Dr. Robyn and I are often stopped on hiking and running trails by fellow outdoor enthusiasts who notice our unique footwear choices. With puzzled looks on their faces, they ask us how we avoid spraining our ankles on such uneven terrain. The truth is, minimalist shoe wearers are at a distinct advantage when it comes to avoiding dreaded—and often temporarily debilitating—ankle sprains. But not all minimalist shoes are created equal, and so it's important that we briefly mention the design features that help constitute a truly foot-healthy minimalist shoe. These features include the following:
1. A toe box that allows sufficient room for your toes to splay (i.e., no toe box taper)
2. A completely flat support platform from heel to toe (i.e., no heel elevation or toe spring)
3. A flexible sole that can be easily bent or twisted (i.e., no rigid soles)
So, foot-healthy minimalist shoes help prevent ankle sprains for several distinct reasons:
1. They lower your foot’s center of gravity
2. They allow you to position your toes in such a way as to prevent ankle rolling
3. They encourage a strengthening of the structures crossing and supporting your ankle joint
4. They improve tactile sensation, which allows you to adjust your foot position more quickly
Let's take a closer look at each of these points.
1. A Lower Center of Gravity
Unlike conventional hiking boots that have extremely built-up soles and heels, minimalist shoes possess almost no variation in sole height from heel to toe and a relatively thin sole. Because your foot is closer to the ground, it’s less likely to roll. In physics terms, the moment arm in minimalist shoes is extremely small or almost nonexistent, which is not true of conventional shoes, including running shoes and hiking boots. A moment arm is the perpendicular distance from the point of rotation to the line of action of a force, and the moment is the tendency of the force to cause rotation (i.e., ankle rolling) about an imaginary axis through a point. A lower center of gravity in your foot (enabled by minimalist shoes) can therefore help reduce your chances of rolling your ankle.
2. Proper Toe Position
Most conventional shoes and hiking boots possess tapering toe boxes that force your toes into a wedge position, causing toe deformities and misalignment over time. This toe wedging is a true problem, as it strips your foot’s ability to protect you from ankle rolls. When your toes are positioned or aligned the way nature intended, you create for yourself a stable base of support—a tripod, essentially, that naturally resists ankle rolling. For optimal foot and ankle support, and to help prevent inversion sprains at the ankle, your toes (especially your little toe) should be in line with their corresponding metatarsal bones. Many of us need the gentle assistance of a toe-spacing device, such as Correct Toes, to reposition our toes in this advantageous alignment. Correct Toes, of course, can be worn inside men's and women's wide toe box shoes to create this optimal splayed toe arrangement and protect you from ankle sprains.
3. Improved Foot & Ankle Strength
Minimalist shoes treat your feet with the respect they deserve. Unlike conventional shoes that attempt to immobilize your foot and control its movement, minimalist shoes encourage strength gains in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that cross or act upon your ankle joint. Improving the strength of these structures can improve your ankle stability and prevent ankle sprains. And the great thing is that this strengthening is a simple byproduct of wearing minimalist shoes; it happens without you even having to try. You should notice strength gains in your foot and ankle after only a short amount of time in minimalist shoes.
4. Increased Tactile Feedback
Minimalist shoes provide your brain and body with increased tactile feedback—the sensory information relayed from your feet to your brain. The thin soles of minimalist shoes allow you to adjust your foot position “on the fly” to help prevent an inappropriate or injurious foot placement. Conventional shoes and hiking boots deaden your ability to detect subtle changes in terrain and actually encourage misplaced footfalls. Minimalist shoe wearers are, by and large, more aware of where each foot is landing and how it is landing than conventional shoe wearers, all of which has a protective effect when it comes to ankle sprains.
Minimalist shoes, especially the models that possess wide toe boxes, can help prevent ankle sprains and numerous other foot and ankle problems, including bunions, plantar fasciosis, and runner’s knee. Most minimalist shoes are appropriate for hiking, even on rough terrain, though you should always exercise caution in slippery conditions. Some minimalist shoes may not be appropriate in cold conditions, and you should plan accordingly before heading out into the world to engage in your outdoor pursuits.
Some Beneficial Products
Below is a list of minimalist or minimalist-like footwear options that we have found to be helpful in preventing ankle sprains:
For Walking: The Lems Primal 2 is one of our favorite walking shoes to help prevent ankle sprains. The thin, yet protective sole of this shoe puts your foot much closer to the ground than conventional footwear, and the generous toe box allows your big toe to contribute to foot and ankle support.
For Hiking: The Lems Boulder Boot is our favorite minimalist boot for hiking. This extremely lightweight boot offers all the foot protection you need, and it helps prevent ankle sprains by minimizing the amount of material between your foot and the ground and by improving your ground-feel (poor tactile feedback from the feet is a common cause of ankle sprains).
For Trail Running: The Altra Superior 3.0 is a minimalist-like running shoe that is designed for the trail. This shoe has a flat support platform and allows your toes to splay in an optimal formation, which helps prevent ankle rolling. The Altra Superior 3.0 is a great cooler weather trail running shoe. For the warmer weather, we like the Luna Mono. This open-toed footwear option places your foot close to the ground and provides excellent tactile feedback.