It’s tempting to treat your shoe rack like a toolbox. For each situation, there’s a product in the $133 billion shoe industry to fit it, from workout shoes to hiking, running, and yes, even walking shoes!
But do we need to have a specialized shoe for something as fundamental and human as walking? Massachusetts-based podiatrist Dr. Alissa Kuizinas isn’t so sure.
“We often have this perception that we need a special category of shoe to wear for walks,” she says. “There’s even a whole segment of footwear called ‘walking shoes,’ and there’s all kinds of technology involved in that. But every shoe can be a walking shoe, as long as it meets certain standards.”
It took a long journey for this doctor to reach her current conclusions on walking shoes. Here’s how her personal experience led her to change her mind, and how she guides clients into finding the right shoe for their situation.
“I knew there had to be a better solution”
Dr. Kuizinas has more than a medical perspective on footwear. She struggled with foot discomfort for years, and found that she was repeatedly jamming her big toe inside her shoes with each step she took – “even with my ‘good shoes’ on,” she recalls.
“Traditional medicine would recommend that I wear custom orthotics, limit my activity and wear stiff-soled shoes until the pain became bad enough to require surgery,” she says. “I knew there had to be a better solution.”
The deeper this foot doctor delved, the more she found that her feet weren’t the problem. It was her shoes!
“Even though shoe companies spend millions of dollars on technology and design development, the shoes they produce and sell are doing a major disservice to human feet,” she explains. “From cushioning, to heel-toe drops, stiff soles, to narrow toe boxes, nearly every aspect of a modern shoe has a negative impact on foot movement. It leads to an epidemic of dysfunctional, weak, and malfunctioning feet. And most of us aren’t even aware this is happening!”
She finally found her fit once she started wearing anatomically designed, flexible shoes with little to no padding, like Xero Shoes. In a matter of months, she wasn’t just feeling better; she had changed dramatically her perspective on what a shoe should be!
Get Out of the Way of Your Feet
“The primary purpose of shoes is to protect our feet from the elements and from different surfaces,” Dr. Kuizinas says. “They’re for when we are out in the world walking on a slippery or wet surface. Ultimately, shoes are really there JUST for that purpose. They don’t need to be bulky and restrictive, or supporting our feet. Our feet are designed to support themselves!”
So… why not just walk barefoot all the time? Research has actually supported this idea of slight “protection” being beneficial. A study comparing outdoor barefoot walking with minimalist footwear found that the shoes actually improved walking form in both younger and older adults, and reduced risk of falling.
To maximize on these benefits, Dr. Kuizinas recommends a ‘as little shoe as possible’ approach to footwear, and instead focusing on building resilient, capable feet.
“Rather than building up the shoe to try to externally support the foot and limit motion, minimalist shoes get out of the way of our feet,” she says. “They allow feet to function naturally, to move, and bend. The transition to minimalist shoes involves stripping down the unnecessary and harmful components of modern shoes so that feet can be feet again!”
When working with clients today, Dr. Kuizinas shies away from the term “minimalist shoes.” Instead, she likes to call them “functional shoes” or “natural shoes.”
“Natural footwear is really on the leading edge of shoe technology,” she says. “By stripping away the unnecessary and downright harmful features of shoes, we allow feet to function effortlessly as they were designed to!”
How to Find Your “Functional” Walking Shoe
Dr. Kuizinas has a three-point checklist of what she looks for in a functional shoe, which not-so-coincidentally match up with the three major functions of the human foot during walking.
“The foot has three jobs: to be a ‘mobile adaptor’ or shock absorber when it first hits the ground, to be a rigid lever during push-off, and to be a sensor of the environment,” she explains. “As long as it can do these three things, it will function well.”
Here’s how she says those functions should be reflected in the shoes you wear:
Wide Toe Box: “Functional sneakers should have a wide, foot-shaped toe box. They’re broad enough to allow our big toe to sit in a proper alignment.”
Flat & Flexible Soles: “Our feet contain 26 bones and 33 joints. And joints are designed to move! A flexible sole allows for natural foot movement. By contrast, stiff and rigid shoes with elevated heels prevent the joints from fully moving through their range of motion and limit the foot.”
Minimal cushion and support: “A functional shoe should only be only as cushioned as you really need. Overly cushioned shoes dampen your perception of what’s going on with your feet, and your ability to walk well.”
If you follow those simple standards, Dr. Kuizinas says, every shoe can be a walking shoe!
Be Patient and Build Up to Barefoot
Both from her personal experience and in her professional practice, Dr. Kuiz recommends being patient when it comes to transitioning to full-time “functional” footwear.
In the early days, she recommends a one-two approach of wearing functional shoes primarily for low-impact activities like walking and running errands, while also going barefoot around the house to help build resilience in the feet and ankles.
“As your foot function improves, you’ll be able to tolerate less arch supportive shoes for greater amounts of time,” she explains.
Xero Shoes That Fit Dr. Kuizinas' Standards
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About Dr. Alissa Kuizinas
Dr. Alissa Kuizinas is a virtual podiatrist with a passion for natural foot function. She helps people transform their feet by focusing on healthy footwear, movement patterns, and gait mechanics to get them moving at their absolute best.