Often, at some point when my clients come to see me, we talk about shoes. We don’t think about shoes causing or preventing back pain, but when our feet and ankles can’t perform as intended, the strain gets transferred up the skeleton to the knees, hips and/or back and neck.
Sadly, most shoes aren’t fit for purpose- they don’t fit the form of our feet, and often deform it. I wonder when there will be a class action against the high heel makers of the world, beautiful on the outside, and wrong on the inside. Will we look back on Louboutins and Jimmy Choos as we do Chinese foot binders? Our feet are not made to be squashed into shoes, toes mashed together, and be up at any height, let alone vertiginously- it upsets the balance of our skeleton, and can be one of the factors in back pain.
But its tricky, some of us gain part of our self worth, or our ‘sexiness’ by how we feel in the shoes society thinks we women (and men) should strut in. And if we change our foot wear, some of us have to reassess this. I had one client who was wedded to her high heels, they were part of her self-image of the vitality and elegance of herself, and she was in denial to her choice of shoes being part of the solution for her back pain. She was adamant there was no science behind high heels being related to back pain: a flat-earther of the shoe world. I tease, but I do realise how difficult that is, to change a deeply held habit. In the end, she decided it was too big a step, reassessing how she could feel her own vitality or sexuality without heels wasn’t something she was ready for. And its not only a female issue- a male client took some months to brave a more flexible shoe as he was concerned about standing out at the office: that his own comfort was more important than whether his peers would notice or care.
We are amazingly designed so that our feet can spread our load, and take great weight, whilst remaining incredibly sensitive. And we need to treat them with respect if we still want to be walking in our 80s. Our toes need to be able to spread outwards (think of your hands and fingers) as you lean weight forwards, and our lower leg to foot angle at c90 degrees.
We have a tripod base of support in the foot- the base of the big and little toes, and the heel. Having pointy shoes (now a unisex problem) that push the toes inwards at any part of the step prevents this system working properly (and is a direct line to foot deformation). The less a role our toes can play the more our knees and hips will twist out of alignment as they take the strain.
You can think of them as the foot-soldiers of of the foot world- small but indispensable.
For me, it was a gentle journey. I began my Feldenkrais Professional Training, and as my very narrow feet gradually changed length and width as I spent more time exploring their possibilities, I realised I felt better in shoes that allowed my feet to not only breathe, but move, and for my soles to be able to respond to the changing surfaces of the world beneath me.
Recently, one of my clients asked me if I would write a list of the shoes I wear and might recommend. So, here it is, (to be updated as I discover more). FYI I don’t receive anything from any link I’ve added here- its just my unvarnished opinion.
What am I looking for? A shoe that allows room for my toes, and has space for them to splay outwards as I weight the foot onto the toes; a sole that is flexible so my muscles in the foot have to work as they are intended, and also that I are able to feel the floor. And one that holds my foot firmly enough that I am not using excess muscles to hold the shoe on in any way.
Ideally we would all be walking barefoot, (unless there is a medical reason) and with enough padding to protect our feet without flattening out the experience, and with no heels. One client, she didn’t wear heels, but a lot of platform shoes, and her feet were like solid blocks of wood after years of her feet lacking anything to respond to. She did a lot of yoga, and so was pretty active, but came to me for her back pain, which she had had for many years. Her feet had forgotten the layers and webbing of muscles that allows them to sense details and changes in the floor. I worked with her one-on-one, hands-on, slowly coaxing her feet back to life, finding their suppleness over the course of an hour, and relieving her long term back pain in the process.
Shoes! What do I wear?
I’ll start at the cheap end. I’ll admit it, I have a love affair with Feiyue. They’re a Chinese plimsoll brand, worn by the Shaolin monks, and parkour runners. I found their tiny shop whilst in Shanghai on tour in 2009, and was overwhelmed by choice, and the price- at the time they worked out at £3 a pair! In the end I could only fit a few pairs into my already overladen suitcase.
You’ll need to check that they are authentic- there are lots of fakes out there, that don’t have the same soles. There are two soles- padded (with a red circle on the sole) and unpadded (with a green triangle). Try both! I have been buying online from www.yellowmountain.co.uk/ since my China tour, and they’re one of the best prices around, as well as genuine. With all of these shoes, you’ll need to wear them in- if you’re not used to them wear them a few hours a day, and slowly extend the time, or your under used muscles will start to complain pretty loudly.
They are plimsolls, so not so cosy for the winter. In the winter, I wear Furoshiki, which come under the Vibram umbrella. I can’t remember how I came across these, but I bought a pair of the shoes online 2 or 3 years ago, (also pretty cosy despite their lightness) and when I was on tour in Spain made a large detour encouraged by colleagues to try out the boots in a specialist shop – at the time they weren’t available in the UK. I have been wearing them as soon as the temperature drops ever since. They are warm, the stretch tabs on the side mean they fit even my mis-matched pair of feet, and the soles are still flexible enough that my soles don’t get bored. There is now a branch in London, in City Rd.
They also make the 5 Fingers/Toes shoes, which although I was up for trying didn’t work for me as I have long 2nd toes (a sign of intelligence I was always told!). I have running friends who swear by them, but you have have a personality comfortable with standing out.
There is of course what is now the doyenne of minimal shoes- Vivobarefoot. These are great shoes, expensive, but they last well. I only have one pair as my feet shape sit between sizes sadly, and are long and thin, and they have lots of room for toes. The soles are flexible, they have a range of soles and upper types available and a range of styles- definitely shoes you can wear to work. https://www.vivobarefoot.com/uk
I would also recommend the ‘Sole of Africa’ Desert Boot. A leather upper, wide toe box, and a flexible rubbery sole. Whilst I don’t know if they intended to be minimalist, my experience with these was excellent, and I wished I had bought more pairs. Super comfortable- worth looking at their website, although when I checked they had just one style, more of a sneaker than desert boot: https://soulofafrica.com/
I am still waiting for a beautiful evening shoe which has a secret flexible sole, but perhaps I’ll nip along to City Rd to have a chat with the sole-specialists to see if they’re up for designing something different!
Photos: How-Soon Ngu, Christopher Sardegna on Unsplash