [42 favorites]

Running shoes are designed for one specific activity: running. While running you use your foot in a different way than walking or generally standing (just to name one, while running you impact as hard as 4 times your bodyweight as compared to your bodyweight while you walk).

Have you tried considering WALKING shoes (such as the ones you find in the Asics range)? They are built with the same "techonologies" as running shoes, but calibrated for the different activity: less cushioning, a lower heel, more flex in the forefoot, a different bevel...
posted by madeinitaly at 12:13 AM on May 3, 2009

Response by poster: Wowzers, a lot of information to ponder here, thanks!
posted by GleepGlop at 9:19 AM on May 3, 2009

I bought the Vibram Five-Fingers Sprint shoes a week ago (and put a silly little vlog review of them on youtube). They are really comfortable. The first few days of wearing them were really interesting- you can actually feel the muscles in your foot getting stronger. When you take them for a run, you'll notice that your entire running mechanics change- you'll change from landing hard on your heels to landing on the balls of your feet- and suddenly your calf muscles will be getting a lot more work. After about a week, you'll notice that your toes have actually spread out.

I haven't taken them on any big runs or hikes yet- I still feel like I'm working up to that (if you do get them, remember that you have to build up your ability to do a lot of barefoot time! most people's foot muscles are badly atrophied from being cast in shoes all the time). But I would absolutely recommend them. As I mentioned in my video though- I only wear them around the house and while being active- they really do kind of look silly and I wouldn't wear them around in public.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:03 AM on May 3, 2009

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