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.
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
The following barefoot sandals are zero drop, have thin flexible soles, and a natural foot shape to them – for optimal foot function.
Softstar Solstice (US) – $90-$110 – Sizes US 5U-12U and 3 width options. Use code ANYA for 15% off your first shoe purchase. These sandals run big, most people size down and choose wide.
Crupon Sandals (Europe)- 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. Use code ANYA for 10% off.
Wildling Feather (EU) – $90 – Sizes EU 36-48
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