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. ANYA 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 ANYA25 for 25% off *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

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

  1. You say: “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.” But the pics of your arch progression show what appears to be your arch getting higher, not flattening. Seems contradictory. Please clarify. Thanks.

    1. Hi Jessica, when I said that flexible shoes allow the arch to flatten & stiffen I was referring to the foot in motion. While walking at times your arch flattens and pronates, and at other times it stiffens to propel you forward. This does not apply to the foot at rest.

  2. seriously good information! I had the same experience over the past 5 years or so. had a plantar fasciitis flair up that was debilitating. I switched to burks for a few years out of necessity which got me mobile (and I will love them forever because of it) but ultimately it felt like a bandaid and not a solution. and my research sent me down the same path of strengthening my foot muscles and slowly transitioning to barefoot shoes. currently wearing barefoots almost exclusively and haven’t had pain in years!
    those feelground cork bed sandals are one of my favs as well!

  3. Anya, do you have any tips for transitioning from birks to barefoot shoes? I developed plantar fasciitis in the fall after wearing birks most of the summer, then switching to my usual running sneakers (work shoes) with custom orthotics for work this school year. The heel pain worsened for a few months before I realized what it was and started diy therapy. I quickly realized my pain was less with birks, so I switched exclusively to those a couple months ago. Except for my workouts, I had to wear my sneakers for working out. I’ve had many issues with my legs in the past (running injuries) and I’ve always been curious about the benefits of strengthening my feet to wear barefoot shoes. The regular running shoes started killing my feet during my workouts, so I recently purchase some Xero sneakers and I’ve been wearing them for a short daily workout (30ish minutes) and in spurts here and there during the week. My heel hurts, but only one foot, and not like it does when I wear my regular sneakers. Thank goodness! I know there will definitely be a work-in period to get used to wearing Xero drop sneakers. Any tips you have for the transition would be greatly appreciated! Thank you!

  4. Wearing sandals and open toe shoes is fine if you live in areas where it’s always sunshine. No so good in the Northeast where it snows and rains and it’s cold.

  5. Hi Anya,
    I originally got orthotics to solve a knee problem which i think resulted from a sprained knee when iwas about 10. the left foot being really flat ended up pronating sufficiantly to cause a bunion on that foot. Recently Plantar faciitis hot me and i tried eveything finally landed on going barefoot which really helped the PR. Now the challenge is tpo find shoes that fit , especially previewing the year ahead where my toes will start to spread! I’m not sure if the support the orthotics gave the knee and the bunion (whic stopped advancing or hurting with the ortho) will start in again if i go barefoot.
    Add to is that i am 69! I do yoga every day and I’m ok with an exercise drill so I have started doing all the recommended ones to build my arch and work my calf muscles.
    So hey! is there hope for life after orthotics for me?! the flat feet were never my problem, it was the knee and the bunion that followed.

    1. You’re never to old to start! But everybody is different so I can’t say for sure how you’ll respond. I believe in taking a step wise approach, listening to your body along the way.

  6. Hi, what about if you have a high arch. Would it help with this? Just like people who have flat feet having too high of an arch can be painful too, but no one ever talks about it.

    1. Yes, some people have feet with stiff high arches and that can also be problematic. It’s the same idea no matter what foot type you have – improving the function (stability, strength, mobility) of your feet and lower limbs can replace supportive shoes.

  7. Hi! I’m almost always barefoot at home, and am most of the day. The only shoes I wear are cork soled but I only wear them going out to the store and then back home where I am barefoot. However I have recurring planters fasciitis in my right foot. Would wearing barefoot shoes help despite almost always being barefoot?

    1. It’s possible it could help if you are still most active when wearing shoes. But my first thought is that you may benefit from general foot and leg strengthening instead of focusing on shoes.

  8. Thank you! This is exactly what is going on with my feet and I couldn’t figure it out. My big toenails have become deformed. And I’m in physical therapy for pelvic floor. This is an answer to prayer!

  9. Hi! I found you on Pinterest and this was interesting. I had ankle pain and vulnerability for a long time. I live in NYC and walk everywhere. Strangely, the only thing that seemed to help was a chunky heel. I actually wear timberland heels nearly everyday and have always wondered why it seems to help. After reading some of your stuff. I feel like they might be a bandaid that’s doing more overall harm than good in the long run. I wonder if it’s messing with my alignment, etc. do you have any thoughts as to why it seems to work and what it’s actually doing?

    1. If it were me experiencing that I would look at my calves and hamstrings to see if I have tension/knots there. That can make it harder and painful to be flat on the ground. OR another thought is that you ankle might be unstable. I personally had a lot of ankle pain during my journey and used a small heel lift in my shoes as I slowly got stronger and transitioned to zero drop. But I’ve heard from people who’ve been on both sides (tense and short tissues vs lax and unstable). Sounds to me like something you might want to take up with a physical therapist.

  10. Hello, do you have any information on people with loss of fat in their heel fat pads?

    I started experiencing extreme heel pain during 2021 after walking a lot of “laps” barefoot on my hardwood floors during Covid. When I went to the podiatrist, he Xrayed me and said he’d never seen so little fat on the heels of anyone under 80 (I was 35) and the lack of cushioning was causing pain. Possibly some PF too.

    I’ve had to add heel cups to all my shoes since then to be able to walk any distance at all but I don’t want to think that I’m doomed. Apparently nothing can be done for this medically.

    1. Incidentally, I have this issue too! For me it’s not just fat pad loss, but what little I have gets displaced when I walk and stand (thanks to my lax connective tissue). I’ve been wondering myself if there is such a thing as a fat pad transplant, but haven’t seriously looked into it. What I do to manage it is tape my heels per this video and it makes a tremendous difference in my comfort level. The heel cups are a good tool as well. I also use texture walking (Naboso insoles, sand/pebbles, or even wiping your feet on a jute rug indoors) to keep the nerves healthy and stimulate thicker skin, which can be protective like a fat pad. I’ve found that hardwood floors are rough on me too. Godspeed!

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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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