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 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.
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.
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!
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.
*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:
- Mobility – The range of motion you have control over
- Alignment – The natural positioning of your body’s joints
- Strength – The power and endurance of your muscles
- 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.
- Going barefoot
- Doing foot exercises
- Wearing minimalist shoes
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.
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. ANYASREVIEWSER10 for 10% off. Full Earth Runners review here
Xero Shoes (US) – Sizes US Womens 5-12, Mens 6-14. Read my Z-Trek review!
In Europe? Shop Xero Shoes EU here!
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.
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.
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 Sandals (EU) – Sizes EU 35-46. Use code ANYASREVIEWS for 5% off. You can find Zeazoo Sandals at Anya’s Shop!
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!
Vivobarefoot Opanka Sandal (Use this post to find your nearest Vivobarefoot e-shop) -Sizes US 5.5-11.5. Get 10% off with code VBANYA10 *This model is only available seasonally. If it’s out currently, they’ll be back next warm season*
Wildling Feather (EU) – Sizes EU 36-48. The Feather sandals from Wildling are super lightweight and have great ground feel!
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!
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.
- The Benefits of Barefoot Shoes
- Foundational Foot Exercises
- How To Strengthen Your Feet With Floor Texture
- The Best Barefoot Shoes for Your Foot Type
- Whole Body Barefoot, by Katy Bowman
- Foot Health 101 Course from Gait Happens – I am also in their Foot Function Membership which I love
- How Feet Are Connected to the Pelvic Floor by Petra Fisher
- 3 Steps to Pain Free Feet from The Healthy Feet Alliance
- Flip Flops Effect on Gait
- Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation Strategies
- Custom Foot Orthotic Intervention Caused Muscle Decrease
- How Over-Pronation May be a Dysfunctional Model
- Walking in Minimalist Shoes Strengthens Foot Muscles
- Shoes with A Narrow Toe Box Restrict Blood Flow to Heel
- The Biomechanics of Walking on Uneven Terrain
- Nerve Stimulation in Feet Affects Balance and Gait
- More on Nerve Stimulation in Feet and Locomotion
78 thoughts on “Why Birkenstocks Aren’t a Long Term Solution to Foot Pain”
Do you have a suggestion to sandals for greek toe, mid volume? My second toe is under 1 cm longer than the big toe.
Btw what a great site. So dense and elaborate 😀
Thank you! Most should work for that foot description, but I would be cautious with something like the Feelgrounds Seaside – your 2nd toe might be hanging off the front
Do you have any suggestions for when the weather is not conducive to sandal type shoes?
Yes, tons! If you click around on my site you’ll see tons of close toed shoe options. I recently did an article on my top 10 barefoot boots, as well as casual sneakers.
I have planters fasciitis what shoe do you suggest
Hi Sharron! Since I’m not a physician I can’t advise on plantar fasciitis, but my understanding is that some people will find immediate relief from it when they get into zero drop shoes that let their toes splay out. Other people will find their condition aggravated by minimalist shoes at first until they can get the foot reconditioned. This research article here is a great discussion on how poor shoes can lead to PF, and some exercises and tips for dealing with it. I would consider starting with something that has a more cushioned sole to help ease you into it. You can find a list of minimalist shoes with a bit of cushion in this article:
The point is you are not a physician. All that mumbo jumbo is irrelevant when you are in serious pain from plantar fascitis or a stress fractured calcaneus bone.I will wear whatever relieves my pain since I am a deliverman who takes 18 thousand steps a day.To me it is Birkenstock all day every day.All about Anya’s shop and your own product.I don’t know one person who would do what you’re talking about if they have suffered from plantar fascitis for months and then put on some Birkenstocks and was pain free for a year and then they ditch Birkenstocks for some unproven and suspect alternative. Not me for sure.
Hi Donnie. You’re correct that I’m not a physician, but I consult with physicians on my articles. In fact, I recently wrote some information specifically about plantar fasciosis with two podiatrists if you are interested in learning more! I am glad that you have found something that has gotten you out of pain and functioning in your life. But if you’d like to explore the possibility that your feet can be trained to do for themselves what Birkenstocks do for you I invite you to check out some of these physician-backed resources. You can get started here: https://anyasreviews.com/barefoot-shoes-faq/
I am a physician and I agree that Birkenstock is not meant to be worn for too long. They relieve pain by holding your feet in place. That relaxes the muscles and lowers the tension on the ligaments. But if you consistently wear them, your feet will become dependent on it and becomes lazy. The muscle may atrophy and without adequate muscle support, you will be prone to injury. Basically, you cannot use a crutch for too long, otherwise you cannot walk without a crutch. Birkenstocks are crutches for your feet.
I love birkenstock for my feet, not thinking of it as a Crutch- but so many shoes are just too narrow, poorly made, stiff, etc, Birkenstock have the wider toe box and my feet feel safe in them- but you are saying wearing them is bad for my feet? I feel confused! I have chosen to wear sandals as much as I can – just so my toes are no longer being squeezed-Even the expensive sneakers I buy eventually start to hurt if I wear all day….. I do yoga- wear toe spacers and stretch /roll my feet.. but Still feel tight across the top and a little underneath. So frustrating!!!
It sounds like you care more about your foot health than most and are being proactive about it. Good job! Maybe experiment with barefoot walking a little and see how your feet feel without arch support. You might find that the extra motion you get without it helps with the tension you are feeling.
Hi,almost 2 years out from lisfranc injury and orif. Have been wearing sneakers ever since but foot hurting. A week ago decided to go barefoot in house and foot feeling much better. Do u think barefoot shoes would be ok for my foot? All feedback gratefully received.a
I would take the fact that you are feeling good being barefoot at home as a good sign that you might also feel good in barefoot shoes! And it’s not all or nothing. You can try one pair and see how you like it, swapping back and forth between them and your other shoes.
Tks for the info. I have flat feet and lived in birkenstocks for many years. Mainly boots.
Before that I had orthotics because at age 23- 24 I was struggling with calf injuries and some back pain. Orthotics allowed me to play at high level. I was surprised to read birkenstocks are not good. Im 64 now a bit overweight and arthritis in joints which restricts running.
Can you send me more info? Thanks, regards John
The information I have is all laid out in this article: https://anyasreviews.com/benefits-barefoot-minimalist-shoes/
And in this FAQ: https://anyasreviews.com/barefoot-shoes-faq/
The FAQ has tons of additional resources linked in it, so it should provide you with plenty of things to read and peruse, as well some professionals you could consult.
I have Morton’s neuroma in both feet. Collapsible arches when I walk and my right ankle always gives out on me when I stand on it (literally). Years of wearing cute shoes without arch support left me brittle at only 32 years of age. Yes I agree with you exercise does really help to strengthen my feet, but alas I’am still unable to use any other shoe besides birkenstock because of my compounded foot issues. only wearing birkenstock sometimes bites because i would love to look cuter in dresses but end up looking like a nerdy hobbit instead. 🙁 any suggestions?
In your case I would recommend consulting with a professional. You may still be able to benefit from minimalist shoes in the long run, but it sounds like you need support at least for now. Gait Happens does virtual consultation, also Northwest Foot and Ankle. I hope you can find some answers soon!
Hi there, I love the black boots you have pictured, can you share what brand those are?Thanks!
Hey! Those are the Mukishoes Chelsea. You can find more info about them in this article:
I’ve visited a podiatrist about a year ago. I don’t really feel that I walked away with a lot of information. I did end up getting some Hoka sneakers to wear for my walks. I have to say they have been a dream. My go to most of the time is still my Birkenstocks even in the house. I’ve had a numb left heel for years but I’ve now got pain especially when barefoot and walking on hard floors but seems to be in my second mostly and maybe third toe. Or when I crouch down, there is a Stitch type pain into my second third toe area. I don’t know how or why but it seems like I get relief with the Birkenstock. I’m honestly thinking about ordering some Birkenstock slippers. I know one thing the podiatrist did tell me was to do away with flip-flops and loose type shoes and very soft bending sneakers that I had with no support. Reading this article now I’m very confused. My podiatrist did not tell me specifically to wear Birkenstocks, as I think she was more about a sneaker.
There is a lot of conflicting advice out there, I understand your confusion! I was in the same boat and also wore Birkenstocks even in the house, and I was also advised to stop wearing any shoes that flexed at all. I think that the disconnect is because many podiatrists are focused on short term solutions (just getting out of pain) instead of on rehab and the long term goal of being functional and strong. And unfortunately there aren’t any specialties out there that do focus on long term foot health. But the good new is that you don’t even have to change your shoes to try it out. You can start with basic foot exercises at home.
I just happened upon your site, and I’m not sure what to think. I just went to a foot specialist here in Portland, because I’m developing plantar fasciitis, and I was specifically told to shop for Birks for my flat feet to wear around the house (I was also given exercises to do.) Oddly enough, I work from home, so I spend the majority of my time barefoot, but the doc told me not go barefoot and instead wear the Birks. 🤷♂️
It’s confusing when you get conflicting messaging, I get that. Arch support can totally be helpful in the short term, so getting out of pain from the Birks and doing the exercises (hopefully so that you don’t always need the support) isn’t actually that far off from my own process. There is a great podiatry clinic in Portland called Northwest Foot and Ankle that is all about functional approaches to foot health and getting you healed for the long term – they might be a great place to consider if you’d like a second opinion! The podiatrist from that clinic wrote a research article on how to treat plantar fasciosis that I have linked here:
Thank you for this informative article. I am intrigued . . . .
I have been wearing Birkenstocks indoors for support to help a Plantar Fasciitis injury for over 15 years. I still have pain if I go barefoot, so I continue with supportive shoes. Lately, my arch has been hurting in the other foot. I think it is because the Birkenstocks are sliding around on my foot too much (older and stretched) and causing my foot to work to keep that sandal in place.
If I decide to go the barefoot route, it will have to be slow. I also have Fibromyalgia so my muscles are very sensitive to overuse when wearing unsupportive footwear.
This is my first time even considering something other than supportive footwear. I have narrow feet and pronate in. Do barefoot shoes work with that foot type? Suggestions?
From my experience there wouldn’t be any reason to not try it, but it sounds like you already know your body well enough to take it slow. There is absolutely nothing wrong with switching back and forth between shoes or even sometimes using an orthotic in your barefoot shoes. You can find more info about transitioning in the barefoot shoes FAQ:
I over-pronate and was working on my feet all day at a new job in weak flimsy shoes. I started to get some inflammation in my left ankle (but no pain, only in the morning it was stiff) I went to a podiatrist who immediately told me to get supportive shoes that don’t bend at the arch and gave me an orthotic. I bought a pair and my feet starting hurting in places they never hurt and feeling pins and needles. I was in the right size and just had to stop wearing them. Do you have recommendations?
I’m not able to give any kind of personalized medical advice, I can only share my experience. Generally, foot strength is an important part of being able to wear unsupportive shoes and it can take time to transition. But if the supportive shoes and orthotics are causing new problems, that would definitely give me pause.
Hi Anya! LOVE your site. My foot pain is gone since transitioning to barefoot about 3 years ago. I am slowly replacing my shoe collection since barefoot shoes are so darn expensive! Gone are the days of buying cheap fun shoes from Ross! *sigh*
I still haven’t replaced my Arizona Birks. I love how they look. Do you have a suggestion for a barefoot that looks the most similar to the Arizona. I have very wide feet. Thanks!
Hi Michelle! Congrats on recovering from your foot pain. The closest barefoot sandal to the Arizona Birk is the Mida from Crupon Sandals. It has the two big buckles over the foot, and a back strap. They can now be made in a wider barefoot shape in the “One of a Kind” section, but those ones are considered custom orders and not returnable.
I’ve been wearing Birkenstocks as my main casual shoe for close to 40 years. No foot problems, just very wide feet … the Birks were the only shoes that were comfortably wide! [I’m a USA Woman’s 6.5 EE or EEE] I spent a lot of time barefoot, and as little time as possible in my “office formal” dress shoes. [Every time I sat at my desk, the shoes came off.]
My feet are strong, with good arches and very flexible toes. I think the Birks helped, as I was never fighting against narrow toe boxes. But the styling … I’m tired of the clunky cork soles and thick straps in shades of brown.
I *just* (like in the past week) discovered the universe of barefoot shoes. I’m overjoyed … in my whole adult life, I’ve owned very few pairs of pretty, fashionable shoes, and that’s about to change!
Yay! I know the feeling of discovering pretty shoes that are actually made for wide feet, like some amazing secret has been kept from you your whole life!
Thank you for this article! What if someone has fallen arches? COMPLETELY flat feet? Do you believe this would still work? I felt like Birkenstocks saved my life when I got my first pair last year. Living as a chef on my fallen arches had been torture. But, if there’s a better long-term solution for me, I’d like to try.
Hi Nikita! If you have totally flat feet it makes sense that you’d be uncomfortable standing all day in flat shoes. My suggestion would be to start foot strengthening exercises before changing your footwear and see how that makes you feel. If you do exercises daily and slowly increase your time spent being totally barefoot (like around the house or short jaunts outside) you will hopefully start seeing benefits, and then you can decide from there if you want to try new shoes.
Interesting. I have been trying to self diagnose my foot trouble for the past year. Birkenstocks have helped a lot, I wear them all the time. Now that my feet are feeling better (not fixed, but better) I am thinking of trying some other shoes. Frankly, I enjoy fashion and Birkenstocks don’t do it for me in that regard. I don’t want to undue my progress…..my question is that walking barefoot and all that, I have always thought that is hard on your knees and hip joints and all that. That walking around with no support is too hard on your joints. Thoughts? Thanks!
Hi Kerri. Speaking generally, walking barefoot shouldn’t be too hard on your joints. It might feel like a lot if you’re not used to it, but most people can adapt and become quite comfortable over time. Humans have walked barefoot for a lot longer than they’ve walked in shoes! Of course, you know your body and your situation best. Always best to be careful.
Birkenstocks reduced my chronic foot pain. Birkenstocks for the win. No pain. Ever. They changed my life! Though when I hike I take off my Brooks shoes and go barefoot.
I’m glad you found something that works for you!
On hard concrete? No, humans haven’t walked barefoot on such hard surfaces historically.
But they have!
I think this is great info and I’d love to find a way to implement it, but I’m confused as I feel walking barefoot has caused my foot pain. As a stay at home mom (11 years now) I am barefoot most of the time especially in long winter months in northern Canada, when I rarely leave home . I have high arches and my second toe is longer than my big toe on both feet. I’ve recently been unable to walk without severe pain in my heel. I feel I have strong feet as I use them alot (they even pick up toys for me lol.) Also note that I have lost weight in the last year and it’s not an increase that’s stressing my feet at all.
Any suggestions on ways to help my feet? We don’t have podiatrists anywhere near here so far up north. 🤷🏼♀️
Lots of time on hard, flat surfaces can cause pain as well and sometimes we need to strengthen and treat specific areas that might not be well nourished by our lifestyles. Check out the following short YouTube videos for a few ideas of how to get started. And of course, if pain is persistent it is always a good idea to get check out. Sometimes core issues can exacerbate foot issues.
Your foot looks like it got wider and your toes are more spread out in those comparison photos. Is that really a healthier foot?
Considering that my feet are now pain free I would say so!
Yes, that is how healthy toes/feet are supposed to look. Toes that stay pressed together are caused from wearing shoes with not enough toe room.
This is a great article! I went minimalist and I love it! But, I recently took a long walk in NYC on concrete and ended up in severe pain with a bone spur (not in minimalist shoes). Now every step is painful unless I have lots of cushion and support. I’m wondering if, in this case, Birkenstocks might be a good interim solution until the inflammation and pain subsides. I can’t wear my minimalist shoes without an supportive insole and a gel heel cushion because I need that extra cushioning for the pain. Any thoughts or recommendations to ease? Thank you!
Of course I can’t say for sure, but if it were me I would go with what is comfortable now to ease the pain and in the meantime make sure I’m exposing my feet to different textures, and stretching and strengthening them. You might not be able to go for a walk barefoot, but maybe you could spend a short amount of time each day walking barefoot outside. There are also minimalist shoes with a little more cushion that might help:
I have several pairs of Birkenstock sneakers. I also have hiking boots, and work boots from their now defunct sub-brand Footprints. My monkey toes don’t fit in “normal” shoes so thank goodness Birk has such a wide variety of footwear available. However, the inserts are indeed too stiff and the arch support is problematic for my right foot. Do you know of any barefoot type replacement inserts for Birks? The foot shape, great looks and near zero drop make them almost perfect. I hate to give them up. BTW… I live in a harsh and cold environment where barefoot and/or sandals are only an option for a couple months out of the year. If!
Hey Jack. I like NorthSole insoles as a replacement for orthotic insoles, they are flat and flexible and really comfortable!
After 2 years of plantar fasciitis with shots in my heels, much $ spent on brooks tennis shoes and some shoe like Vionic or something kind that (?) Birkenstock finally cured my feet and I have worn them for 10 years since. I can’t wear anything else or it comes back. I own probably 10 pair and I love them. ♥️ My feet are in good shape. I’m telling you for me…they improved my life 100%!!!
That’s great you found something that got you out of pain and moving. I’m just hoping to bring to light that people might have underlying issues that aren’t addressed by Birkenstocks. And figuring out what those are can mean the pain actually goes away even when you’re not wearing Birkenstocks! I guess I don’t consider it a cure if you must continue to wear them in order to keep the pain at bay. But again, I am truly grateful these shoes exist to help with acute pain management. They were a lifesaver for me when I needed them!
My journey was similar to yours: barefoot shoes got me out of foot pain five years ago (at the age of 60!).
I wore Birkenstocks for a long time, because they were the only shoes I could find that were wide enough to accomodate my feet and not squish my toes, which I always hated. And I never wore high heels. But my my mid-50s, I developed plantar fasciitis and neuroma pain. The highly-recommended podiatrist I saw had nothing to offer except “come back when you can’t stand the pain and we’ll do surgery.”
That started me investigating and led me to the world of barefoot shoes. I started with a pair of Altras that were reasonably wide, foot-shaped and flexible, but had pretty thick cushioning. (I thought I needed cushioning because of the neuromas.) The flexibility felt wonderful and my feet started waking up — I could not go back to Birkenstocks. But I still had pain when I walked more than short distances.
Then I tried some Unshoes, with no cushioning at all, and within a week the pain was gone. Suddenly, I could walk long distances on city sidewalks with no problem. My arches could finally work properly, springing up from the hard ground, and that actually took the pressure OFF the nerve that was causing all the pain.
So I donated all my old shoes and stuck to barefoot types. My feet got even wider, as well as thicker and stronger. Almost none of the ready-made barefoot shoes are wide enough for them now. But I have a whole wardrobe of cute and comfortable shoes from The Drifter Leather, made to fit my feet exactly. And my feet are still strong and pain-free — a big contrast to most of my women friends who are my age. I give the Birkenstocks some credit: at least I didn’t get bunions and hammertoes like my friends. But I’ll never wear them again.
Hmmm… I’m in my late 40’s and have worn unsupportive flat shoes and gone barefoot any chance I could for most of my life. I now have plantar fasciitis and burkenstocks are the only thing that has made walking bearable, I e only started wearing them in the past year. I blame my foot pain on unsupportive shoes and always walking barefoot, so this is a hard concept for me.
Plantar fasciitis is tough, and there is more than feet at play. It could be a long journey to unravel, but personally (if you’re looking for things to try) I would consider talking with Gait Happens. They have a lot of experience getting to the root of PF and recently did a workshop on how the pelvis plays a part. Some food for thought.
I see most talk about flat feet or low arches and pain. I have just the opposite. I have VERY high arches. I have been wearing Birks with extra support on the arch. Over the past couple of years I have been experiencing stress fractures in my feet. Right now I’m going into my 6th month in a boot. Would the exercises help at all to strengthen anything to prevent the stress fractures?
I’m sorry to hear about your troubles. High arches can mean a lot of things, but strengthening and mobilizing (that part might be key with the high arches) can do so much. You might want to look into this FAQ a little bit for more context – I wrote it with the help of 2 podiatrists. There are also some links to foot specialists people who do consultations to give personalized advice.
I remember you found some barefoot birkenstock-y shoes once (faintly recall some beef with this?)
regardless, I am blanking on the name, would be most grateful if you can remember the name! thanks <3
Was it from Ahinsa? They have a new slide sandal that looks just like the Birkenstock Arizona. I just don’t like that they don’t have a back strap. They say the straps keep them secure, but I feel like I’d have to experience it to believe it. Tara Soles has a slide that looks just like the Birkenstock Gizeh
Thanks for all the information on this website – makes so much sense.
Do you have any advice for fat pad atrophy in the heel?
From what I’ve learned from other foot specialists/podiatrists, when the fat pad goes it doesn’t come back. BUT you can build thickened skin there that acts as a cushion in the same way. It can really relieve discomfort (it did for me), but it takes a long time and lots of stimulation – i.e. barefoot walking on textures. Using a little extra cushion in your shoes when needed to stay out of pain is a perfectly acceptable way to deal with it.
Hi! I wanted to say that I found your post very intriguing! I am by no means any type of expert but my recommendation for any type of foot, leg, hip or back pain would be to immediately get x-rays of your feet. I wanted to share this because for me, 43, I suffered from severe hip pain for several years. I had always been told the I roll my feet when I walk so I was attempting to correct over pronation with specific shoes, massage therapy, excerises, chiropractor, etc, thinking my hip pain was caused by the pronation. I had also been to the orthopedic doctor, had an x-ray of my hip and it that showed my hip was fine but they gave me a cortisone shot, which helped for about 3 weeks. It was only after I went to the podiatrist, had an x-ray of my foot and found out that I had metatarsus adductus (condition where there bones in your feet are not straight) that I finally had the answer. My podiatrist recommended Haflinger shoes (similar to Birkenstocks) and I have not experienced any hip pain since. This was truly the greatest thing because I thought I was just going to have to live with the pain the rest of my life.
I guess the moral of the story is to recommended people get an x-ray of their feet before spending money on any type of costly shoes or costly orthotics. They may find that the source of their pain is something they never imagined. Metatarsus cannot be corrected unless you have pretty invasive foot surgery but Haflingers and Birkenstocks are a huge life saver for this condition.
Great point! Always better to find the root cause of your pain instead of chasing symptoms, and sometimes you need supportive footwear.
First, nice article. Well written and good at presenting a particular point of view.
However, every body is different. So, there is no one cure-all for problematic feet. Or, for most other physical alignments either. We always need to consider age, lifestyle, body type, and comorbidities when address our health issues.
As someone who was born with flat feet, suffers from gout, metatarsalgia, wide toe box, and infrequent plantar fasciitis, I’ve tried every shoe out there. I am very active outdoors and spend hours in the gardens. I squat a lot! I love being barefoot. But, honestly, the best thing for me is a combination of barefoot, as much as possible, except when I’m experiencing a metatarsalgia flare up, and Birkenstocks. In other words, exercising the foot then giving it rest as needed. So, depending on the body type and other factors, there’s not often just one simple answer.
I assume that this is all just your opinion. I find your medical advise to be questionable, and rather contradictory to most other reviews. If you don’t think that arch support is a good thing, just wait by till you get older. Flat soled unsupportive shoes are never a good idea.
And on the be subject of bad ideas, I find your fashion advice for alternative footwear to be even more questionable , but then that’s just my opinion.
Wore Birks for years without problems, now I find I have pain under one heel. I think the cork moulded footbed is to blame. Cork does not mould to the foot, it springs back. I know this because I make shoes myself. So any “moulding” will be minimal, confined to the thin layer of leather over the cork. The cup of the heel is inflexible and does not conform to my foot. It’s made for an “average foot” whatever that is.
I appreciate reading about your story and I am glad this kind of footwear works for you. I love going barefoot when I’m walking on natural surfaces (grass/woodlands/rocks, etc). But I find this philosophy of wearing barefoot shoes with no support, hard to get into. The surfaces we walk on in the modern day are not “natural” and are extremely flat – concrete/tarmac/flat wood. Walking in barefoot-like shoes on natural surfaces makes sense to me, but providing no support for your feet on flat and hard modern day surfaces, seems like a recipe for disaster and has caused me a lot of pain in the past. I have healthy strong feet, with relatively high arches. However, I also over-pronate so if I do not have stabile shoes or arch support, then it causes a lot of stress and pain on my knees. I don’t believe that forcing through this and just wearing flat shoes is going to help this or other people with similar issues.
I am so confused, this goes against everything I have learned about foot and body pain. Where are you getting this info to show that a flat shoes with less firm soles is a good thing? Not arguing but wondering if I was steared in the wrong direction with nerves and muscles. I always wear Hokas and nothing else!
Hi Katharine! You are fine, I understand the confusion. There is a lot of research there out there but it’s not definitive. As in, there is no “We did a study and now we know what the best shoe is.” But I highly recommend checking out Katy Bowman’s work for background info and the research that has been done that seems to indicate that bracing and supporting feet is not optimal. This podcast is a good place to start: https://www.nutritiousmovement.com/it-starts-with-feet-podcast-85/
You’re wrong. Podiatrists disagree with you. They obviously know more than you do. Stop trying to give medical advice.
Indeed some podiatrists do disagree with me, but others agree. My website is endorsed by several podiatrists that I have co-written articles with. You can find a few natural podiatrists here:
P.S. this is definitely not medical advice!
I have osteoarthritis at 39 and the stiffness is MUST in the Birkenstocks. It really is a good shoe because of this
If you truly don’t have motion in the foot then yes, stiffness is important. But it’s always worth exploring if any motion can be regained! I cowrote this article with a podiatrist on improving bunions, but the tips for mobilizing and strengthening can really be useful with any foot condition:
What about varicose veins? I’m looking for a good shoe to stand on for concrete floors while substitute teaching. I had radio frequency ablation done on my legs for my veins and they still hurt. Would you recommend something like Birkenstocks for that? Thank you
I don’t know much about varicose veins unfortunately. In any case, you can try a “barefoot” shoe with more cushion, such as the options in this list: https://anyasreviews.com/best-barefoot-minimalist-shoe-brands-beginners/
Birkenstocks are like walking on concrete, even the soft footbed Birks don’t have that much support. If you have lower back pain or any issues with your joints pounding around all day on something that hard is not good. Birks put me in agony by the end of the day. NOT for me. I need something with a footbed that has some shock absorption.
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.
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.
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.
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!