Stop Foot Pain: A Nerd’s Guide to Healthy Feet

This is a guest post from Camp NF Headmaster, Kate Galliett of FitForRealLife.com.

Living with foot pain? Think you’ll be wearing orthotics your whole life? Ack!

You’ve fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is to “never get involved in a land war in Asia.” But only slightly less well-known is: “do not believe that you are stuck with weak, flat, bunion’d, or heel-spur’d feet.”

Ok, so Vizzini the Sicilian didn’t say it quite like that.

But this statement is no less true than his original one.

I’ve had the pleasure of helping a lot of people fix their feet up to be super strong, pain-free, orthotic-free, and awesome, and I’m going to teach you what I taught them.

Given that your feet are your base of support, they influence the power output of your hips and glutes, and they carry you off to every adventure you go on – it’s crucial they function well.

Your feet have a lot of working parts: bones, joints, muscles, tendons, connective tissue, and nerves that all need to work together properly. When this anatomy doesn’t get to express itself well, any number of things can go wrong. From developing “flat feet” to the more scary stress fracture, and everything in between.

Sometimes our shoes make this a real challenge. But do not fear! Today I’m going to fix your feet and make sure you can walk all the way to Mordor.


Are shoes the worst?

shoes

In short, constrictive “modern” shoes make it difficult for your foot anatomy to express itself well. From moving as it was built to move. 

A healthy foot doesn’t just have one arch shape in it. It has three arch shapes. There is the main ‘arch’ on the inside of the foot, an arch that runs parallel to it on the outside edge of your foot, and an arch running across the metatarsal heads (you may know these as the “balls of your feet”).

Most feet have lost the two less famous arches (or possibly even all three!), and this is in part because the foot muscles have not been able to maintain strength and tone while inside modern shoes.

Yes, shoes do provide support. But, like anywhere else on your body, if an external object is providing support for your body, your body won’t need to to provide that support itself. Like a cast on your arm that supports the bones while they heal, your muscle tissue in that area is not providing that support, and thus it atrophies from disuse (this is the theory behind “fragile vs antifragile“).

Shoes do the same thing for your feet.

But it’s not all bad! The right shoes provide plenty of benefit: for starters, they protect your feet from things on the ground that might impale your foot if you didn’t have the shoe material between you and the ground. This is less important if you are a Hobbit.

Shoes also provide a dampening effect, making the hard ground easier on your feet, and lessening any thermal energy that would otherwise come up from the hot ground and burn your feet. The same applies for taking your feet out onto a freezing ground.

[Note from Steve: I actually developed Plantar Fasciitis last summer when I moved to New York City from suddenly walking 10+ miles a day on hard concrete in minimal shoes. Too much, too soon, on hard ground = gonna have a bad time.]

Shoes are not meant to replace what your feet should be capable of doing on their own, but rather enhance what your feet can already do and keep them safe.  Many people think if they have sore feet or foot problems that they solution is MORE support, MORE padding, MORE arch support. The reality might be that your feet have been ‘coddled’ and need to be rebuilt and restrengthened so they can support themselves!

Let’s get after it. For starters, shoes should not squeeze or scrunch or limit your feet from expressing their anatomy fully:

footchart

So what should you look for in a ‘better’ shoe?

Find a Better Shoe

footarchThere are four components to look for in a shoe.

If the shoe doesn’t meet these four criteria, then your foot is going to be compromised.

A good shoe has:

  • No heel lift of any kind.
  • A wide toe box that allows your foot to spread as it lands on the ground with each step.
  • A pliable bottom that allows your toes to bend to a full ninety degrees of flexion as you step.
  • Something to attach it to your ankle area.

Let’s look at each in a bit more detail:

1. No heel lift of any kind. When your shoe raises your heel higher than your forefoot (aka heel lift), your ankle and lower leg are being positioned in a slightly shortened position for the duration that you’re wearing the shoes.

When your leg muscles are thrown into a slightly unnatural position, it means your mobility of your ankle will suffer… and this will limit all sorts of things: your squatting ability, interfering with your running gait, etc.

This doesn’t just mean high-heels either! This includes most regular shoes which have a bulky heel and lower toe. In many shoes you’ll see this difference between heel and forefoot referred to as a “drop,” so “zero-drop” shoes are shoes where heel and forefoot are at the same height.

2. A wide toe box that allows your foot to spread as it lands on the ground with each step. With each step you take, your foot actually spreads wider upon landing. This is impossible for your foot to do when it’s in a shoe that is too narrow.

If the toe box is not at least as wide as your foot when you’re standing on your foot, while it’s bearing your weight, that’s a problem for your foot. Know that as your foot becomes more ‘natural’ it’s possible it will widen further, as the muscles and bones reposition themselves.

Feet crammed into a shoe is like putting a leash on Sonic the Hedgehog: they want to be free!

3. A pliable bottom that allows your toes to bend fully as you step. Your great toe is meant to flex to ninety degrees as you move through the gait cycle. See below:

Toe Stretch

If your shoe does not allow this due to a hard sole, your feet won’t be able to move as well, and the soft tissues of your foot will get weaker from not being used fully. PLUS, when you aren’t flexing your big toe regularly, your body will start to lose the ability to use that joint fully. This can lead to all sorts of problems. Doh!

4. It’s strapped to your foot. If the shoe isn’t strapped around your ankle, your toes are going to grab at the shoe to keep it on with every step you take. This makes some of your foot bones push down and some of your foot bones lift up. That shift means you change the amount of forces on each bone. Over time, this can lead to stress fractures and tissue injuries.

“But Kate, it’s summer! sandals! Is this really a big deal?” Yes, it’s a big deal. If you’re looking for more, check out the below video from movement specialist Kelly Starret.

I understand that it’s now possible you’re very upset with me because I’ve just told you every shoe you own is causing a problem. The answer is not to immediately toss out whatever shoes you’re wearing for something that is fully ‘minimal’ in nature.

Also, this isn’t an “all or nothing” scenario. Similar to your nutrition, do the best you can when you can, and if you occasionally wear heels/flip flops for whatever reason, it’s certainly better than nothing.

There is a healthy and safe progression to take when it comes to moving towards a minimal shoe, and I’ll cover that at the end of the post.

Here’s how you can begin fighting for your feet…

Lego walk

For starters, determine how far you are from the ‘ideal’ shoe that meets all four criteria above. If you’re wearing a very cushion-y and/or very supportive shoe, or you live your life in high heels, know that there will be several iterations of a “better shoe” for you to go through.

And if you’re already wearing something you’d call ‘fairly minimal’, then your journey may be a bit shorter.

It doesn’t matter where begin your foot journey. What matters is that you can see a place you’d like to get to: your feet are more functional, stronger, and better supported, and happier.

Who doesn’t want happy feet?!

FIRST THINGS FIRST, I’m the realest you will want to immediately start improving the mobility and strength of your foot. Having better foot mobility means every tissue and joint can play it’s part in flexing, extending, and stabilizing. Developing foot strength means you start developing arches back into your foot, and your feet will be better aligned to actually take advantage of all the muscles in your body which holds itself up. The more strength and mobility you have, the less support you’ll need from your shoe. In addition, having proper foot and ankle mobility is crucial in performing a proper (below parallel) bodyweight squat.

Perform the mobility work daily, and start with the strength drills every other day. Work gently, and go slow. For some, the foot hasn’t been well-attended to in decades. Try the following while you’re watching TV, or sitting at your desk, or whenever you can.

Do what you can, when you can:

Transition to a Better Shoe

walking barefoot

Since it’s not realistic to be barefoot all day in the modern world, we need a transition strategy.

1) The first and easiest way to start making this footwear change to make is to start wearing your shoes less total time during your day.

The more time your foot gets to be free from the restrictions of shoes, the more your anatomy gets to learn new signals and create new responses. It’s the equivalent of letting your dog run around the dog park regularly instead of having to stay cooped up inside an apartment.

Our feet were born free, and they deserve to be reminded daily what life is like on the outside (of a shoe!).

2) Begin strengthening and stretching. The drills above will get you started on a path to healthier feet. 

3) Start the shoe transition process. Now, while you’re spending a little less time in shoes during your day, start taking a look at what options exist for a better version of the footwear you have currently.

  • If you spend your day in flip-flops, take a look at brands like Unshoes, who makes sandals that strap to your ankle.
  • If you spend your day in dress shoes, determine what freedom you have at the office to adjust your shoes to something less restrictive but still professional. Can you begin by buying a new dress shoe but one without a slight heel? Or, can you switch to a soft bottom shoe that is still dressy looking on the top of it? (Soft Star Shoes is great for this)
  • If you’re wearing athletic shoes all day, what about them can you change? You could try a wider toe box, a more bendy bottom, or a reduced heel (many athletic shoes still have a heel on them, so take a look to see if yours does too). See our favorites below.

As much as I’d like to recommend some specific shoes, every person and every foot is different. For example:

Remember: no heel lift (aka “Zero drop”), wide toe box, pliable bottom, and strapped to your foot. The perfect shoe for one person may be lacking for someone else.

That said, here are some brands that tend to make shoes that jive with these requirements:

Make it a Priority, But Go Slow

Turtle

What you absolutely do not want to do is jump ahead to straight minimal shoes and go run a marathon – your feet will let you know quickly that they are not happy.

There is a real risk of injuring yourself if you make too big a transition in your footwear too quickly and then do too much. So if you are wearing a heavily supported, cushion-y shoe, you should not immediately begin wearing a Vibram five-finger shoe for every activity requiring footwear.

You wouldn’t jump right into a powerlifting meet on your first day ever of weightlifting, right? Don’t do something similar to your feet: slowly build up arch strength and flexibility by introducing your feet to a slightly greater challenge regularly.

I took a full year to transition to traditional footwear to minimalist options. For many, the transition will be longer. I started in a basic running shoe that had some support, and slowly started reconditioning my feet to be more mobile, have healthier soft tissue, and to be stronger.

I introduced a new stimulus to my feet every few months by wearing a slightly less supportive pair of shoes. From the classic running shoe, moving down in cushion and support through the Nike Frees, to eventually get to the Vibram five-finger (the shoe of choice for me, but it doesn’t have to be your shoe of choice!).

I now spend as much time barefoot as I can, donning shoes only for the fact that they are required for places of business. If I’m not in a place that requires shoes by law, I prefer to be barefoot. (this doesn’t have to be how far you want to take it, it’s simply what feels best for me and my feet).

But don’t spend too much time stressing about achieving level 50 foot progress. 

In fact, it’s a Rule of the Rebellion: We don’t care where you came from, only where you’re going. Simply make a commitment to give your feet the attention they deserve.

Whether you want to transition to minimal footwear, barefoot living, or simply want to make your feet function better and support your athletic endeavors, make an effort to improve your feet: it’s worth it.

You are not stuck with feet and ankles that hurt or are chronically injured!

Change the signals in and you’ll start to see a change: you’ll get stronger, better, more functional feet.

Do you have a feet horror story to share?

A Foot Redemption story?

Questions for me?

Let me know in the comments below!

-Kate

Kate Galliett brings together body, mind, and movement to help people become pain-free, highly-charged, and ready for anything at her site, Fit For Real Life. She coaches clients in-person, online, and through her foundational strength & mobility program, The Unbreakable Body. She holds a BS in Exercise Science and has worked as a coach for 14 years. She is House Gryffindor.

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Kristina Alexanderson: Lego in Shoe, Jay Galvin: Different ShoesReiterlied: Walking Lego, DocChewbacca: Clean Shoe

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  • At Heel Pain Institute of America, LLC , we believe that a doctor and patient become a team for treating an individual’s feet. Our physicians spend most of their time listening to understand your concerns and responding with the best treatment options for you. For more information visit: http://www.heelpaininstituteofamerica.com/

  • Such a knowledgeable article, thanks

  • Jessica Marshall

    It does boil my piss that women are expected to wear heels in some corporate environments. Anyone asks me I’ll ask if the men have to wear heals too.
    The 1950s called and asked for their dress code back.

  • Tina

    About a year ago, I went to the podiatrist and he diagnosed me with flat fleet. Then gave me medical orthodics to wear. These just hid the problem and didn’t help me. Now I want to rid strengthen and stretch my foot to where it needs to be. How can I slowly transition out of wearing these orthotics to something better for my feet?

  • Jay Henske

    I was told the same thing. New Balance and Ecco brands were recommended. I really like the Ecco brand for looks and comfort, but my old New Balance sneakers are stiffer and were very comfortable on my walk today. Just a bit bulky looking unlike the sleek design of the Scandinavian Eccos (made in Portugal by the way).

  • Pamela Mauzy Moynihan

    Great article! Just found out I have Morton’s Neuroma and trying to get better shoes ASAP to prevent further damage.

  • Beth Jackson

    Hey, I could use some advice. I work 10-12 hour nights picking at Amazon, which means I’m walking 10-20+ miles per night, 4-5 nights a week. The last few months it’s gotten to the point where even spending three days off my feet doesn’t make a bit of difference, my feet are just constantly in a lot of pain. Since I’m in a warehouse, I have to wear either “real” sneakers or work boots. (No fun five-fingered shoes for me). My dad is very flat-footed, and I’ve had a lot of problems with my arches. My heels aren’t really a problem, which makes finding advice difficult. Any suggestions for affordable, tough shoes that would help?

    Thanks!

  • Stephen Guy

    I used to have the most tender, weakest feet. However, I’ve found that by simply going barefoot year around is the best way to harden them. I live on a ranch in Texas, so I go barefoot whenever possible. Of course, I regularly run barefoot and yes, your feet will toughen to the point where hot, triple digit asphalt is not even noticed, let alone hot concrete. Running on gravel is not a problem, let alone walking on gravel. I don’t pretend my feet are as touch as an equatorial African whose soles are often compared to horses hoofs, but that’s probably because I haven’t been doing it long enough. Also, your feet will immediately begin to soften up if you go back to wearing shoes, say during a colder than normal winter. Then you have to start all over.

  • Nancy Miau

    Ah, late for the hype again, but I just found out this article!
    Ok so, I recently, 2-3 months ago, had a sprained ankle, so of course I’ve had issues, and I went to foot Dr. ,he gave me some exercises some inserts, ht workout has been WONDERFUL, my feet already feel much better, the insoles/inserts dunno which name you use over there though..it feels like they are stabbing my freaking arch/foot, it feels really really weird, uncomfy and I want to cry. So, I was thinking about investing on some training shoes to skip the inserts altogether, you know, I was thinking more padding, more “protection” !!

    And somehow I ended up here and realized I need the opposite! I’ve already added some of your drills for me feet workout, which is currently daily but will make it 4 days a week next month, I think the best for me is to first try something like Nike Free or Adipure Gazelle and then move onto..well, I live in Mexico, we don’t have so many options here like Lems and so on *sad* but I’ll get there, anyway, I just wanted to say that this really got me going, I am convinced this is the way to go, I wanna use minimalist for training and for everyday things! never again compression shoes! My poor toes caged in all day T_T luckily I work from home, so I really don’t wear shoes, flip flops or barefoot .

  • Denyce

    What about Moccasins? If they are a good choice, should they have a sole of any kind on them and is one brand better than another? I stand on carpet covered concrete at work and my feet and legs hurt so much. This may be my answer. Thanks !!

  • Chris

    If being barefoot is so great for arch support, why does every person in Paraguay that lives in the countryside and ges through nearly there entire lives not wearing shoes have the flatest feet I have ever seen. They are like club feet. I was in the Peacecorps in Paraguay and this is what their feet look like because they don’t wear shoes. I saw it first hand for two years.

    I’m sorry to burst your minimalist bubble but you are simply full of shit!

  • Catherine Negus

    I’ve been wondering why after several years of hiking, my feet have started getting intense pain from about mile 12. I’ve been wearing supportive shoes and orthotics for years but the pain started soon after getting new hiking boots – less worn and therefore less flexible. Does it make sense that feet that have been weakened will show up pain when you add *more* support? Or did I probably change my gait in some way with the new shoes, in a way that made the pain develop so fast?

  • K Korwal

    Great article, and love your style! The Princess Bride reference endeared me straightaway. 🙂

    I’ve been wearing Converse Chuck Taylors for awhile, since I have a very wide forefoot and narrow heel, plus a bunion on my left foot from having to wear cheap, regular width shoes my dad bought me when I was little, then later figure skates that were also a B-width until I got customs. Years ago I had to wear high heels (2″ or less) to work; I quit that as soon as possible, since I hate wearing high heels. I refuse to wear them EVER, not even to my wedding (I wore hi-top Chucks, and so did my husband :). I started looking into foot-friendly shoes lately and have come to love my new Birkenstocks, which, btw, have a ZERO DROP heel. I’ve seen some articles say otherwise, but I checked on this specifically.

    I would disagree with you on one point, however: I need some arch support in my shoe because I have always had very flat feet (almost a solid footprint), which causes my knee to pronate inwards and causes pain. Perhaps this would be correctable with a lot of therapeutic exercises, but I do not have the time or energy to spend on it.

    The moment I put my foot into a Birkenstock (Arizona) and stood up, my knee straightened up. I’m still breaking in my new Birks, slowly and gradually, but I can say my left knee — which sustained a lot of impact from the years of skating, as it was my landing leg for jumps — feels very stable now. Before, I would have to take *very* careful steps, so as not to twist or otherwise torque the knee as I stepped down. I literally had to watch every single step I take.

    The reason I sought out more supportive shoes was because I had been wearing my Converses every day, rather than switching shoes, and I suddenly woke one morning with severe arch pain, so I could hardly stand. I have plenty of room in my Chucks for my toes, but obviously no arch or other support in the shoes. The soles are also very pliable and meet all the criteria you list above.

    So I think that in some cases, some individuals may require additional support, as is the case with me. 🙂

  • Elaine

    And don’t you hate the myth that going barefoot will flatten your arches? I’ve gone barefoot literally all my life unless I’m in public or exceptionally dangerous terrain. I’ve always had high arches and healthy feet. But I still just listen and nod when people tell me that going barefoot ruins your arches.

  • Rach Dee

    So i have a question, my 13 year old hates shoes she tends to wear flip flops as much as possible and obviously those aren’t good for her feet. She has wide toes and serious ball of foot pain also pain in her ankle mainly the tendon, i believe being tight. She has always been put in shoes that are too small for her. She needs sneakers for tennis and gym and flats or whatever to change up style and not have to wear sneakers all the time. Any adive on where to start with getting shoes that fit right and will help with her problems and anything else i should know. We spent 4 hours in the mall and found 1 pair of sneakers but they still aren’t good for her.

  • Kelly Chesnutt

    Enjoyed your article very much. Have had plantar fibrosis (right foot) in the past now, have plantar fibroma in both feet. One of the recommendations is arch supports, I was looking for shoes with good arches built in them to get a better fit, any suggestions?

  • Alexandra Lentz

    I wouldn’t know how to convince her, but I have recommendations: Nike frees. I’ve bought pair after pair, and worn them to every cross country competition and marathon I’ve been to. Try foam rolling or stretching the calf to loosen up that ankle. Also basic foot stretches. I’ve also always worn Vans as everyday shoes: they’re flexible, light, comfortable to stand in, and work with every outfit possible.

  • Stephen Scott

    my main all consuming, infuryating concern, since putting, my first pair of shoes on,[ iam 62] to now, Is that my big toes, are stopped, from there natrul actsion, of flexing upwards, fully, [or even half way] on each step, when growing up my big toe would often have a sprained feel, the mind feel, one of boreing-ness, and pressure. I would tell myself, as an exsplanation, that toe hight area, could not be made high for a reason, or reasons.

  • Pugs Rock

    Are there any work shoes (boots) that will help develop dorsiflextion of my ankles? Thanks!

  • This has been an ongoing conversation with my partner as I do prefer a ballet flat style shoe, but find my toes getting sore. I just got a new set of lace up volley type shoes that I think have no rise… but the issue with them is going to be if the base of the shoe is pliable enough. I honestly do prefer to run around bare foot myself as my feet just feel better so I will have to look into doing more stretches to make it more comfortable.

  • John Pankowicz

    How old are you? According to Chris, your feet should be as flat as pancakes.

  • John Pankowicz

    Are they perhaps naturally born flat footed? Did you get a chance to look closely at new-born or young children’s feet? Is Elaine not telling us the truth?

  • John Pankowicz

    Please see the Wikipedia article reference I added to Elaine’s entry.

  • John Pankowicz

    Another factor contributing to poor shoe design is our sense of fashion beauty. Most people like to look thinner than they are, taller than they are and more symmetrical in their features. That’s why shoes have abnormally high heels and are made thinner than the feet that go into them. That is also why shoes are made to look symmetrical (left side matches the right side). — in spite of the fact that no-one in this entire world has symmetrical feet.
    Lay a piece of cardboard on the ground and put a bare foot on it. Draw around your foot with a pen or pencil. Is your foot symmetrical? Does it look anything like the shoe that you put it in?
    Cut out the outline of the foot from the cardboard. Try to put this into one of the shoes that you wear. How easy is it to insert!? What does it look like when you extract it. Is it mangled at the front edges? Guess what, this is just how mangled your feet will look after wearing those shoes for a time.

  • Paulette Kaskinen

    Great, I appreciate the article and video! I just chewed up a bunch of money for “maximalist” shoes (Hoka One One Bondi’s) in a desperate attempt to reduce metatarsal pain/tingling (the jury is still out). Any thoughts on middle-aged/overweight lack of metatarsal arch feet that want to walk for miles on concrete??? I too used to wear Ecco’s when I was younger and lighter weight, and I was also a fan of Clark’s Wave.

  • johnny utah

    Kate,
    Thank you for your very informative article. Much of the information that you have provided was new to me and some of it confirmed my own suspicions. I am afraid that my feet are beyond help though and I did not know how to find someone who will think outside of the box when they evaluate me. I wore very pointed toe cowboy boots from when I first begin walking until about 10. After that, I wore extremely tight-fitting cleats and athletic shoes that were at least two, sometimes three sizes too small until my late 20s. Since then I have worn heeled, steel-toed work boots for 12+ hours a day for 20 years. My present job on the oil field finds me in boots for 48 hrs+ non stop many times. I have also broken both ankles more than once but walked on them until they healed because I didn’t know any better. What can I do??