One of the most striking transformations that took place during our transition into and continued use of Vibram FiveFingers was that of our feet. Before I began running in FiveFingers, I don’t think I ever put much thought into just how different one person’s feet are from another’s or what the natural form of the foot should be. Transitioning into minimalist footwear, however, has really forced me to think about the structure of my feet, and it has become (sometimes painfully) clear that no two people’s feet are alike in form or function. Despite how obvious that statement may sound, it is apparently not part of the thought process of many modern shoe manufacturers, which I can attest to after years and years of cramming my toes into narrow toe-boxes and my feet into highly-cushioned shoes from manufacturers who don’t account for the natural shape, strength and movement of the foot. So, for this entry into our Vibram Transition series, I’m going to get to the “sole” of things (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and talk about the effects of traditional footwear and the many changes our feet have experienced since we went minimalist.
The images below are originally from a study performed by Phil. Hoffmann and were published in the American Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery over 100 years ago. They are the most powerful evidence I’ve seen depicting how different people’s feet are because they wear shoes. The photo on the left shows the feet of someone who has never before worn shoes and the set of images on the right show the shod and unshod feet of someone who has worn shoes for their entire life. When you compare them side-by-side, the difference is really quite shocking. It is also amazing that we’ve had proof since at least 1905 that wearing shoes fundamentally changes a person’s feet, in what appears to be such an uncomfortable and obviously unnatural way (those are some squished toes!), and yet so many shoe manufacturers continue to ignore the foot’s natural form and function.
Another major factor in Hoffmann’s study was to determine what happened when a barefooted person started wearing the traditional shoes of the time. The results are, again, amazing. The following four images show the foot impressions of two children. Photos A and C show each child’s feet prior to wearing shoes and Photos B and D show the impressions of their feet after only a few weeks of wearing shoes. The changes in the children’s feet, even after such a short time wearing shoes, are easily seen. One should also note that while there are significant differences between the two children’s unshod feet in A and C (no two people’s feet are the same!), their feet began to look more alike after they begin to adapt to the shoes.
The question then becomes: if it only takes a few weeks to see noticeable changes in a person’s foot when they start wearing shoes for the first time, what happens when a person who has worn traditional shoes for their entire life switches to minimalist footwear? For Steven and me, I believe that the change has been a more gradual one, for two main reasons. First, strengthening muscles, tendons, and skin that have been coddled and atrophied by traditional footwear is a much slower process than the time it might take to begin to weaken them again. This process is, of course, necessarily slow in order to avoid injury and to learn and maintain proper form. Second, neither Steven nor I made a complete switch to minimalist footwear, which likely slowed any changes happening in our feet. Steven is still required to wear traditional dress shoes at work (until the Primal Professional comes along), and me, well, I just have a lot of cute shoes I can’t give up wearing, yet.
That’s not to say that there weren’t immediate changes in our feet, there were! The most apparent and immediate change was the skin on the bottoms of our feet beginning to toughen, and this is where the differences between my and Steven’s feet became clear. I mentioned in an earlier Vibram Transition post that I felt that Steven had a much easier time adapting to the midfoot form than I did. One of the most obvious manifestations of this was the peeling and even blistering I experienced on the bottom of my feet, specifically the balls of my feet, in the first couple months of our transition period, while Steven simply experienced a gradual thickening and toughening of his foot pads. Tip: For anyone else experiencing blistering, I overcame it using well-placed pieces of moleskin and wearing Injinji Toe Socks. The blisters healed relatively quickly and now I can get by with just Injinjis.
Now that we are more than six months into our Vibram Transition (and have transitioned more of our everyday footwear to minimalist shoes), I have really been noticing just how far our feet have come. In terms of muscle and tendon strength, I feel like my feet are much stronger, especially my toes and arches. I’m now able to flex and spread my toes apart much further and more comfortably than I could before. The fronts of my feet do appear wider and my toes are straighter. This is most obvious when I put on non-minimalist shoes and the toe box feels much more cramped than it did in the past. Finally, the peeling and blistering that I experienced early on is now completely resolved, and I simply have thicker skin (think permanent “summer feet”) on my foot pads.
The human foot really is an amazing piece of engineering and it’s crazy to me to think that just seven months ago, I didn’t really appreciate that fact. Now, I rely so much on the increased strength of my feet and calves and it is helping me to become a better runner. I’m looking forward to testing and improving my foot strength in the future by running longer distances and perhaps trying out real barefoot running. For those of you still on the fence about the benefits of going barefoot/minimalist, and in case the previous images haven’t convinced you of the foot-altering horrors of modern footwear as they did me, here’s hoping the IT Crowd will do it for you! Say no to squished toes, no matter how cute the shoes!
Meagan is a geochemistry research lab manager, runner, Netflix binge-watcher, and Mom to a rescue dog, a bunny, and a human child. She started running in May 2011 and ran her first half marathon in October 2012, followed by her first marathon in October 2013. In July 2018, she joined the triathlon world and completed an Olympic-distance race. After an extended break (pregnancy/maternity leave), she is making a long-overdue return to running and is preparing for a high-elevation half marathon at Crater Lake National Park in August 2020.