Back in the late 2000s, a barefoot running renaissance started to emerge. Runners and active folks of all types were intrigued by Vibram FiveFinger “toe shoes” (introduced in 2005) and inspired by Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (published in 2009). Both encouraged the public that running barefoot—or at least running in barefoot-mimicking shoes—would strengthen the feet and legs, leading to fewer injuries and greater resilience. And what kind of athlete (or person) doesn’t want to have stronger feet that are less prone to injury?
Many people ditched their clunky, maximalist running shoes and immediately took off training barefoot or in their new minimalist, glove-like Vibrams. It’s a liberating feeling running in minimalist footwear or barefoot, but it requires more skill, strength, and awareness than running with a couple of inches of contoured, motion-controlling foam strapped to your foot. Somewhat surprisingly, the gap between barefoot/minimalist running ability and running in modern maximalist shoes can be more of a chasm, even for accomplished runners. And without a thoughtful and progressive transition from max to min, there’s a good chance of injury somewhere between.
Predictably (with 20/20 hindsight), a society hyperfocused on immediate results didn’t have the knowledge or patience to gradually strengthen and mobilize the feet by exposing them to appropriately increasing workload. The result was a $3.75 million dollar class-action lawsuit against Vibram for making “false health claims” that their FiveFinger toe shoes could: (1) strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs; (2) improve range of motion in the ankles, feet, and toes; (3) stimulate neural function important to balance and agility; (4) eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture; and (5) allow the foot and body to move naturally. I’m of the opinion that most of these claims are absolutely achievable when used correctly. The disconnect arises from the transition process.
Conventional shoes feature a narrow tapered toe box, toe spring, and heel elevation—running shoes included. These features place the foot in an inherently unstable position that inhibits the big toe’s ability to push off (or “toe-off”) and enables uncontrolled overpronation. To correct for this self-created instability, most running shoes now have built-up arch supports to “prevent” overpronation and a litany of other motion-controlling features like dual-density midsoles, rigid heel counters, and wide-flaring outsoles. Unfortunately, the more a shoe externally “supports” the feet, the less internal strength and stability the feet cultivate. The feet, in essence, can become dependent on shoes with stabilizing features because they’ve become so weakened and deformed by the shape and technology built into the footwear.
After decades of walking and running in conventional shoes, our feet develop a “memory” of our footwear in the form of muscle imbalances (or worse, deformations). A tapered toe box squeezes the toes together, lengthening and weakening the muscles on the medial and lateral sides of the feet that attach to the big toe and 5th toe, while simultaneously shortening and tightening the muscles in the middle of the foot. Over time, these muscles learn to hold this position at rest, and bunions and bunionettes form. Similarly, heel elevation and toe spring in shoes lengthen and weaken the plantar muscles on the bottom of the foot, while the extensor muscles on the top of the foot become short and tight—a major contributor to hammertoes. The vast majority of people live with feet shaped like shoes: toes squished together and tight tendons on the top of the foot lifting the toes above flat. When your feet are “out of shape,” it makes it a lot harder to move around effectively without assistance from footwear.
Here’s a thought experiment: imagine a boxer keeping their fists balled up in boxing gloves all day every day for the first several decades of life. They train regularly, are super strong, and their hands never get injured because they’re always protected by cushioning. But if you asked them to suddenly take off the gloves and play the piano, write a poem, or juggle tennis balls, I’m not sure they have the hand and finger strength and coordination to do so. In a similar light, it’s unreasonable to expect such dependent and dysfunctional feet to be able to immediately withstand the rigors of running barefoot. There’s more to the hand than a fist and there’s more to the foot than trudging along. There’s untapped nuance within the foot. There’s more work to be done.
This is why simply switching to naturally-shaped, barefoot-mimicking, minimalist shoes often isn’t enough. Of course, by eliminating unhealthy footwear many of these violating forces will cease, but there is typically some reversal of damage and retraining of the foot that must also be done to regain uninhibited foot function. If the foot isn’t mobile, strong, and able to naturally support itself without external help, then placing it into a minimal and barefoot shoe may be too much of a challenge too soon. This is where pertinent exercises and foot health tools like Correct Toes can really help to bridge the gap.
Correct Toes work for your toes like braces do for your teeth: guiding slow, progressive micro-changes over time towards more optimal alignment. Correct Toes splay the toes back into their natural wide alignment, helping to reverse the muscle imbalances created by narrow toe boxes. Splayed toes provide natural support for foot arches, help eliminate overpronation, improve balance, enable proper weight distribution, encourage optimal circulation, and much more. On top of all that, big toe alignment is crucial for walking and running. The big toe carries the most weight of all the toes, bearing about 40% of the load. The big toe is also the last part of the foot to push off the ground before taking the next step. When the big toe is out of alignment (as seen in bunion formation and within shoes featuring a tapered toe box), its ability to effectively extend (dorsiflex) and push off becomes significantly compromised. This often results in dysfunctional compensations patterns to “workaround” the big toe’s inability to properly function.
While wearing Correct Toes when active and exercising will help to teach the toes and foot muscles to operate in alignment, it’s also extremely helpful to compliment the effects of Correct Toes by doing exercises and manual therapies. The bunion stretch and soft tissue release is a great way to help loosen up any trigger points between the long bones of the foot (metatarsals), helping to release tight muscles pulling the toes inwards. Similarly, the toe extensor stretch is an effective way to help lengthen the tendons on the top of the foot that hold toes in a lifted position. Releasing tightness on the top of the foot allows us to more effectively strengthen the weakened plantar muscles on the bottom of the foot which are commonly overstretched by shoes with toe spring and heel elevation. Using a lacrosse ball or massage ball to help encourage plantarflexion is another great strategy for bringing the toe back down to flat.
The foot is so wonderfully designed to be strong, flexible, and adaptive. Its three arches have immense strength, capable of supporting and moving several hundred pounds of body weight on a vertical axis for a lifetime. But similar to architectural arches, if one end of the arch is displaced, the whole arch becomes unstable and struggles to avoid collapsing. And these arches not only need to be strong but also flexible to adapt to varying ground surfaces and terrain. When healthy, the foot arches are also incredibly efficient in their ability to transfer energy. Unfortunately, much of these vitally important abilities of the foot have become lost to the footwear industry.
For a foot to be able to safely and effectively function barefoot (or within minimalist shoes), the foot must be in a position to naturally support itself. That position is flat with splayed alignment. Attempts to be barefoot with a compromised foot shape that lacks strength will only lead to further frustrations and compensations. Switching to wearing shoes that are shaped like feet and allow the feet to function naturally is a big first step, but if you’ve worn conventional footwear for more than a couple of years, there’s a good chance you’ve developed some muscle imbalances that also need to be worked on. Correct Toes combined with manual therapies and exercises help encourage a healthy foot posture to make the transition to barefoot shoes much smoother help you achieve the foot health results that will keep moving far into the future.
Written by: Andrew Wojciechowksi, ND