Brittany Schulz started running two years ago to lose weight.
She succeeded, losing 85 pounds, but it was fraught with pain and misery.
“I constantly had pain,” Schulz said. “It was in my calves. It was in my shins. It was in my hips.
“I thought it was just because I was overweight. But then I got to my goal weight and I still had all of those pains.”
She said she discovered the source of her pain when she read Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run” (Knopf, 2009). She now believes that she was running incorrectly, and her shoes were the culprit.
“I originally picked (the book) up to just read it. I didn’t pick it up realizing I was going to not wear shoes anymore,” Schulz said.
She joined a new wave of runners who are wearing toe shoes. The unique footwear has very minimal sole, and each toe has a pouch — like a glove for the foot.
Schulz gave the shoes a tryout, running just a short distance. The results were amazing.
“I noticed when I started running in them, my stride was longer and wider. My chest was straighter. And I felt better,” Schulz said. “My times actually got better.”
Toe shoes have been gaining a lot of attention, in large part due to the “Born to Run” book, and Tres Ferrin has been seeing their popularity at races.
“There are people who are running full marathons in them now,” said Ferrin, a physical therapist at McKay-Dee Hospital, who provides first aid at races.
He sees more toe shoes on both runners and nonrunners.
Ferrin himself started wearing them in the last few years. Although he no longer runs because of long-term ankle pain, he wears toe shoes around the office, the house, the golf course, anywhere and everywhere.
The first thing Ferrin noticed when he began wearing them around the house was a more noticeable impact on his feet.
Justin Mingo, a local personal trainer and coach, just finished his first marathon wearing the toe shoes. The correlation between impact and bone density actually drew him to the shoes.
“It hasn’t been until the last few years that the community has come around to find out that impact, in moderation, is actually good for a bone,” Mingo said. “It builds bone density. It’s not actually bad for joints — not too much.”
Mingo said that a problem with regular running shoes is that, over the years, the soles and heel cushioning have increased in size.
“The problem with the highly cushioned heels in running shoes is that they are actually forcing us to run in an unnatural way. Before we had a lot of cushion in our shoes, we didn’t run with a heel-striking-first motion,” Mingo said.
“If you take your shoes off and go walk around, you don’t actually hit your heel hard.”
The muscles from the bottom of the foot to the hips can take on undue stress when the heel strikes the ground first.
The toe shoes, with a minimal sole, force the foot to strike in the middle area or the balls of the feet — essentially changing the biomechanics of the step, according to Mingo.
“People need to back off from this heel strike,” Mingo said. “So instead of going heel-toe, go a bit more of a flat foot. You are going to allow your foot to be a shock absorber instead of your heel.”
But Ferrin cautioned that no one style of shoe will fit everyone’s needs.
“There are some people who I don’t think will do well (with toe shoes), if they have some biomechanical issues going on,” Ferrin said. There are some who have plantar fasciitis symptoms or severe pain in the heel who won’t be able to tolerate toe shoes, for example.
“I don’t think you say that one scenario out there is going to fit anybody. It’s kind of an individual thing,” Ferrin said.
Hard evidence in support of toe shoes is lacking. People have their personal stories, with no studies to back up the superiority of either toe shoes or regular shoes.
“Most of what you’re going to find is anecdotal evidence,” Ferrin said.
Baby toe steps
Shulz took the smart approach to transitioning to toe shoes: Start slow.
She was already competing in half-marathons when she got a pair of the fitted shoes. But she started out running just a mile.
“Even though you feel good, you have to start slow,” Shulz said.
She did say that when the shoes got wet, she developed blisters.
Ferrin has seen a runner put on a pair of toe shoes fresh out of the box, run 15 miles, and then not be able to jog again for months. Ferrin suggests new users wear them without even working out to begin with.
“When I would start wearing mine, I would wear them around the house a couple hours a day,” Ferrin said.
He did experience pain, he said, since he was putting more impact on muscles that have atrophied a little while wearing normal cushioned shoes.
Ferrin also recommended going to a sports store or running store to try on a pair, since toe shoes fit differently from a regular shoe. He advised against purchasing them blindly on the Internet.
“Just ... make sure they are going to fit the entire foot — fit the toes, the arch and the heels,” Ferrin said.