In 2011 my attraction to the minimalistic shoe movement was immediate. I have always been fascinated with how we are meant to move and how are we most efficient. I did my research and realized that I couldn’t go from the pillows that were strapped to my feet to wearing shoes with soles that were next to nothing. To ease the transition I even purchased dress shoes that were minimal. It really took months, maybe even a year to fully adjust while running. Since 2011 I have increased the thickness of my shoe soles again, and what I learned was that the shoe's impacts on my feet were just as important as the impact on my brain.
Shoes do support and protect our feet, but can also restrict them which can cause some negative effects. Take some of the research on hands for example. When we place a hand in a cast we have nearly immediate changes in the motor cortex of our brain. The area of the brain that represents the hand will shrink and demonstrate less activation. The hand itself will lose strength and dexterity. It will take 2-3 weeks of being out of the cast to have the brain areas return to normal. Let’s apply this logic to our feet. While our shoes aren’t casts, many of them including our orthotics, are very restrictive and rigid. This has to have some effect on our brains.
Research on barefoot running describes some positive effects such as: decreased impact forces, improved running economy, improved balance and improved muscular strength. This is not an endorsement for barefoot running or even for a strictly minimalist shoe. These things are attainable for very few of us with our current lifestyles. The research does however note some positive effects of running without a constrained foot. This is why we have to take great care in selecting our footwear and know that some individuals will always require more support than others. Each of us has to find the correct balance for our unique needs between allowing for movement verse supporting/protecting the foot. If we want to make a change in our footwear it needs to be done slowly, over time. We can’t expect to wear highly supportive shoes all day and then wear a less supportive shoe for a higher impact activity such as running.
Ultimately, a strong, muscular foot that is well connected to the brain is beneficial. Just like our other muscles the foot muscles need exercise and the right combination of shoes and if needed orthotics can enhance this.
Written by: Adam Lindsey DPT, FFMT, FAAOMPT
Physical Therapist & Director at bodymechanics Physical Therapy-Madison
- Jenkins DW, Cauthon DJ. Barefoot running claims and controversies: a review of the literature. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 2011;101(3):231-46.
- Lissek S, Wilimziq C, Stude P, et al. Immobilization impairs tactile perception and shrinks somatosensory cortical maps. Curr Biol. 2009;19(10):837-42.
- Weibull A, Flondell M, Rosen B, et al. Cerebral and clinical effects of short-term hand immobilization. Eur J Neurosci. 2011 Feb;33(4):699-704.