Arch bridges stay up without any support underneath, so why do we think the arches in our feet need support? The arches in our feet are fully capable of carrying our body’s weight without help from shoes and inserts which claim to provide “arch support.” If we examine the structure of other kinds of arches (bridges, aqueducts), we can see why shoe design is flawed when it comes to arch support.
Arch Structure in Bridges and Feet
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an arch is “a typically curved structural member spanning an opening and serving as a support (as for the wall or other weight above the opening).” It’s able to do this because the supports at either end of the arch bear the weight.
Stone Arch Bridge, Hebei China, and The Pont du Garde aqueduct. No mortar was used in the aqueduct’s construction.
The arch of your foot and an arch bridge/aqueduct follow the same basic design: a curve supported at either end. In a foot, the supports at either end of the arch are the heel and forefoot, which consists of the ball and toes. When weight is applied on top of the arch, the force is carried along the curve of the arch to the supports at either end. These supports “push back” against the arch and prevent it from collapsing. The stronger the force, the stronger the arch, as the components of the arch mesh together more.
An engineer would never design an arch bridge with uneven support ends and something propping it up in the middle.
The wrong way to support an arch.
The Right Kind of Arch Support, According to Arch Bridges and Aqueducts
It’s not the space directly below the arch that needs support, it’s the ends of the arch: the heel and forefoot consisting of the ball and toes. When we think of “arch support,” we don’t need to prop anything up, we just need to get the foot into a position where the support ends (heel and forefoot) are level with each other. Going barefoot, or wearing barefoot-style shoes, put your feet into the correct position. Our arches are perfectly capable of supporting our weight on their own, as long as the support ends are level. And the more weight our arches are forced to bear, the stronger they become.
Problematic Design Elements of Conventional Shoes
There are a few problematic design elements of conventional shoes that throw off the proper positioning of the support ends of the arch:
-Heel elevation: the heel of the shoe is higher than the front.
-Tapered toe boxes: the front of the shoe narrows and squishes the toes together instead of allowing them to spread out flat.
-“Toe spring:” if you look at a pair of shoes from the side, it’s the toe area that is lifted off the ground instead of laying flat. This elevates the toes above the ball of the foot instead of allowing them to lay flat, and holds them in that unnatural position.
Why the Concepts of Shoes With Arch Support and Inserts are Misleading
Shoes with arch support and inserts don’t force your arches to maintain their structure, so the arch muscles weaken. They artificially prop up the bottom of your foot into an arch shape, which the foot would develop naturally if it was allowed to do so. Even if you wear a shoe that has “arch support,” or put inserts in your shoes, the shoes themselves still have problematic design elements like heel elevation and toe spring that force your feet into an unnatural position and don’t correctly support the ends of the arch. Therefore no amount of additional “arch support” from the shoe or insert can rectify the design flaws inherent to the shoe to begin with.
The Right Kind of Shoe for Correct Arch Support: the Barefoot Shoe
I used to have terrible arch pain from every shoe I wore. Since switching over to barefoot shoes, my arch pain has gone away, despite walking around all day in shoes with no conventional arch support. I totally understand why people wear cool looking shoes even if they hurt their feet. But hopefully this blog post makes you more aware of how shoe design can contribute to foot pain by forcing the feet into unnatural positions. There are some great barefoot shoe options out there that are stylish, and let your feet move as they are meant to. Unfortunately, it seems like right now the majority of people buy barefoot shoes for running, so there are tons of barefoot sneaker options out there, but the options for stylish day-to-day wear and office wear are limited. From what I’ve found, there’s really only one company at the moment that makes stylish barefoot shoes for casual/office wear: Vivobarefoot.
I wear the top and bottom left shoes to work/day-to-day. They have a wide toebox, no heel, and no conventional arch support, and super thin soles so I can feel the ground underneath. I’ve noticed it’s so much easier to stand up straight since switching to these. Even a slight heel contorts the entire body. I also have the boots on the right from a minimalist shoe company called Lems, and they have a wide toebox and no heel, but about an inch of cushioning so you can’t really feel the ground (a feeling you come to love once you experience it!). And visually they look a bit clunky. As you can see it’s kind of a challenge to design an attractive barefoot shoe.
The infamous Vibram Five Fingers; other barefoot sneaker options from Vivobarefoot.
How the Foot Changes When You Stop Wearing Conventional Shoes:
The above pictures are from a woman who was wearing conventional running shoes and custom arch support inserts and ditched them for minimalist running shoes. You can see the increase in the curvature of the arch in the 2014 picture. The foot adapted to the stress placed upon it, forcing it to become stronger. The pictures on the right show “the improvement in the alignment if the heel bone known as the calcaneous. You can see in 2012 the calcaneous was more everted or slanted inward as a result of a weak abductor hallucis muscle which leads to a collapse of the medial longitudinal arch. In 2014 the calcaneous is now more rectus or vertically orientated. This is a result of a stronger abductor hallucis muscle pulling and shortening between the great toe and heel bone which improves the arch and straightens the heel or calcaneous bone.”-http://bit.ly1imph1c
Transitioning to Barefoot Shoes
If you are at all interested in trying barefoot shoes, I highly recommend the company Vivobarefoot. They have the largest range of styles for work and exercise that I’ve come across in the barefoot shoe world and the best designs in my opinion. If you buy them on sale, the prices are comparable to what you would pay for a normal shoe. Personally, I have switched all my shoes over to Vivobarefoot shoes and wear them for work and exercise/walking. Transitioning does take some time and I did have pain in the beginning because my feet were being forced to use muscles they hadn’t used before, so I would recommend starting by alternating between your barefoot shoes and regular shoes for a couple weeks and see how it feels. Personally I’m not a runner, so I can’t give advice about transitioning for running, but there are a ton of websites out there that go more into detail. I think you want to be more careful about transitioning if you’re running since you’re striking the ground harder than just walking and it’s easier to get injured if your feet haven’t built up their strength yet.
That Sweet Barefoot Feeling…
Arch support, shoe design, and foot anatomy are incredibly complex topics, and I don’t want to oversimplify things or pretend to be an expert on them. The process of writing this post was my attempt to better understand those topics myself. But I hope I’ve at least made a case for how the natural foot is able to function perfectly fine on its own, and years of conventional shoe wearing has taken some of this natural ability away from it. Restoring the natural function of the foot by going barefoot and wearing barefoot shoes can, in my experience, not only reduce and eliminate foot pain but also improve your posture and change your gait to be gentler with less of a forceful impact every time you take a step, which reduces the force on your joints. Walking around just feels easier. As a highly sensitive person (I often feel like the princess in the children’s book The Princess and the Pea who can feel a pea under 20 layers of mattresses), I could feel how my shoes were contorting my body and my feet and I was always slightly uncomfortable when I was standing or walking with shoes on, whether they were boots with a slight heel or flats with a narrow toe box that squished my toes. I’m not sure if this bothers other people as much as it does me. It’s subtle, but your shoes really do affect the alignment of your entire body in addition to contorting your feet, and wearing barefoot shoes, I feel so much more comfortable in my body. Like the lady on the left:
Article: Why Shoes Make “Normal” Gait Impossible: http://www.unshod.org/pfbc/pfrossi2.htm