My Journey to Strong Feet & Barefoot Shoes

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A woman sitting on rock outside in nature next to bushes and a lake wearing barefoot sandals and smiling off into the distance

You might know me as the barefoot shoe queen, but it wasn’t always like this. I’ve run the whole gamut of foot issues, orthotics, & supportive shoes and when Vibram Five Fingers were the rage I was clinging to my arch support. But after years of increasing foot problems, I swung the other way.

Here is my story of how I came to barefoot shoes as a solution to my chronic foot pain.

My Background with Foot Pain

Sometimes I am accused of having the “right genes” for barefoot shoes, but the reality is when it comes to physical performance I’m on the shallow end of the gene pool. You see I have a connective tissue disorder called hypermobility spectrum disorder, and that makes me the perfect candidate to NOT wear barefoot shoes.

I started having foot pain at the ripe age of 9. I developed painful ankle tendinitis for no apparent reason and was prescribed orthotics to correct my flat feet. While it did help with the tendinitis, it was around this time that I also developed chronic fatigue, headaches, and neck pain. I was your typical nerd – bookish, unathletic, sick often, and twiggy. But I was bright and had a happy disposition, so made it through life without too much trouble. 

2009

As I got older I found it harder and harder to move my body. I was prone to injuries and aches that never seemed to heal – an aching ankle, a swollen knee, a low back twinge, a persistent crick in my neck, etc. I often wondered what was wrong with me, but doctors assured me that everyone is tired and achy and my ailments were common and minor. 

And so it went on like this, with the pain slowly creeping up on me. It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my second child that it moved in permanently.

Soaking my feet to help with the pain.

What before had been an intermittent annoyance was now a constant disruptor to my life. And the biggest source of pain was my right big toe. I found shoes intolerable because they all irritated my big toe, but walking without shoes was also unbearable. I hobbled around until son #2 was born and then headed to the podiatrist for a diagnosis.

Diagnosis: Your Feet Are F***ed

The diagnosis was essentially “Your feet are f***ed and you need to wear orthotics and stiff orthopedic shoes every day the rest of your life.” 😑

Being in the state I was, I felt I had no other option. So I started wearing supportive shoes at all times so that my big toe never bent. This didn’t solve the issue (obviously) but it did get me out of acute pain.

I kept waiting for things to get better, but they did not (again, predictable) and I could never be without shoes. If I wasn’t wearing them, I crawled on my hands and knees. At 29 years old without major health issues aside from my lax connective tissue, this didn’t seem right. Why was my body not working?

Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire

After 6 months or so I went back to the podiatrist. This time she ordered an MRI and found that I had bone marrow edema (fluid in the bone). She ordered me off my foot for 6 weeks to let it heal.

What had been a comedy of errors before now took a dark turn. It’s difficult for me to describe this time of my life. I had a tiny baby, a toddler, and a home business that I managed while my husband was at work. My body was already very weak and I had postpartum depression. In addition, close members of my family were experiencing their own health crises that I needed to help with. I was simply not ok.

During this 6 weeks I was in a boot, then a knee scooter, then a cast. All in efforts to get me completely off the foot because supposedly that would get me out of pain. My memory of this time is carrying my baby in my arms while I attempted to walk around on my knees (ouch!) to tend to my family’s needs.

Somehow, I survived the 6 weeks. But to my dismay the troubles didn’t stop there. Despite all that effort, my foot still hurt SO BADLY. Worse than before even. But now I also had severe back pain, ankle pain, and was so weak and discombobulated I couldn’t remember how to walk.

A Paradigm Shift

By this point I had decided not to go back to the podiatrist. So as I lay around the house on my back I started doing research on foot pain and peppering anyone I could find with questions.

I discovered a Gonstead chiropractor who adjusted external joints and I booked an appointment ASAP. He gave me more knowledge on foot mechanics in my first appointment than I had ever gotten in my life to that point, and he gave me hope that my big toe could function again. He also was the one who showed me I had scoliosis and lordosis/kyphosis in an x-ray (which he also believed could be rectified). For the first time I was being told that something could be done!

Around this time my best friend and soulmate suggested I read Whole Body Barefoot, by Katy Bowman. She sent me a copy of it on Audible, and I started listening to it right away. That book along with the findings of my chiropractor put an end to my downward spiral. It was all up from there, baby.

My best friend Mir and I. See how wide my stance is? I always felt unstable so I spread my feet out.

My Healing

Now for the good stuff! Suddenly a fire was ignited inside of me. I would not settle for this. I would not be told what I could and could not do, and I WOULD NOT STOP. My life was changed in a moment, all because I now believed I could do it.

It took over a year, but I weaned myself off arch support and cushioned shoes and made my way incrementally over to barefoot shoes. I haven’t looked back.

During this time I noticed a huge void of information on barefoot shoes, which is why I started this barefoot shoe blog! It is now the top source for all things natural footwear, so be sure poke around if you’re looking for shoes. I recommend starting here.

But there was a lot of work to do before I would start seeing the benefits. Here are the things I changed so I could get my life back.

Better Shoes

I immediately started looking for shoes with a wide anatomical toe box (but not a barefoot shoe). I was able to find some Altra’s at my local running shoe store, and they were like heaven on my feet. My poor big toe that had been through so much could finally lie straight inside a shoe!

Still wearing shoes all day every day!

I swapped between Altra’s and Birkenstocks for several months to manage the pain, while I prepared my body to move to a more minimal shoe (more on that in the next section). After several months I got my first true barefoot shoe, but still used a supportive insole in them for a while as my feet got stronger.

I learned along the way that it’s a good idea to keep a hold of a few comfort shoes for when you have bad days or get injured, but boy is it amazing how feet can adapt. After decades in orthotics I have now been without arch support in my shoe for 7 years. I am comfortable in minimalist shoes and even being barefoot the vast majority of the time! You can see here how much my feet have changed over the years – they are stronger and more resilient than ever before. And barefoot shoes allow me to foster that capability.

Better Foot Function

While shoes are an important part of the conversation (unless you don’t wear shoes), they are only one piece of the puzzle. For myself and many others, improving your foot health requires some additional work. So while I was investigating shoes I also began incorporating these foundational foot exercises into my weekly routine so that I could comfortably walk and stand without the ultra supportive shoes.

The biggest takeaway for me here was that in order to build strength you have to intentionally load the tissues. Feet that are stuffed in rigid supportive shoes don’t have to work – and that leads to atrophy. So I began to think about rehabilitating my feet the same way you would rehab an injured shoulder or knee. It was time for my feet to go to the gym!

3 photo collage of the same woman's foot over the span of 2 years. In the first photo, her foot looks weak in the first photo, but clearly stronger in the next 2.

Better Whole Body Function

Feet are the foundation of our bodies and affect everything all the way up to our heads, but it’s also true that the rest of the body affects the feet. So it’s important to build strong stable joints throughout the entire body. For me, the most useful tools to that end have been the following:

  • Walking more – I was only walking about 1,000 steps a day when I started this journey. Increasing that to 5-10K was a huge achievement for me!
  • Physical therapy – they can help you spot treat trouble areas!
  • Pilates – this exercise modality has been life changing for me
  • Daily spinal/joint care – I don’t follow a specific routine, but I make sure to take my joints through their ranges of motion as much as possible so I don’t get stiff. Some people love CARS for this, and I also enjoy a dynamic living space to keep me moving.

I had to start out very slow, but I worked hard and within a couple months I noticed that many things in my life were getting easier as I became stronger. I could stand for longer periods of time, my knees weren’t bugging me, and I had more energy.

My feet also started changing. My arch lifted up off the ground and my toes began to spread as my hips got stronger. I learned the value of pushing myself to the point where my body built muscle, but not to the point were I was inflamed. I looked after my body, resting when I needed and pushing myself once I had recovered. After a lifetime of being sedentary I had somehow become one of “those” people. You know, the ones who actually like to exercise.

Consulting With Professionals

In addition to seeing a physical therapist, I also greatly benefited from doing a few virtual consultations with Gait Happens in 2020. They helped me identify some core/pelvic floor issues that were getting in the way of my progress. This is common, especially after pregnancies.

And another useful course I took was the Whealth Hypermobility Course (you can use code ANYASREVIEWS for $200 off).

While everyone will benefit from moving and strengthening, hypermobile folks ESPECIALLY need to tend to their joints to keep them stable. As I got stronger my posture naturally improved along with it and everything about life got easier.

Other Lifestyle Optimizations

I also simply can’t neglect to share that changing my lifestyle as a whole has had a huge impact on my pain and mobility.

Getting better sleep, eating a nutrient dense diet (limiting processed foods & refined sugar), and going outside daily have all been major pillars in my recovery process. And of course, the nebulous advice to “manage stress,” which for me has looked like breathwork/meditation (I like boxed breathing), nurturing important relationships, living authentically & honestly, and minimizing contact with toxic people/spaces.

It’s hard to quantify how much all these things have affected the physical pain I experience, but I would guess it accounts for nearly half of my progress!

Takeaways

I still have injury and pain show up occasionally – that is a part of life. But I have learned how to deal with it in a sustainable way. I have no doubt that I will continue to see results as time passes, because bodies are amazing that way! While it might be disappointing that there are no silver bullets, the good news is that even small changes can add up to huge results over time.

I know many of you are going through the same quest for answers right now. So I’m inviting you to join me on this journey toward long term foot health. Because that means freedom in your life to do the things you love!

Besides a whole host of resources that will always be available to you on this blog, you also can get weekly news and tips in your inbox by subscribing to the Barefoot Shoe Digest.

And you have access to me live in this special barefoot shoe workshop happening on February 15th 2024! I can’t wait to get connected.

This is my story, not medical advice. You should always check with a doctor if your pain is persistent or unexplained.

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Comments

39 thoughts on “My Journey to Strong Feet & Barefoot Shoes”

  1. Anya, thank you for your story. My fairly fit, 79 year old mom has been wearing custom orthotics for decades, has begun having trouble walking safely and has had pelvic floor issues for umpteen years. I had no clue these things could all be connected. Off to go research now….thank you so much for mentioning this!!!! You give me hope of helping her heal.

  2. Fellow connective tissue disorder person here. I’m the kind of person who never leaves comments or reviews…but boy, reading your story, I felt as though you had put into words my own journey! I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility Type, as well as osteoporosis, at the age of 18 (although I’d probably had both for much longer). After trying the whole “let’s immobilize / put orthotics on every part of your body and you’ll feel better” thing for 20+ years, my husband and I decided enough was enough. He encouraged me to go furniture-free, and now, we’re looking into making the barefoot transition (I have a toddler who also has foot issues, with another baby on the way). Honestly, this is the only blog-type site that I ever wanted to follow. Thanks for your informational posts and for sharing your story!

  3. I am currently at the beginning stage, I started switching to barefoot shoes in november of this past year 2023. and I am at that point of wearing altras and whitin shoes because I am not at the full capacity of adjusting yet, currently my left foot is in so much pain from plantar fasciaa pain but my foot is wider then it was in november and feels better in zero drop shoes….it’s painful but i’m slowly getting there, that transition picture of your foot through out the years is helping me see i’m getting there, thank you.

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Hi. I'm Anya.

Hi. I'm Anya.

I first discovered barefoot shoes after a long history of foot issues. By changing my footwear and strengthening my body I was able to completely transform my life. Anya’s Reviews is my way of sharing with the world that healthy feet are happy feet!

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