Why Birkenstocks Aren’t a Long Term Solution to Foot Pain

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When I was experiencing severe foot pain, Birkenstocks saved me. The supportive foot bed and ample toe space was like a salve to my aching foot. In fact, they helped me become mobile again – no small thing when you have small children and a life to live. But a year passed and Birkenstocks were still the only shoe I could wear. Being barefoot, even in my house, was completely out of the question. So did my Birkenstocks really fix my foot pain, or did they just mask it?

In this article we talk about why strengthening your feet and wearing unsupportive shoes might be a better long term strategy for preventing foot issues than wearing Birkenstocks.

Arch Support Makes Your Feet Weak

Currently there is a big disconnect between the way we think about feet and the way we think about the rest of the body. If you came to a physical therapist with a hurt shoulder you might be prescribed a temporary brace, but you would also be advised to mobilize and strengthen the area because if you brace the shoulder forever it will stop working.

And yet if you present with foot pain at the podiatrist’s office you’re likely to be prescribed a pair of orthotics, stiff shoes and an annual appointment to replace them – over and over for the rest of your life. Our feet are made of the same stuff as the rest of our body – muscles, ligaments, tendons, fascia. So why don’t we try to improve the function of our feet, instead of just bracing them in arch support forever?

The arch support in Birkenstocks doesn’t let your own muscles do the work

The first paradigm shift we need to embrace is that human feet are designed to work without external support. And while it can have therapeutic benefits for people in the short term, using arch support can actually make your feet weaker! We CAN regain foot strength, mobility, and stability with time and practice.

If your feet are deconditioned to support themselves, the arch in Birkenstocks can feel really good. But relying on arch support gives you no chance to use the muscles and nerves in your feet – tissues that, if strong and active, are more than up to the job of supporting you without any assistance. Most feet aren’t flawed, just underused. And simply wearing barefoot shoes is one way to fix that. Studies have shown that walking around in minimalist shoes naturally strengthens feet. Hence, arch support might help you today, but it’s not preparing you for tomorrow.

Stiff Soles Limit Your Foot Mobility

Besides weakening your foot musculature, the intense arch support and thick sole in a Birkenstock also limits your foot mobility. The foot has 33 joints, which allows for endless movement possibilities, all of which connect the feet to the entire posterior chain – ankles, knees, hips, pelvic floor, glutes.

The flexible barefoot shoes (left) let me move through my range of motion effortlessly. The Birkenstocks (right) are so stiff I have to rock forward to get up on my toes. We cross over our toes with every step, so it’s easy to imagine how that stiff sole can affect your gait. What might surprise you is that this also affects your pelvic floor!

When you slip on a Birkenstock you are essentially putting your foot into a fixed position. You might get a little bending and flexing as you walk, but not nearly enough to keep your joints robust to meet the demands of a long and active life. Because if you don’t use your joint mobility you WILL lose it. Wearing shoes with flexible soles, i.e. not Birks, allows your toes to bend fully, your arch to flatten and stiffen as designed, and the natural balance system in the body to function. This stability from the ground up will come back to you in dividends throughout your life.

Slides Cause Toe Gripping

My final beef with Birks is that their most popular styles are essentially slides. Shoes that aren’t secure to your foot affect your gait, resulting in shuffling and toe gripping. For optimal mobility, sandals should have some sort of securing strap so they stay put while you move.

Birkenstock Got A Few Things Right

Despite the issues I have with Birkenstocks, they still hold a valuable place in the world of rehab and pain management – thanks to a few critical features.

Toe space

Yay for a natural foot shape!

Birkenstock shoes have a natural foot shape that allows the toes to spread out. This is so important for foot function, and unfortunately so uncommon when you go shoe shopping. But that’s also what makes barefoot shoes so great – a natural toe box shape is a critical feature of them so if you transition to barefoot shoes you can say good bye to cramped feet!

Zero Drop

Birkenstock sandals are zero drop (heel is at the same elevation as the toe). This is another uncommon find in a supportive shoe (but an unequivocal feature of barefoot shoes), and is very beneficial to your spinal health and overall alignment. Any kind of heel, even the small heel lifts in sneakers and orthotic shoes, pushes your weight forward and stresses your body unevenly. If you need a supportive shoe right now, it goes a long way to get it in a completely flat one.

This is how any kind of heel throws off your alignment.

*Note that only Birkenstock sandals are zero drop. Their close toed shoes that come with a removable insole are not*

So if you are dealing with chronic or acute foot pain and need something to help get you by, you can do far worse than Birkenstock sandals. But relying on them in the long term will only serve to weaken your foot function over time. So what should we do instead?

The Better Long Term Solution to Foot Pain

If you’re living in Birkenstocks right now, no one is judging. After all, I spent more than a year wearing nothing but Birkenstocks – I know the vicious cycle of weak feet + supportive shoes all too well. But the good news is, you likely have more control than you realize. Foot health can be reduced to the following 4 aspects:

  1. Mobility – The range of motion you have control over
  2. Alignment – The natural positioning of your body’s joints
  3. Strength – The power and endurance of your muscles
  4. Stability – The ability to maintain alignment despite outside forces

So how do you achieve those things? Here are a few non-threatening ways to improve the health of your feet.

I used a combination of all 3 of the above strategies to get myself out of foot pain and out of arch support – for good! It can take time to see results, but real change is like that. Slow, steady progression over years has left me with two feet that stand on their own two feet! I discovered the concept of minimalist shoes in Jan. 2017 and slowly transitioned until Jan 2018 when I started wearing them exclusively. So the above photo shows what my foot looked like a year into my barefoot shoe journey (Jan 2019). 2 1/2 years later to Aug 2021 and you can visibly see that my foot is stronger and more aligned. Like they’ve been working out or something!

Below you can see the progression of my natural arch over 4 years. July of 2017 is when I was fully reliant on my Birkenstocks to be comfortable.

I am not here to tout going barefoot as a panacea for all people with foot pain. But we can ALL, no matter our current situation, be better informed about how our shoes and lifestyle choices affect us. I am prone to joint issues myself, which has affected my path toward healthy feet and better overall movement. But I’d still like to be able to chase my grandchildren someday, so I take every opportunity to use my body naturally. As anyone close to me will report, I can often be found traipsing around barefoot! And when I’m not, I’m in barefoot shoes 100% of the time. That means Birkenstocks are gone from my life, and even though we had a good run, I have no plans to come back to them.

So the next question is, what am I wearing instead of Birkenstocks? Here is a list of barefoot sandals that can be worn daily just like a Birkenstock sandal.

Barefoot Sandal Alternatives

Here are some barefoot sandals that are zero drop, with thin flexible soles, and a natural foot shape to them – for optimal foot function. But you don’t need to be limited to sandals! To get started with minimalist shoes, simply head to my home page.


Top down view of Feelgrounds barefoot seaside sandals in black

Feelgrounds Seaside Sandals (EU) – Sizes EU 35-49. The seaside sandal is vegan and available in tons of different colors! Read all my Feelgrounds reviews here.


Earth Runners (US) – Sizes US 6-15. Love mine! Super comfortable. ANYA10 for 10% off. Full Earth Runners review here


Top down view of a pair of feet out in nature wearing Xero Z Treks in black

Xero Shoes (US) – Sizes US Womens 5-12, Mens 6-14. Read my Z-Trek review!

In Europe? Shop Xero Shoes EU here!


a top down view of a pair of feet standing on rock wearing Shamma Warrior Sandals barefoot sandals for hiking, running, and walking

Shamma Sandals (US) – Sizes US Womens 5- Mens 14. Use code ANYASREVIEWS2023 for 10% off. I love this brand! Check out my Shamma reviews here.


A top down view of a pair of feet standing on concrete wearing pink Crupon Nomade barefoot sandals with the bottom hem of a floral dress visible

Crupon Sandals (Europe) – Sizes EU 35-41. The sandals linked here are barefoot friendly. The other models from Crupon are narrower in the toe box, but can still be made with a flat and flexible sole. There is also has an extra wide option! Use code ANYA for 10% off.

Read my Crupon Reviews here


Top down view of Softstar Solstice Sandals in youth size

Softstar Solstice (US) – Sizes US 5U-12U and 3 width options. These sandals run big, most people size down and choose wide.


Be Lenka Promenade (EU) – Sizes EU 36-43. Use code ANYASREVIEWS for 5% off (returns are only accepted from within the EU and USA).

You can find Be Lenka sandals at Anya’s Shop!


Zeazoo black leather criss cross sandals

Zeazoo Sandals (EU) – Sizes EU 35-46. Use code ANYASREVIEWS for 5% off. You can find Zeazoo Sandals at Anya’s Shop!


A pair of white Soul Tikki Shoes barefoot sandals for women with one rolled up into a ball to show its flexibility and the other showing the natural foot shape of the sole

Tikki sandals (EU) – Sizes EU 35-46. They are released each spring and have options for men, women, and big kids. Great choice for extra wide feet!


top down view of vivobarefoot Kuru II brown leather sandals

Vivobarefoot Opanka Sandal (Use this post to find your nearest Vivobarefoot e-shop) -Sizes US 5.5-11.5. Get 10% off with code VBANYA20 *This model is only available seasonally. If it’s out currently, they’ll be back next warm season*


A top down view of a pair of feet standing on concrete wearing Wildling Shoes Forest Feather barefoot sandal made of green microfiber material

Wildling Feather (EU) – Sizes EU 36-48. The Feather sandals from Wildling are super lightweight and have great ground feel!

Read my Wildling Reviews here


And these are just a handful of options! Click here to see a complete list of barefoot sandals with even more choices. And if you’re interested in natural foowear options for more than summertime, I have a multitude of barefoot shoe lists for different age groups, activities, and weather! You can find a barefoot shoe for almost any occasion!

Conclusion

If your feet are capable enough to not need supportive shoes like Birkenstocks you will be more comfortable in your daily life. While everyone’s unique bodies and experiences impact how feasible this is for them, most of us have a lot more control over it than we realize. But don’t take my word for it. Try it out and see if it’s right for you! It costs nothing to start going barefoot more often and exercising your feet. Your body will thank you for the attention.

Reference Material

Supporting Research

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Comments

96 thoughts on “Why Birkenstocks Aren’t a Long Term Solution to Foot Pain”

  1. Birkenstocks do not provide arch support. They have that thing that splays your toes but not arch support. I can’t even read this whole post since you missed that point. Oofos are good, even crocs, for support walking around the house, recovery, etc. Although, I’m not a dr.

    1. Huh? Maybe there are some Birks somewhere without arch support…but just look at the pictures… every Birkenstock sandal and shoe I’ve ever seen has a metatarsal and an arch support.

  2. The primary reason for fallen arches and ingrown toenails is shoes that are too narrow. If you use an arch support in such a case you are just crushing your foot between the support and the shoe. There are several companies that offer extra-wide shoes in a variety of styles. These off-the-shelf shoes are available in widths up to 9E. Anything wider requires a custom order and is limited to some very clunky styles. I wear 9E width shoes and, while my foot pain is considerably less than before, I could use wider shoes.

  3. Hey great article. I hope to keep progressing the structural health of my foot. I think Birkenstocks (Milano/with blackstrap) played a fundamental role in the transition to zero drop with adequate room for toes to spread while allowing support that my foot was used too. I was of the understanding that high heeled boots were best for hard work like nicks/wesco/whites. Which can be true for soft ground hard labor but I found my back and neck suffering. Birkenstocks allowed my Achilles, calf and toe spread to acclimate comfortably which in turn helped my back and neck. I think it’s important to note that it is balance. I like to backpack, trail run and I tried zero drop (altra lone peak) for that and it just does not work for lots of elevation gain and loss. I now use ultra-cush (hoka Speedgoat 5 wide).

    I think the lesson here is to find the best footwear for the job and over time that might mean evolving to a different shoe for the same job. That doesn’t mean the footwear you used prior was always a mistake. If I could go backpacking barefoot I would but it’s just not feasible… yet 🙃. It’s progression.

    I think many people feel shamed/overwhelmed when being compared to ultra health and the process required but I think it’s a good reminder that it’s all about progression more so than the end result. When I can go minimalist (Barefoot, unsupportive shoe) I will but that comes down to pain management, lifestyle and performance needed. I love my birks because they opened up a door to toe spread and zero drop. I’ll still use them but I’m also going to keep looking at more ways to keep progressing.

    There is a lot of great information here and I look forward to reading more. Thanks!

  4. I love Birkenstocks, as they been with me for 45 yrs. But them i discovered Zero-drop Minimalist and made the transition and my back pains completely disappeared … they were lighter and super flexible sole. I selected Xero Z-Trek and Z-Trails (i have both) are they are my favorites even for daily use. Its the closest thing to go barefoot with sole protection. Birkis look better but rainy & wet days the Xero are better. Birkis deteriorates fast in wet environment. I have master the transition between the two styles. For me 70/30 – Xero/Birkis.

  5. martinelongum@gmail.com

    One can walk “inside “ the shoe and still bend in walking
    The with is so important …
    Do not wear the same pair of shoes all the time and walk barefoot as often you can .

  6. Thanks Anya for this very very insightful review!

    Since I am gone barefoot I have been trying to find a pair of “Birkenstock like” closed sandals to wear around the house and that can also offer some protection in case something falls on your feet (e.g when you are cooking and so on).

    I have been completely unsuccessful and it does not seem that any company is attempting (with few hacks on YouTube where you need to become basically a shoe maker) to make a Biktenstock like clog. Isn’t that interesting? Did I miss some brands?
    ALTERNATIVE: What do you think about this particular pair of Birkenstock (Lutry Premium Suede) where you can remove the inside footbed: https://www.birkenstock.com/gb/lutry-premium-suede-leather/lutry-premiumhome-suedeleather-0-rubber-u_491.html
    Would the do the trick? I am unsure as even if you remove the footbed the sole still looks tick and it is unclear how flexible this is.

    1. Hm, I don’t know of anything exactly like what you are looking for. My first instinct is to look for a barefoot friendly slipper or house shoe.. Re: those Birkenstocks if the description says you can remove the footbed I think those would be a good option. They might not feel great on your feet with no foot bed and no socks, but you could replace it with another insole from other barefoot shoes or from this list of insoles.

      1. Thanks Anya for the reply. I did get a pair and tested and this is my summary:
        When you take away the footbed the clogs become huge, in my case I am guessing I should have gotten two European sized down
        In terms of barefoot characteristics:
        The sole is still very thick so you do not feel the ground
        The sole is not very flexible
        They are still kind of heavy
        To summarize, can you make the Birkenstock Lutry barefoot by removing the footbed? Kind of, they only check the box on zero drop and wide toe box. See some pictures here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/igALm2rvALEUWni97
        Mario

  7. You don’t specify the cause of your own foot pain issues in this blog. But Morton’s neuroma is a major cause of ball of foot pain and numbness. It involves inflammed/thickened tissue surrounding the nerves usually of the third and/or fourth toes. It also is more prevalent among those with bunions and other intrusive conditions that can crowd/inflame foot nerves. Often, the condition is caused or exacerbated by walking barefoot or wearing shoes with thin soles and little arch support, including overly flexible ballet flats. Morton’s neuroma has NOTHING to do with “weak” foot muscles. Birkenstocks and shoes with similar foot beds can help resolve the pain of Morton’s neuroma and prevent or delay its return by decreasing the pressure on the inflamed tissues. And claiming that some shoes might “mask” pain is a red herring; shoes don’t “mask” pain. They might cause it, exacerbate it or relieve it, but they don’t “hide” it. Pain either exists or it doesn’t.

    1. I had functional hallux limitus, not a neuroma. But yes, if someone has a neuroma wearing a shoe with some cushion (but still a wide toe box) is a good idea. Muscle strength and balance absolutely can affect a neuroma and should definitely be a part of the recovery process! Pain is neurological, so we’re getting into semantics here, but my point was that overly supportive cushioned shoes can enable poor mechanics and provide temporary relief while doing nothing to prevent bigger issues down the road. Nothing applies to everyone all the time and that’s ok! It’s all about questioning and learning so you can live your own best life. I wish you happy and healthy feet for all of your days!

  8. I’m very confused by your article and this concept altogether. While it would be a no-brainer if we lived in a world without concrete, the fact is we don’t and most of us require being in it day to day. In addition, I’ve had a bunion since I was 11 years old, naturally very low arches, and have suffered from low back pain from a young age. I’m very active and attempted going with Altra running shoes with a 0 drop for running and Vibram 5 Fingers before that years ago. In any situation they both absolutely DESTROY my body and back with every attempt I made for years. Yes, I even spent years before that working my way down to a 4mm drop. I need a slight offset in order to prevent back pain. I feel it is time to acknowledge this isn’t for everyone especially if you have pre-existing conditions.

    1. Of course everyone comes to the table with different histories and needs, there is no one right answer for everyone. And that is totally fine! Shoes can’t fix everything, sometimes you have to dig into other areas of the body to figure out what’s going on and where the pain is coming from.

  9. Every fall, when I transition out of Birkenstocks, I feel the most unimaginable pain. It goes right through my knees and into my back. I have had knee surgery, and also have very high arches. I depend on birks to keep everything aligned.

    I appreciate the argument of strengthening one’s feet with exercise and barefoot shoes. I have tried it. But as a busy parent and full-time worker, I just cannot find the time or energy to keep this up. The transition period is just too awful and painful.

    All of which is to say – I get the theory of barefoot. I support it. But I will live in Birkenstocks until I retire and have more time for “self-care.”

    1. Hi, I am no expert but I experienced the same during Covid — I wore Birkenstocks only for months and then, when I had to go back to work, I couldn’t wear any other shoes, the pain was killing me. I read that Birkenstock-type shoes essentially weaken your feet and that the best cure for this is walking barefoot whenever you can. So I chucked away my Birkies, stopped wearing even socks when I was at home, I went exclusively barefoot indoors, and after a while my feet felt much better and I could again wear ordinary shoes. Then I discovered barefoot shoes and now I am replacing all my shoes with these. I know that we are all different, but wanted to share my experience. If you are fine wearing Birkenstocks only, it’s fine, but I wasn’t.

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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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