What makes a good shoe?
Consider this the next time you're looking at your shoe collection because there's every chance you won't have many that make the cut.
No doubt they all look and feel great, but what physical legacy are they leaving behind? Particularly if they have a heel or any arch support.
It's important to recognize the significance of modern shoes because they do help many feel and function better.
Yet despite these benefits, we're potentially missing the bigger picture. So much so we might be heading off in the opposite direction to where we should be.
So let's discuss the reality of what makes a good shoe and why most shoes actually stink.
The Anatomy of the Modern Shoe
Interestingly, a study looked at the most Googled shoes between 2018-2019.
From over 1,000 shoes it found the Nike Air Max 97 to be the most popular.
For completeness, here are the remaining top 10:
- Nike Air Max 270
- Vans Old Skool
- Nike Air Max Plus
- New Balance 574
- Nike Air Max 90
- Nike Air Max 95
- Adidas Superstar
- Adidas Stan Smith
- Nike React Element 87
If you look through each of the top 10, you'll notice they share many structural features with most other current-day shoes.
Features of Modern Shoes
- Arch support
- Thick sole
- Thick heel at the back
- Narrow forefoot
- Relatively strong, rigid structure
Now each of these has a purpose - a mix of support, protection from the elements, cushioning and aesthetics. Each makes us feel good in a number of ways, otherwise, we simply wouldn't buy them.
Yet, these bells and whistles distract us from what's most important.
Our feet don't need help.
Or at least they shouldn't.
We are born with technology far more sophisticated than anything we have or maybe will develop in terms of footwear.
To be more specific, our bare feet have all the arch and heel they supposedly need. The soles of our feet are designed to contact, contour and feel the ground.
The skin is different here for a reason.
Our Achilles has an amazing ability to absorb the shock from walking, running and jumping, and it does so in harmony with the rest of the body.
The foot is both flexible and strong.
In short, our feet are designed to be feet. They aren't necessarily designed to be caged, controlled and desensitized to the outside world almost 100% of the time.
They Make Me Feel Good So Who Cares
From what I see clinically as a Physiotherapist it seems that we have become confused as to the difference between what helps to make us feel better and what's ultimately "optimal".
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing a shoe that helps you move more and feel better - you deserve to.
But it's very important to understand that modern shoe technology is often just compensating for something you're missing. Something you should have but for some reason have unknowingly lost.
It's certainly something you should try and reclaim.
And to highlight this let's discuss one of the most easily recognizable features of most footwear, arch support.
The idea behind it is sound. Flat feet are the mechanical foundation for a lot of our foot and lower leg complaints. So we give the arch support and things improve. Problem solved, right?
Yes... and not at all.
What happens when you take those shoes off?
Arch support will stop an arch from collapsing, but it won't stop an arch from wanting to collapse.
It's a symptomatic treatment, not a fix.
As soon as you take them off or change to an "unsupportive" shoe the crutch is gone.
Again, this is still useful depending on your overall goals, but be aware of its place in the overall scheme of things.
So let's break down what's important to know here.
Why Do Arches Flatten?
It may surprise you to know that flat feet aren't a foot issue, they're a leg issue. If you have a mix of stiff ankles and tight and/or weak hips, your entire leg will accrue a tendency to collapse inwards. It does so in an attempt to work around these issues. And you can see this on yourself in real-time.
Firstly, stand up.
Next, keep your feet straight and rotate your knees outwards without your big toes lifting. You should see and feel those arches lift. Relax and collapse back in again and watch those beautiful arches flatten.
So if you can imagine putting arch support underneath all this, you're stopping something for sure, but not stopping anything if that makes sense? Those arches will consistently continue to collapse until the overall leg mechanics are resolved - whether they are in a supported environment or not.
Why Are Heeled Shoes Bad?
Next, let's take a heeled shoe. When we ask what makes a good shoe we often look for a heel at the back. We aren't just talking a six-inch Stiletto, but any simple raise at the back.
This is a very important feature of most shoes.
Cushioning the heel is supposed to help with shock absorption and comfort. In the short term, it may help your running feel nicer and it may even help alleviate lower leg discomfort, but at what long-term cost?
The problem with any long term exposure to any heel is that the size of the heel equates to the exact amount of ankle range you don't get to use. And over time you lose it.
The shoe may feel nicer in the short term because it supports a potential hole in your mechanics, but it will directly contribute to a number of issues down the track as your available ankle range of motion decreases.
Considering there is a strong clinical link between stiff ankles and a large number of lower leg issues, is there really a need for an additional heel at all?
For effect, here is a link to an article by the good folk at Runner's World. It's entitled "Best Running Shoes of 2017".
Here is another one to the "10 Best Men's Running Shoes for 2018".
For women, here's a link to an article on the "Best Running Shoes for Women".
Notice that every single shoe has an unnecessary heel and curved toe-end. Some are monstrously thick.
Why Do We Have Heeled Shoes in the First Place?
This is a story for another day, but heels were introduced to running shoes to help support the fundamentally flawed "heel-strike" running pattern. To cut a very long story short, we begin to heel strike as compensation for a number of modern-day issues. The most impactful of which is often all the sitting we do.
These issues often begin at school-age and are maintained by a life of work, driving, couches, and TVs. Our hips are now prone to being stiff and heel striking is a likely consequence.
If you think heel striking is normal, take off your shoes and try to heel strike your way across some concrete... it doesn't work. Try sprinting with or without shoes and you'll see the same.
The irony here is that we've subtly ended up this way over time. As our issues have accumulated we've attempted to create a solution. This shoe tech supports our already altered mechanical state, it doesn't correct it.
So, What Makes a Good Shoe?
In an ideal world when talking about someone with already good mechanics, a good shoe needs to mimic the foot as closely as possible. We want:
- Self-securing footwear so the foot can concentrate on being a foot, not holding the material in place.
- A lack of arch support so a healthy arch can do what it's designed to do.
- A flat shoe that allows both the heel and toes to be in contact with the ground. Any heel is counterproductive. So are curled up toe-ends.
- Flexible, malleable soles because the foot is flexible. Thanks to the modern world we still need a sole that is tough and durable.
- A broader toe-end so that our toes can be toes. We don't want them morphed into a pointy mess just for the sake of aesthetics.
- Lightweight design that adds as little extra weight as possible to the leg.
- A shoe that still looks good. It's important to feel that you can still exist in our modern society without feeling silly for trying to do something relatively different.
In fairness, it would be so much easier if we could just be barefoot all the time, but the state of modern terrain, hygiene, and social standards currently make that hard. We need to find a suitable balance.
Barefoot (or minimalist) shoes are thankfully becoming more popular. The classic minimalist shoe most will have some awareness of are the "toed" shoes.
A shoe like the Vibram FiveFingers is an extreme example of what a minimalist shoe might look like. These shoes are fantastic for letting the feet do their thing.
They're really just designed to protect you from the elements and not influence your foot mechanics. Those toes definitely get the chance to be toes, right!
In my opinion, they're great shoes, but they often deter people purely because they look different. Aesthetically, they make the transition to a toed shoe that little more awkward for someone.
Thankfully, there are more and more minimalist shoes and shoe companies coming out in the market place - represented by companies like VivoBarefoot.
Whether extreme barefoot shoes or a more simplistic one fit your personality, we need to aim to feel comfy in this type of shoe at some stage.
For context, over the last 5-6 years, these have become my work shoes:
Similarly, these have become my running shoes/gym shoes:
I can't speak highly enough of them. They feel great.
Why Do My Barefoot Shoes Hurt?
This is probably the most important topic to cover.
If you jump straight into a pair of barefoot shoes there's every chance you might feel sore and uncomfortable. But make no mistake, this isn't the shoe's fault.
Without wanting to sound too harsh, it's your fault - respectfully of course.
Any discomfort just means you are yet to undo years of accrued stiffness, tightness and weakness from traditional footwear and modern living.
Barefoot shoes will expose deteriorated mechanics. They will teach you something about yourself you can't possibly learn in traditional shoes.
Something that's really hard to appreciate without looking for it.
They'll give you a great perspective on how you are really going. And that's OK if you want to keep learning about yourself and improving.
If you work on improving your stiff and tight bits over time, you should ultimately expect to feel fantastic in barefoot shoes.
Running a marathon in minimalist shoes will need a higher level of normalized mechanics than simple walking but the idea is the same.
It's on us to make the changes if we care enough. Shoes alone aren't the answer, just the wallpaper.
I've covered some simple exercises that will help you transition to minimalist shoes in an article on Achilles Tendonitis. It's not specifically shoe-related but it's all relevant.
Frequently Asked Questions
The answer is simple but equally complicated. In an ideal world, the best shoes for your feet are ones that leave the foot to do its own thing. They should not have a thick heel at the back, nor should they have a pointy toe-end. Controversially, they should not have arch support. If you feel you need these features to protect against pain and injury at the moment then know they are compensating for something you're missing.
So with this in mind, the best shoe for you now is one that best supports any current mechanical dysfunction. But keep in mind you should aim to be able to tolerate minimalist or barefoot shoes in the future.
Foot pain is often a consequence of ankle stiffness and collapsing arches. So any shoe with a slight heel and arch support will help support most general foot complaints. And while these features may help those with foot pain get by, please do not mistake this for addressing the underlying problem. The idea with any supportive shoe is that you ultimately work hard to improve the cause of your foot pain so that you can progress to a more barefoot shoe eventually.
Shoes with arch support generally help combat many of the lower leg and foot issues we face. Complaints like Plantar Fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, bunions, Navicular bone stress fractures, Turf Toe, Shin Splints, some knee pain, etc can all benefit from shoes with arch support due to their association with collapsing arches. Just remember that this is a short-term solution only. Make sure you also work on why those arches collapse in the first place.
A shoe that fits properly should obviously feel comfortable. If you take them for a test walk they should not make you walk any differently to normal. There should be ample room for the toes to move and spread in all directions. Half a thumb's width at the toe-end is a good rule of thumb. Yes, your new shoes will give a little over time, but they should not feel restrictive at all the first time you put them on.
In short, yes. Any heel attached to any shoe will rob you of your basic ankle range of motion over time. There's nothing wrong with wearing heels every now and again however prolonged exposure can set you up for any number of foot, ankle, shin, knee, hip and low back complaints in the future - all because of a little lost ankle range.
Minimalist shoes won't create a new issue, just expose one you didn't know you had. By definition, minimalist shoes highlight whether you have basic range of motion, strength, and conditioning - things easily lost when wearing built-up modern shoes. It's ok for minimalist shoes to make you feel uncomfortable initially. But the goal is to make sure you can tolerate them at some stage. This will mean you're slowly regaining basic mobility, strength and function previously lost.
The best shoes to wear if you are on your feet all day are the ones that best support any mechanical deficiencies you may have. If having to stand all day on a hard surface, a shoe with more cushioning makes sense. If you have to walk a lot, a shoe with arch support and a slight heel may work best if your feet and ankles are a little stiff. However, as this article suggests, if you work hard on improving the mobility of your feet and ankles and spend a bit more time barefoot, any minimalist shoe should be the end goal eventually.
Modern footwear is function-destroying. The more time you spend in an accessorized shoe the stiffer and weaker you'll likely become. It's how the body works.
As it stands, both sides of the traditional vs minimalist shoe debate have solid points to make. If you just want to survive and feel good now, a "good shoe" will be what best supports any current issues you may have. If you just want a better buffer against any underlying issues, then fair enough. It's how most of us currently live without realizing it.
But please remember those underlying issues won't magically go away on their own, and may actually lead to more issues down the track.
If you progress to a minimalist shoe and feel crappy in some way - congratulations, you've just learned something about yourself. Something you can change. Try to re-engage and re-awaken those desensitized, debilitated modern feet.
Work on restoring normal function to your feet and ankles and you'll feel great in them eventually.
Don't go straight from a built-up beast to nothing overnight. Consider making your next pair of shoes one with less heel and less support. Make the next one after that less again. Take your time getting back to normal.
If nothing else, please consider being barefoot more often.
Ultimately, please keep an open mind. These ideas can seem awkward at first as they contradict a lot of today's advice.
But with enough perspective, you can hopefully appreciate that when asking what makes a good shoe, the answer is something that takes a back seat and lets your foot do what it's meant to.
What are your thoughts on the traditional vs barefoot shoe debate? Let me know below!