Truly exceptional footwear allows your foot to function like a healthy bare foot inside your shoe. Most conventional footwear, however, from dress shoes to work boots to running shoes, includes a number of problematic design features—we'll refer to them as design “elements” from here on, rather than features, as “features” imply something positive or helpful—that either deform your feet over time or cause you to experience foot and lower extremity injuries, or both. The most important shoe design elements to watch out for include:
- Heel Elevation
- Tapering Toe Boxes
- Toe Spring
- Rigid, Inflexible Soles
- Excessive Cushioning
- Excessive Weight
- Built-In Arch Support & Motion Control
Let’s take a closer look at each of these shoe design flaws.
1. Heel Elevation
Heel elevation—the elevation of your rearfoot above your forefoot—is a ubiquitous shoe design element, and it causes you to develop contracted and shortened posterior leg muscles and tendons. Heel elevation impairs normal gait and propulsion and strips your foot of its natural arch support. It also destabilizes your medial longitudinal arch (i.e., your main foot arch), which can lead to excessive pronation, especially in footwear that also includes tapering toe boxes. When most people think about heel elevation in footwear, they usually think about high heels for women. But heel elevation is a problem in almost every type of shoe, including athletic shoes. It's also a major problem in men's footwear.
2. Tapering Toe Boxes
Tapering toe boxes are a leading cause of toe deformities and a major contributor to many foot and toe problems in adults and children. Problems associated with tapering toe boxes include bunionettes, bunions, crooked toes, hallux limitus and rigidus, hammertoes, ingrown toenails, knee osteoarthritis, neuromas, plantar fasciosis, runner's knee, sesamoiditis, and shin splints. Most conventional shoes are widest at the ball of the foot, not at the ends of the toes (where you need the width the most), and even many minimalist shoes still include this deleterious design feature. Most shoe-wearing people are unaware of the significant negative impact that tapering toe boxes have on their feet and toes, even after experiencing the significant deformities and pain caused by them. We humans just seem to fail to consider, or we underestimate, the strong correlation between a narrow, tapering toe box and foot problems.
3. Toe Spring
Toe spring is another common shoe design flaw and deforming feature in conventional footwear. Toe spring enables tendon imbalances in your foot that lead to crooked toes and other foot ailments. It also promotes a shifting of your forefoot fat pad away from a position that cradles and protects the heads of your metatarsal bones. Toe spring, like the other design features discussed here, is both needless and harmful, but it is often touted by shoe manufacturers as a feature worth paying for. Our eye has been conditioned by shoe manufacturers to see toe spring as a pleasing design inclusion in footwear, but in reality, it’s completely unnecessary and serves no useful role for the foot. In fact, it impairs the foot from functioning in a natural way.
Tip: You can remove toe spring from most shoes (to at least some degree) by folding the shoe in half, with the sole of the forefoot touching the sole of the heel, and placing the shoe under a heavy object, such as a bookshelf, for 24 to 48 hours.
4. Rigid, Inflexible Soles
Most conventional shoes include rigid, inflexible soles that are thought by many to enhance foot function. Many people also think, incorrectly, that rigid outsoles offer support and protection that the foot “requires.” In truth, though, rigid, inflexible soles, just like artificial arch support, actually prevent the natural—and necessary—flattening of your main foot arch during gait. Rigid soles also reduce the tactile feedback between your foot and the ground and can increase your likelihood of an errant (and injurious) footfall. We’ve found that thinner, more flexible soles are the best option for mindful walking and for developing strong, resilient feet. Rigid, inflexible soles essentially immobilize your foot, usually in an unnatural and deformed position, which can lead to foot weakness and other problems over time.
5. Excessive Cushioning
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about shoe cushioning. The prevailing idea behind shoe cushioning is that a greater amount of padding under the foot will help reduce the impact forces on the body’s joints and tissues during weight-bearing activity. Intuitively, this may seem like a reasonable claim, given that we’ve been told for years that we need cushioning to protect our joints and soft tissues from damage. What you may be surprised to learn, however, is that physics and research do not support this claim. In fact, the more cushioning a shoe possesses, the harder and more damaging to your joints it may be. You can read more about this topic in our article entitled The Shoe Cushioning Myth.
6. Excessive Weight
Many conventional shoes are needlessly heavy. In most cases, the material used to construct a shoe does not need to be so weighty. Specialty footwear exceptions do exist, but for the most part, additional shoe weight is a hindrance to the optimal functioning of your foot and lower body. This is particularly true for athletes. Carrying less weight on your feet means you can move faster and with greater deftness—two important outcomes that can translate into better athletic performances. But even for non-athletes, a lighter shoe offers the possibility of a lighter step (i.e., reduced joint impact) and a more natural gait. Look for shoes that offer your feet a lightweight yet durable protective covering so that you can move in the most natural way possible.
7. Built-In Arch Support & Motion Control
Some shoes incorporate built-in “arch support,” which often takes the form of arch props or bumps that attempt to fill the space beneath your main foot arch to control pronation or address a variety of foot ailments. Some shoes also incorporate sole material or a sole design (e.g., grooves or channels) that tries to dictate or “control” foot movement. Not only are these design elements uncomfortable, but in most cases, they also represent a band-aid solution (at best) to a problem (i.e., a destabilized main foot arch) that’s actually caused by the combined effects of three design flaws mentioned above: Heel elevation, tapering toe boxes, and toe spring. Indeed, pronation control and foot symptom management via built-in arch support or other motion control “features” is detrimental to your foot health and should be avoided.
Other Footwear Aspects to Consider
Along with the above-mentioned design inclusions commonly found in conventional shoes, there are a number of other footwear aspects to consider. The presence (or absence) of these things, depending on the specific factor being considered, can lead to foot discomfort or problems over time. When shopping for footwear, we recommend considering the following additional footwear aspects:
Stack Height: Stack height is defined as the amount of shoe material between the foot and the ground. This number, usually reported in millimeters (mm), is the sum thickness of a shoe's insole, midsole, and outsole. The greater a shoe's stack height, the less likely it is that you'll be able to sense or feel the ground beneath your foot and experience a natural gait. Greater stack heights also contribute to ankle sprains, due to the propensity for ankle rolling that comes with elevating the foot above the ground. Look for footwear with a low stack height to prevent ankle sprains and achieve a nice blend of comfort, protection, and ground feel (6-15 mm is usually a good range).
Breathability: A foot-healthy shoe possesses a breathable upper, which is a function of both the upper design and the materials used to construct it. A breathable upper helps keep your foot cool and dry, which is an important consideration in preventing foot problems associated with moisture accumulation (e.g., blisters, athlete's foot, toenail fungus, etc.). A breathable upper also helps prevent undesirable shoe odor. Look for footwear that is well ventilated and incorporates natural fibers, mesh paneling, and looser weaves.
Upper Flexibility: Just as rigid soles are a problem in many types of footwear, so too are rigid uppers. A rigid upper may hold your toes in an unnatural and problematic configuration and impede natural foot movement, and it should be avoided if at all possible. A softer and more flexible upper is more accommodating and expansile, and this can make a huge difference in terms of both foot comfort and foot health. A flexible upper is important for every set of feet, but perhaps particularly so for individuals with wider feet who might not otherwise be able to experience a comfortable fit. Look for shoes with an upper that can be easily bent or twisted in multiple directions.
Last Design: A shoe last is a 3-dimensional wooden or plastic mold upon which a shoe is constructed. Last shapes vary from one shoe company or brand to the next (and sometimes even between different models in the same brand). Not all lasts are created equal. In our experience, we have found that shoes with straighter lasts are usually better for natural foot health. Some lasts are quite curved, which can present problems for certain sets of feet due to the way that curved lasts affect the 4th and 5th toes. Look for footwear that has a straight or relatively straight last (i.e., when looking at the sole of the shoe, the front half of the shoe should be more or less in line with the back half of the shoe, not curved to one side).
Footbed Concavity: Some shoes possess a concave footbed or insole, which means that, when wearing the shoe, your foot sits in a semicircular “bowl.” While this may be fine for your heel, it is not fine for the other weight-bearing portion of your foot: Your forefoot and toes. A concave footbed, especially a more rigid one, effectively inverts your transverse foot arch—the arch that runs across your foot, from one side to the other. Inverting the transverse foot arch strips this arch of its inherent stability and makes sensitive tissues and structures in the ball of your foot more vulnerable to problems. Look for footwear with a completely flat and level footbed.
Insoles: Most shoes (conventional or foot-healthy) come with an optional (i.e., removable) liner or insole. Most people believe that shoe insoles are mandatory for foot comfort and shoe performance, though they do not necessarily improve the feel of a shoe and often dampen your ability to sense the ground. When it comes to insoles, there are a couple of key considerations: 1) Are they fixed or removable? and 2) Are they constructed from quality materials? Look for footwear that includes removable insoles, or, if the insole is fixed (i.e., glued or sewn to the bottom of the shoe), a relatively thin liner made of comfortable and durable material. When it comes to insoles, exceptions do exist: One type of insole that we do like and use ourselves is Naboso insoles, which are thin, flexible, and incorporate a textured pattern for proprioceptive effects.
Tread Materials & Pattern: Ideally, a shoe's tread should work in conjunction with your foot (in its optimal, natural configuration) to improve foot stability and help prevent slips and falls. Too many shoe manufacturers rely on an aggressive tread pattern as a salient feature for traction; in reality, the tread pattern matters less than the relative “grippy” nature of the sole material. Indeed, thick lugs are less important than how the outsole material interacts with ground features and how the foot is positioned within the shoe (which is, ideally, on a level plane and close to the ground, with toes splayed, for optimal stability). Look for footwear that possesses a reasonably grippy outsole and a tread pattern that doesn't try to overdo it.
Men's vs. Women's Models: The truth is, many shoe companies try to appeal to female customers by narrowing the toe box of their shoes (relative to the men's version in the same model). The belief is that a narrower shoe is a more elegant shoe, and therefore more marketable and desirable to women buyers. In our experience, we've found that women usually do better when purchasing smaller sizes in the men's version of a given model, due to the wider toe box that usually accompanies men's footwear (unless the model possesses a “unisex” design, in which case buying based on gender is irrelevant). This is particularly important, because women have a relatively wider forefoot than men (though a relatively narrower heel). There are some things women can do to ensure a good fit around the heel in men's shoes, including using a tongue pad to take out any slack that might lead to heel shifting within the shoe.
Correct Toes Compatibility: The ability to comfortably wear Correct Toes toe spacers inside a shoe is a major consideration in determining the foot-healthiness of that shoe. If there is sufficient room inside a shoe's toe box to accommodate Correct Toes and natural toe splay, then this is a good indication that the shoe will help, not hinder, foot form and function. One way to test this out is to perform the Shoe Liner Test while wearing your Correct Toes. Note: Some shoes may not be Correct Toes compatible with the insole in but may become so after removing the liner. Indeed, removing the insole can open up a lot more space inside the shoe, especially in the toe box area.
There is a lot to consider when assessing a given shoe for foot comfort and health! We hope that the above info provides you with the knowledge you need to select the best possible footwear for you and your specific foot health needs.
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Note: The above content is for educational or informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or augment professional medical instruction, diagnosis, or treatment. Read full disclaimer here.