Searching for the perfect shoe

By May 3, 2015 January 27th, 2017 Lifestyle & Stress

Like the pursuit of perfect health, searching for the perfect shoe is an ongoing endeavor.

For millions of years, the human foot has been either bare or covered with very simple footwear to protect the bottoms of the feet. Sandals were the common covering in warmer climates, with moccasins used in colder environments for added warmth. These sparse foot coverings were and are adequate to protect the bottom of the foot from sharp rocks and rough terrain. Foot problems due to being barefoot consisted of the occasional laceration or deep thorn. Today, simple sandals and moccasins are still the most common footwear worldwide.

With the advent of today’s modern shoes came a whole array of foot problems complete with companies that made therapeutic devices and professionals to treat such conditions. Many companies and individuals have benefited, as the shoe industry and products and services connected with the epidemic of foot problems became big business. Shoe companies generate revenues of hundreds of billions of dollars.

A better foot

I’m not suggesting everyone throw away their shoes and become barefoot runners. That can be just as problematic as wearing the wrong kind of shoes. If you really want to go barefoot, make the transition slowly.

Walking in bare feet can be an important — and therapeutic — component of training. It will help muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints work better. It also can be helpful in recovering from an injury. This “workout” can be done at home, at work, or coupled with training. For example, walking barefoot for 15 minutes is an easy warm-up before your swim session.

Switching from an oversupported shoe to a very flat one, or rehabbing your feet by being barefoot can be a bit of a shock for the body. Those with chronic foot problems need to be especially careful.

For example, the Vibram Five Fingers shoe has become popular thanks to the minimalist trend. Can you just slip your toes into this glove-like shoe and run off? Sure, if your toes are straight. But if your toes are pointed all in different directions, your feet — and the rest of your body — will need time to adapt.

But even the best shoe won’t fit right, if you have trouble with your feet. First, you need to improve your feet.

Your feet must last a lifetime. They’re subjected to more wear and tear than any other body part. Just by walking a mile, you’ll generate more than 60 tons — over 120,000 pounds — of stress on each foot! Fortunately, feet are actually adapted to handle such natural stress. However, improper footwear can add significantly to this stress.

But the more we understand about feet, the better we can care for them or fix them when their function goes awry. It’s typically when we interfere with natural motion that problems arise. Almost all foot problems can be either prevented or corrected by spending significant amounts of time barefoot.

SHOE STRUCTURE

With seemingly endless styles of shoes, they all have a very similar basic structure with two parts: a lower and upper. Below is an example of the general structure of many common shoes starting from the ground up. Many shoe parts have more than one name, and many shoes don’t contain all parts.

The Lower

The sole (from the Latin word solea, meaning soil or ground) is our contact with the ground. The outer sole is the material that is in direct contact with the ground. This material can be rubber, leather or synthetic materials, and sometimes a combination of material is used. Soles come in a wide range of thickness and flexibility. The sole should be made to provide traction and resist slipping.

The innersole (or midsole) is attached to the top part of the outer sole. It helps in the attachment of upper to lower, and provides additional cushioning. Many shoes have insoles that are treated with chemicals to prevent bacterial growth.

Some shoes contain another layer on top of the sole called an insert that is said to provide more support by attempting to hold up parts of the foot. It certainly adds more cushioning but also takes up more room in the shoe. These are usually made of various synthetic fabrics, soft and hard, and sometimes leather, perhaps the best material.

Most shoes are manufactured using a last — a general model of a foot. The term comes from the Old English, “laest,” which means barefoot. Lasts were originally carved out of wood, but today they are plastic or metal. They are made for manufacturing purposes. Lasts provide a working structure by which the shoe is made.

Manufacturers say there are two kinds of feet, and therefore two general forms of lasts exist, a straight and curved last. Straight lasted shoes are straighter in appearance, and curve lasted shoes more curved overall.

The upper part of the shoe attaches to the last two different ways. A slip lasted shoe has the upper part wrapped around the lower sole and glued, and is more like a sock. It is usually softer, but also more flexible especially in the sole. The more traditional shoe style, especially dress shoes, is board lasted which is stapled, tacked or sometimes glued to the sole. A board lasted shoe is more rigid, especially the sole. Some shoes are slip lasted in the front and board lasted in the back, with other variations used in manufacturing today.

The Upper

The remainder of the shoe above the innersole and insert is called the upper. Its main function is to hold the lower onto the foot. A welt is a strip of material that joins the upper to the lower. The majority of shoes are welted by Goodyear-welt construction, although some welts are only decorative.

The most functional material for an upper is leather. It not only allows the foot to “breath” by allowing hot air around the foot to escape, but it conforms to the size and shape of the foot. Synthetic materials, which are more resistant to water, do not conform to the foot well and remain ill fitted unless the shoes fit perfect from the beginning. Cotton uppers are more benign as long as the fit is relatively good.

The upper can include many other parts, depending on the shoe style, including laces, and a tongue which protects the top of the foot. A counter is the heel area and may include a stiffener for added support. A collar is a soft, thicker ring around the shoe opening common in sports shoes, as are linings, which provide added comfort. Shanks are used for added support when there is a heel, raising the back of the foot higher than the front. It’s usually made from metal, plastic, or wood and supports the space on the bottom of the shoe between the heel and toes, keeping it from collapsing.

SHOE STYLES

There are generally considered eight different shoes styles, with a variety of combined styles. These are listed below. Some shoes today represent a combination of styles:

  1. Boots. These are shoes that extend above the ankle. They can be casual or dress.
  2. Clogs. These are made with a thick wooden or cork sole and backless. They probably originated in rural Europe in the 1300s. They can be casual or dress.
  3. Lace-ups. These traditional shoes, such as the Oxford, are for casual wear, dress and formal. They use laces for a better fit. Many sports shoes are considered lace-ups.
  4. Moccasins. Perhaps the first shoe ever made, along with sandals. The name is from the Algonquians of North America. Imitation moccasins originated in Norway and are popular today as loafers. They are usually casual, but some are dressy.
  5. Monks. These are similar to lace-ups but instead of lacing have a strap that comes over the top of the shoe to adjust the fit. They can be for casual or dress. Some sports shoes are made with this style.
  6. Mules. These are backless shoes, with or without heels. The flat soft versions are slippers. They can be for very casual to very formal.
  7. Pumps. These are the traditional elegant high-heeled shoes with open front tops or toe boxes, often with long spiked heels. These are usually for dress or formal.
  8. Sandals. Some have heels, others are flat, some are thongs while others have fancy lacing up the leg. Wooden sandals (geta) are of Japanese origin. Sandals can be casual or dress.

While times have changed we can see from history that much is still the same. We can make more shoes with modern machinery and synthetic materials, but despite our understanding of biomechanics, they still influence the foot more than any other single factor, and probably all other factors combined. More importantly, shoes are the cause of most foot problems.

Editor’s Note: “Fix Your Feet” was the first modern book to discuss the benefits of being barefoot, and how barefoot therapy can work wonders for your whole body. A bit ahead of its time, the book is now out of print, but “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” contains much of that information in an updated and expanded form.

Once you’ve found the perfect minimalist flexible shoe, you’re ready to begin your first easy exercise program! Click the button below to find out how to start:

25 Comments

  • Sebastian says:

    Dear Ivan,

    I’m a great believer in MAF and appreciate your great work. I made a transition to minimalism 5 years ago but have not been running for last 3 years. For the last 6 months I’m trying to return to running without success. I’ve started my return with SKORA CORE and I was running every other day for 40 minutes (actually 20 minutes because of 10 min. warm up and 10 min. cool down). It turned out to be too much. My calves were sore but the real issue was my planter fascia. Soft tissue mobilization is working for me. I’ve changed my shoes to SKORA FORM and I’m running for 20 minutes two days in a row and 3rd day is a day off. But even this amount turns out to be too much for me since my planter fascia is a aching. Could you please advice on which transition shoes to choose? My goal for this year is to run 40 minutes 5 days a week. I’m not sure if a more cushioned shoes like Altra would be better to me. Or do I need a shoe with a small drop (4mm)? Or it would be beast if I’m more patient and keep running with SKORA FORM slowly building the time?

    Cheers,
    Sebastian

  • Autumn Hamblun says:

    I’m on my feet everyday and im supposed to have treadsafe,or no slip shoes. The floor at my work place is hard on shoes, meaning most of us have to buy new shoes every month or so. My feet kill me before my shift is over. I cant afford expensive shoes much less constantly replacing them, I work in a deli. Any suggestions?

  • JS says:

    Ivan, you always give such well thought out and helpful feedback. Thank you for your hard and focused work!

  • Manoj Dadia says:

    Hi Ivan,

    I have been using Inov-8 F-lite195. But for some reason they not available any more.

    I am currently alternating between Luna running sandals, Vivobarefoot, Inov-8 F-lite 195 and Altra Instinct-3. Can you please suggest another model/brand with zero/minimal drop. I like minimal cushioning with good ground feel, as these have stopped me from stomping the pavement.

    In past I have used Nike, Asics and New balance- neutral support shoes, but did not find them good enough for my feet.

    But very soon will have to buy a new pair of shoes.

    FYI, I have flattish arch on left feet and neutral (normal) arch on right. Unfortunately we do NOT have specialized shoe stores out here in India.

    Also would appreciate if you could specify exercises for strengthening flat feet.

    Thanking you in advance.

    • Manoj:

      Try Skora shoes.

      Do you have a dominant left foot?

      • Manoj Dadia says:

        Ivan,

        I always start my run with left, the lunge with my left foot in front & sideways, is way more stable than with right foot. So can I infer from these points that my left foot is dominant.

        Are there way/exercises, to correct this imbalance ?

        Thanks in advance

        • Thanks.

          What are the foot/ankle/knee/hip/lower back issues you normally experience?

          • Manoj Dadia says:

            Foot-knee: while doing squats/lunges I do see my knees not tracking the feet.

            lunges: lunge with right feet in front is kind of wobbly

            Hip: yeah I fee tightness in the hip (flexors) when doing lunges

            Ankle: when I try squatting (on flat feet) I tend to fall back… so I have to use2-4cm thick peice of woodbelow my heels to get into a deep squat, again the knees tend to move inward.

            I have been doing Surya namaskar to get the muscles on lower back loosen up, but still a long way to go.

            Thanks again

    • Manoj Dadia says:

      Hi Ivan,

      I have been using Vivobarefoot, since my last pair of Inov-8 F-lite195. Skora has stopped production.

      Which shoes would you recommend ? I am in half and full marathon.

      Thanks

      • Manoj

        I use vivobarefoot, I also have a pair of Xero shoes and Skora shoes. You can train up to use vivobarefoot–I personally only use them in shorter runs because I don’t have the patience to strengthen my feet up to being able to run a HM in them…

  • Chris says:

    I’m a 200# runner working to increase my mileage – my current longest run is 25 miles. I run in rugged mountains with lots of vertical and rocky trails. While I could definitely lose a little weight, I have a large frame and some upper body bulk from years of rowing rafts.

    I have been running in a La Sportiva Helios which has a fairly thin sole and is low drop. I have fairly decent form and am not a heel striker.

    I’ve been experimenting with some Hokas thinking that with my size and the type of running I do, some extra cushioning would be a good thing. They generally feel good but I know that you lose some ground feel. Would you still advocate more minimal shoes for heavier runners in mountain terrain?

    Thanks!

    • Chris:

      Specifically, I would advocate strengthening the foot muscles and increasing foot resilience and mobility so that you don’t need maximalist shoes to run for longer distances. That said, in +50 mile races, it does become more prudent to opt for slightly more supportive footwear.

  • Jake says:

    Waterproof, no slip, and must cover the ankles; steel toe isn’t necessary. Everything I’m seeing so far just seems extremely bulky.

    • Jake:

      Check out the Ridgemont Outback (From Ridgemont outfitters). It’s “waterproof” but if you use waterproofing wax it’s amazing; it has some mild ankle support and it’s got a very grippy tread. It’s been my favorite all-around shoe for a long time—and you can wear it hiking and then take it into the city

  • Jake Savel says:

    I know this article is geared towards running shoes but do you have any thoughts/recommendations on the best types/brands of boots for working outside? I’m looking for something that will allow my feet to function efficiently but also offer protection from the elements. Anything you can share is greatly appreciated! I’m new to the site so I apologize if this is covered in another article.

  • Marco says:

    Do you have any examples of proper running shoes, i.e., running shoes with a hard and flat sole? Also is the drop important? Usually the drop is about 10 mm between the heel and the toes. Is it better to have less drop?

    I try to find new running shoes because I’m not sure the ones I wear are very good (Asics Nimbus 17). I train for a marathon and last August I got injured (shin splints). Then I bought “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” and I learned lots of things. It really changed my way of running and training and thanks to it I was able to get back into running without pain. However when I run on road I still feel a little discomfort in my shins from time to time (usually in the middle of the warm-up and no more than a couple of minutes). So I don’t know if it’s normal and will disappear over time or if the shoes can be the cause of this.

    • Marco:

      Good shoes are those with a thin and flexible sole, not a stiff one. My favorite running shoes are Inov-8 F-lite 195.

      While it’s good to become habituated to zero-drop, flexible, relatively unsupported shoes with a lot of groundfeel, the worst thing we can do is rush this process. Switching over very quickly can dramatically increase our injury risk—when our body is used to cushioned shoes with a big drop, moving away from that can be extremely stressful. What I’d recommend is for your next pair of shoes to be slightly less supported, with slightly less drop and slightly less cushioning, and so on.

      To be completely clear, it’s never “shoes” that are a cause of injury. People can have perfect form in the most overbuilt shoes—it’s just that people often choose overbuilt shoes because they don’t have good form. Shin splints are a problem with running form: either with the alignment and motion of our limbs as we run, or too much shock in landing (but usually both). What shoes do is protect the foot locally—decreasing the pain of landing incorrectly. However, they don’t reduce the amount of forces traveling into the body.

      So, all those forces going into your body at the wrong angles due to incorrect landing would have been felt in a much bigger way had you been wearing less overconstructed shoes. In other words, more minimal shoes don’t “protect you from injury” or “guarantee that you won’t get injured.” What they do is allow you more feedback as to whether the forces that are traveling into your body are moving in the right vectors.

      A lot of people get injured while running in minimalist shoes thinking that it’s the shoes that will clean up their form. It’s not the shoes—it’s the feedback. But thinking that it’s the shoes makes people think that the feedback is irrelevant, and so they never compensate.

      I hope this helps.

      • Marco says:

        Thanks for you answer, it makes sense. I went to a specialized store and bought a pair of New Balance Minimus 10v3 for the road and a pair of Inov-8 X-Talon 212 for the woods. As soon as I tried both pairs of shoes I felt really comfortable. Also the moment I went running with them I stopped feeling any discomfort in my shins, so I guess the feedback is far better and allows my body to react properly.

      • Marco says:

        Is it possible to put a different foodbed into a pair of shoes with a low drop (say a pair of F-Lite 195) in order to get used to the new drop progressively?

        • Marco:

          You can get the F-lites in at least 6-arrow (6mm drop) and 3-arrow (3mm drop), but Inov-8 also has 9-mm drop shoes if you need to start from higher. Because moving to zero-drop can be quite stressful if done too quickly, I tell people to only move into a lower drop until they’ve run through their shoes (whatever that means to a particular person). So, while I think you may be able to find footbeds—I’m not sure—you can also do it this way, particularly with Inov-8.

          • Marco says:

            Actually I’m going to run a marathon in April. So I have a time constraint.

            When I run with the Minimus (4mm drop) or the F-Lites 195 (3mm drop) I have a very good feeling and no discomfort in my shins. However I only run short workouts of 30-45 minutes otherwise my calf muscles get tight, which I think is normal since my body has to get used to such a low drop.

            I think there are two possible strategies. Either I get used to such a low drop by April and I’m able to run the marathon with the Minimus or the F-Lites 195, or it’s too soon and I need to use a higher drop as you suggest. There exist the F-Lites 240 (6mm drop) and F-Lites 250 (8mm drop). Also so far I don’t get tight calf muscles with the X-Talon 212 (6mm drop) when I run into the woods, although I haven’t run any long workout yet (1h max).

            What do you think about that?

          • Marco:

            I agree. It’s better to take it easy and go with you know, particularly for a marathon.

            One of the ways that you can hasten the transition is to start jumping rope in flat, flexible gym shoes. But this is the important part: instead of bouncing up and down from your calves, try bouncing up and down from your hips (making hip extension the primary source of your bounce). Play around with this idea and try to figure out the difference between bouncing from your calves and bouncing from your hips. This will help train the lower leg muscles to interact with each other (and with the big thigh muscles), and reducing the incidence of tightness.

            And remember, you’re not really jumping rope to train. You’re jumping rope to teach your muscles, and to practice these interactions. Two 5-minute sessions a day, one in the morning and one in the evening, is usually more than enough.

Leave a Reply