Rehabbing feet to avoid lifetime of $$ shoes- possible? Your experience?
April 13, 2021 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Half a lifetime of wearing crappy shoes and not challenging the feet = plantar fasciitis, pain, dysfunction. I'd like to strengthen and rehabilitate my feet, curious about your experience and recommendations.

My story in five sentences
1. Foot pain. Hmm, this isn't normal...
2. Visit podiatrist.
3. Podiatrist says, "you have calcification in joints, plantar fasciitis, and your toes aren't moving properly. You need to get 'stability shoes'."
4. Go to shoe store, spend $130 on New Balance running shoes with proper support.
5. May also need orthotics.

This seems like a lot. According to some experts, walking in thick soled shoes on flat surfaces all day does not challenge the feet. They get weak, and this leads to compensation and pain.

Rather than swaddle my feet in expensive technology for the rest of my life, I'd like to strengthen them, rehabilitate them.

Of course, there are tons of people on YouTube, some of them even credentialed, with exercises, gadgets, and methods for doing this.

I'd like to hear from someone who has successfully rehabilitated their feet so they no longer need fancy shoes and swaddling.
* How long did it take, what was the time commitment?
* Whose methods did you use?
* What did you learn?

Thanks in advance.
posted by 4midori to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend all of Katy Bowman's books incredibly highly. Her exercises and recommendations have changed my foot health dramatically. I used to have constant pain and plantar fasciitis and needing regular cortisone shots and limping badly after a 45-minute walk on flat terrain. I visited a podiatrist multiple times who recommended insoles, etc. Nothing helped long-term.

Reading her books changed my life. The first step was no more crappy shoes, like I went home and got rid of all of them in one go. Flats only (like COMPLETELY flat, not even a tiny little 1/2-inch heel, she recommends zero drop if you can find it). Wide toe boxes only. This alone helped so, so much. She has tons of store suggestions for both cold and warm weather, dressy, casual, running shoes, sandals, even winter boots.

I also added in her exercises, like toe spacers and practicing moving your toes independently and "holding hands" with your feet to help you regain widely-spaced toes. Also calf stretches with a rolled towel. Most of these can be done while you're just sitting around on the couch or while brushing your teeth.

Between the two, I had considerable relief within six months or so and it continues to get better and better. I haven't had pain like I did in years. I finally transitioned to minimalist footwear a few months ago and it's yet another game-changer.
posted by anderjen at 8:16 AM on April 13, 2021 [12 favorites]

On my first class with my Amazing (slightly blunt) Yoga Teacher she said "Margot Fonteyn was said to have feet like butter. Yours are the opposite". I have been rehabbing my stone-feet ever since! It's taken about 5 years so far but my whole body is different. Turned out that I had hunched my stressed-out shoulders up so badly that I'd shortened all my limbs and the soles of my feet.

I've been doing yoga (I had previously done it with another instructor as well) to continue getting an appreciation of my body, but what's really helped is - every time I go for a walk I concentrate on doing the Best Foot Placement I can. Not striking hard on the heel, keeping my foot in proper alignment. If you can practice walking barefoot even better because then you have to put the front of the foot down first. Make sure you stand up tall.

Strange things might hurt - it started with my knees, then hips, then up further, and back down. I used to have toes that curled up at the bottom knuckle. Focusing on stretching the sole out as I make a step and push backwards has been very helpful.

I have learned that the foot holds all the body's pain (do you get migraines? back pain?), and to stay vigilant every step (well, as much as possible - like meditation just come back to it when you notice you're not doing it any more).

Feel free to memail me to chat more. I could chat feet rehab all day!
posted by london explorer girl at 8:17 AM on April 13, 2021

Vindaloo’s wife here. Beginner yoga in 1/2 hour sessions multiple times a week eliminated my foot pain from plantar fasciitis and an old injury. Many of the poses and sequences really build up strength and flexibility in the feet and calves: sun salutations have you rolling on your feet and toes through a full range of motion, balance poses require a lot of foot strength and stability, many stretching poses flex the feet as well.

Took a few weeks to lessen pain, about 6 weeks to see a major improvement. I used beginner yoga challenges on YouTube, like Yoga with Adriene, very easy to do at home.
posted by Vindaloo at 8:18 AM on April 13, 2021

Calcification of the joints isn't something that you can rehab, I don't think. Plantar fasciitis and toes you can help by standing with your toes on the edge of a step and raising and lowering your weight.

Also, $130 isn't really that much for a good pair of shoes. My heel pain went away after I started wearing better shoes. YMMV
posted by irisclara at 8:18 AM on April 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

I suffered from terrible PF bought on by having to wear well padded shoes due to having my big toe cut off and reattached and the pain and discomfort from from that and the changes it made to my gait.

I basically did some simple foot exercises every day. Stretches and lifts. And took a lot of beach walks on soft sand.

It still took me 6 months to be able to walk barefoot for more than a few minutes without pain and 2 years for me to consider myself "cured". I was in so much pain I couldn't even walk around a supermarket without crying and hobbling when we started and to just make it through a day at home needed to wear crocs around the house to make basic housework possible. Early last year I did 7 straight days at Disneyworld walking over 10 miles a day, with minimal foot pain just tiredness.

I have the added hiccup of the toe I mentioned sending weird nerve twinges and pain which took a lot of work on my gait to overcome so still wear supportive shoes if I'm going to be on my feet for a while, but my PF is gone.
posted by wwax at 8:20 AM on April 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

Proper physiotherapy. Mine specialises in rehabilitating people after complicated bunion surgeries and doesn't do sessions shorter than 90 minutes. I started visiting her with a sprained ankle, but the exercises she got me through were magic for general foot strength and flexibility, plus balance - I honestly move differently now. It took about three months of diligent daily exercises and twice-weekly sessions, but now I only do the exercises when something feels stiff in my feet and ankles.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 8:41 AM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

My wife has had bad plantar fasciitis, bad enough that she was considering surgery. She wound up getting a trigger point therapy kit, which did the trick. The exercises were very painful for a couple of weeks, but after she was over that hump, she felt a lot better.

Also, $130 for shoes that solve your problem sounds like a bargain to me.
posted by adamrice at 8:44 AM on April 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'll be honest, spending less than $130 on shoes isn't particularly realistic. That's what a lot of shoes go for these days. Cheaper than that, and you're getting, well, cheap shoes, which of course aren't good for your feet.

Meanwhile, some things I've done to help my feet:

-Always wear some sort of arch support. No flip flops, no bare feet. If I'm not wearing shoes, I'm wearing slipper-y type things. Right now I've got Adidas Adissage sandals on; I also have a pair of Crocs.

-Epsom salt baths. This is somewhat controversial, but the doctor I originally saw about my plantar fasciitis twenty years ago suggested it, and I've found it helpful.

-Calf compression sleeves. I guess a lot of foot pain comes from tight calves. I generally wear these to sleep, and I wake up feeling great. But sometimes I'll wear them under pants as well.

-Rolling a ball. A lot of people suggest a lacrosse ball; I just use a wood ball from a craft store.

-Stretches. Every morning before getting out of bed, I lay on my back with my knees up, and cross one leg so that, e.g., the right ankle is on the left thigh just below the knee. Then I stretch the toes on my right foot trying to touch them to my right knee. Repeat for the other foot. As needed throughout the day, I will do the toe-pickup stretch (pretend to be picking something up off the ground using only your toes) and the foot version of cat-cow yoga pose (stretch up, then stretch down). I also do the runner's calf stretch a lot to keep my calves loose.

That's been enough for me recently. If things get worse, I'm preparing to buy over-the-counter orthotics (I've heard the Spenco brand recommended).

But yeah, it all starts with good shoes, which you won't often find under $100.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:06 AM on April 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

Start by fixing your problems so there is nothing sore in your feet - those protective shoes are critical for now. You need to get every trace of inflammation gone. Anti-inflammatories like maintenance naproxen for awhile will likely help a lot. Replace your shoes way earlier.

Foot massage is good. Massage your own feet with attention to creating more flexibility in the leaf spring that is your instep, but also work on increasing flexibility in your toes and ankles. Your toes originally were capable of curling forward with every joint bending forward. Many adults have toes that will now only bend backward, sometimes with toe knuckles that can't be bent forward, even manually. Practice grabbing things with your toes; a good exercise is to drop a small towel on the floor and use your toes to pleat it under your foot.

Walk on rough ground a lot. You want to walk on slopes at every angle and walk on bumpy ground as much as you can. You want to walk on slippery ground with a shifting surface, such as pebbly slopes. You want walking to take effort and planning, so that you use minute changes in the ankle and foot muscles to keep from sliding and to keep you stable. If you are walking outside, as much as you can walk on waste ground, gravel, unpaved shoulders and lawns, especially those that are a mess. If you have a choice of walking on asphalt or concrete always pick asphalt. This is really key.

Figure out if there is something wrong with your gait, such as pronating and figure out how to walk that distributes your weight better. Most people really struggle to learn to change their gait. If you can get a physical cue so you know instantly if you are doing it or not that will help. In my case I need to remember to let my knees brush together as I walk, as I had been slowly working towards getting bowlegged. Even if you can't remember to walk that way while you are doing your every day things,you can remember to do it when walking distances on hard surfaces, like sidewalks. Try to cultivate a habit of adopting the improved gait when you do transition things like step onto the sidewalk off your property or when you get out of the car.

They will advise you to always wear your insoles, even indoors. In my experience this is bad advice. They force your feet into the right position but that in turn causes wear in the shoes so they wear out into the shape that caused the foot problems faster. Instead go barefoot as much as you can, or stocking feet if it is cold. Often foot problems are the result of shoes that wore down unevenly. The longer you walked in those shoes the worse it got and the more it trained you to walk with the bad gait. Your foot problems may be entirely the fault of the pair of shoes you were wearing when the pain started.

When you do buy shoes look for ones with tough soles that will not wear quickly and exaggerate any issues with your gait. Modern lightweight runners with the less dense soles wear much quicker than many shoe types, even though they are touted as providing a lot of protection. It is true, they do - but that protection may only last weeks. Their selling point is that they are light weight so they are less fatiguing to wear. Don't go there. The manufacturers love them because they have to be replaced so often. Look for hikers if you are doing any long distance running or walking.

I have not had to wear my insoles for about five years and am happily free from foot pain, despite doing extensive trail walking and long city walks on sidewalks while doing errands.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:13 AM on April 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

my husband had to go to the ER a couple of times for Morton’s neuroma triggered by too-tight toe boxes and insufficient support, and he’s now a firm convert to the school of “expensive”, comfortable shoes. I’ve suffered from bunions and plantar fasciitis, but have mostly warded off foot trouble because I don’t tolerate bad shoes. I would argue that the shoes/orthotics are not expensive at all, and you should retrain yourself to consider the health of your feet (which affects the rest of your body) something worth regularly spending $130. I’m sure the exercises will be good for you, too, but I’m begging you, please don’t balk at spending more than you’re used to on shoes. Your health is worth it! Discount retailers like 6pm, Nordstrom Rack, Sierra Trading Post, or can be good sources of cheaper but high-quality shoes. Some shoes (probably not the sneakers though) can be resoled and last for years. You can also buy shoe inserts like Birkenstocks or Superfeet to switch between other shoes with poor support.
posted by music for skeletons at 9:18 AM on April 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Seconding the recommendation for Katy Bowman. Her book "Whole Body Barefoot" is good starting point. Transitioning to minimalist shoes has eliminated my shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and cured a minor tailor's bunion I was developing on one foot. Finding "good" shoes and managing foot pain is simply no longer a part of my life.

It is important to transition to minimalist shoes gradually and couple it with the exercises in her books. I would wear Earth Runners for increasingly longer periods over about six months to build up the needing strength in my feet and legs. Now wear Earth Runners and Softstar shoes exclusively.
posted by fozzie_bear at 9:23 AM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I bought my first pair of Birkenstocks when I did a student exchange through our local Y the summer before I started high school; that and Nutella were the two souvenirs I brought back from Germany. I loved those shoes so, so much that except for after-school sports and formal dinner once a week, they were the only pair of shoes I wore freshman year.

After I came home for the summer, I had my usual checkup, and my doctor noted that my feet, especially my arches, "looked much healthier, what had I been doing?" Then she noticed my Birkenstocks, gave the thumbs up, and said, "Just get a second pair so you can let each pair rest between uses, and that will also help them be less stinky."

Everyone else is covering the physical therapy aspects better than I have the expertise to, but the real takeaway from my experience is "spend the money on fewer, much higher quality shoes."
posted by Pandora Kouti at 9:27 AM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I had a bad year-long case of plantar fasciitis some years ago. What helped was stretching, a night splint (for me a pretty rigid one was necessary, YMMV, they're clunky but you do learn to sleep in them, and the expensive shoes while my feet healed. I also got really intense about throwing away any non-flats or nonsupportive shoes.

These days my feet are fine 99% of the time. I still only wear a few trusted brands of shoes with good support, but I don't wear special orthotic insoles. I rarely need to do stretches and never wear a night splint now, but I do once or twice a year start to feel that very special pain twinge that tells me I've overdone it somehow, and at that point I do resume stretches for a few days or weeks as needed to keep it from becoming a full blown thing, and it goes away again.
posted by Stacey at 9:48 AM on April 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

One thing I should point out, after being so adamant that $130 is what shoes cost now, is that that's list price. In your situation where your doctor wanted you to buy new shoes immediately, you don't have much of a choice but to pay list price. Going forward, though, you'll be able to take advantage of sales and prior-year models, and if you're savvy, you won't actually have to hand over $130 each time.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:53 AM on April 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

I had plantar fasciitis for a year or so. It started the day I wore some boots with lousy arches. It came and went for a while and I discovered my foot was better when I wore some old Keen shoes I had with good arch support and that had heels just a little higher than toes, maybe 1/2 to 3/4 inch, I had one such pair, quickly bought two more in other colors, used on ebay because they stopped making them. Anything flatter killed me. I went to the doc, he gave me one of those braces, it was useless. In the end, the thing that did the most good other than the shoes was deep tissue massage (a couple of months pre-pandemic) and walking up and down steep hills. If you need to lose weight that might help too. My feet are fine now, can and do walk several miles a few times a week. I've always worn expensive sneakers for walking.

My original pair of Keens cost around $100 when I bought them new 12 years ago. Fuck fashion, if the shoe is comfortable and will last for years it's worth spending the money.
posted by mareli at 10:20 AM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I spent years wearing shoes with support. From Birkenstocks to Merrell I wanted something that maintained my arch and cushioned my foot. I had ankle injuries, knee pain. At some point I switched to minimalist shoes. No more ankle injuries, no more knee pain, feet are a lot more resilient now. So I buy shoes that are the closest I can get to barefoot, and take out the insoles if they have them and replace them with leather strips.

I'm hard on the Vibram 5 Fingers, keep tearing out the tops, so my current shoes of choice are Lem's. But my feet are doing a hell of a lot better.
posted by straw at 10:27 AM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just here to say this list of suggestions is fabulous and I wish I had known all these things when I was hobbling around with PF 10 years ago. (Happy to learn about Katy Bowman today!) You will get through this: do your exercises, drink extra water, ditch the non supportive shoes (and/or use Superfeet inserts), massage the heck out of feet & legs and don't give up hope.

When my feet (occasionally) start talking to me I have some favorite things: Lie on my back and draw the alphabet with my feet a few times a day, roll out my feet with Melt Method balls morning and evening, and in general rededicate myself to mindful movement.

If you want to explore other body movement modalities, I also found relief with Feldenkrais and like Alphons on YouTube. His series on feet was helpful.
posted by heidiola at 10:58 AM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

This helped my PF, after trying a lot of other ridiculous things: tracing the alphabet with my feet before getting out of bed. This limbers up the tendons so the scar tissue does not re-tear when you get out of bed. Takes a few months for everything to heal. Haven't had PF in years, but still do the alphabet thing each morning.
posted by jabah at 2:32 PM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Yes to Katy Bowman, no to the idea of returning these expensive shoes for something cheap before you have any idea what you're doing. $130 is not too much. It might be worth considering that perhaps your reluctance to spend money on decent shoes has contributed to some of the problems you are having.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:40 PM on April 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

I wore orthotics for many years, then met with the founder of this company (scroll to bottom) who taught me these exercises and a few more. She recommended this book.

After two weeks, I threw out the orthotics and have never worn them again. I now walk about 15 miles a day and have been doing so for years.

I wear perfectly flat shoes with wide toe boxes. Preferred brands are Vivobarefoot and Mukishoes. Both are more than $130.
posted by dobbs at 6:41 PM on April 13, 2021

-Always wear some sort of arch support. No flip flops, no bare feet. If I'm not wearing shoes, I'm wearing slipper-y type things. Right now I've got Adidas Adissage sandals on; I also have a pair of Crocs.

This has been my experience as well. A few months into the pandemic my plantar fasciitis returned after a few years without any pain. I was baffled because I was working from home so on my feet much less less, wearing the same shoes, exercising the same. Then I realized I was barefoot 23 hours a day, obviously a huge change. I got some Vionic slippers and it cleared up.

When my PF was bad, I kept a tennis ball under my desk and rolled my foot on it on and off throughout the day, did the calf stretches already linked, and got orthotics and good shoes. I never wear cheap shoes or narrow shoes anymore. Good sneakers that aren't Nike and Merrells are what's worked for me.
posted by Mavri at 8:07 PM on April 13, 2021

Nthing the recommendations for Katy Bowman's book Whole Body Barefoot and minimalist/"barefoot" shoes. I didn't have as many foot problems as you list here, but I had sesamoiditis, had to wear an orthotic boot for months, and then continued to experience recurring pain in the ball of that foot. Three years ago, I stumbled across Katy Bowman's blog (through an AskMe comment, in fact) and when I read what she wrote about shoes, it just made sense to me. I started wearing Correct Toes (with a slow transition, just 15 minutes at first, adding half an hour each day) and transitioned to wearing only minimalist shoes (completely flat/zero-drop, a wide toebox, no arch support or toe spring, and a flexible and relatively thin sole). Since then, the ball of my foot hasn't hurt once.

I will say that, if you do transition to minimalist shoes, it's important to not continue walking the way you do in conventional shoes (slamming your heel down at the start of each step). Doing that could make your plantar fasciitis worse and was a problem I had at the start of my transition. I started being very careful to walk the same way in minimalist shoes that I do barefoot (putting my heel down gently at the start of each step), and once that became natural, over the course of a couple weeks, I was fine and have had zero problems with my feet since.
posted by LNM at 8:17 PM on April 13, 2021

Always wear some sort of arch support.

I have very high arches and I could not disagree with this more. If you want strong feet, stop giving them a crutch to walk on.
posted by dobbs at 6:30 AM on April 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, this is super helpful.
posted by 4midori at 3:09 PM on April 14, 2021

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