Are There Benefits To Athletic 'Toe Shoes'?

Minimalist shoes — slimmed-down sneakers and glove-like Vibrams that mimic bare feet — are all the rage. It's a less-is-more approach to footwear that supporters tout as a far better shoe for runners and athletes. But many podiatrists are hesitant to go that far. Michele Norris speaks with Dr. James Christina, a podiatrist with the American Podiatric Medical Association, about the trend — and the pros and cons of going "nearly" barefoot.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Last week, the U.S. Army sent out a memo with this order: Effective immediately, only those shoes that accommodate all five toes in one compartment are authorized to wear. The reason for that directive: The increasing popularity of toe shoes. Maybe you've seen them. They look like gloves for your feet. Each toe has its own cozy little compartment, and they're supposed to allow your feet to move the way they were intended to when you run or walk or do sports. But the Army says they detract from a professional military image.

Now, image aside, we wondered about the alleged benefits of these sneaker socks - perhaps we should call them snocks - so we invited Dr. James Christina to sort through the claims. He's a podiatrist, and he's here with us in the studio.

Thanks so much for coming in.

Dr. JAMES CHRISTINA (Director of Scientific Affairs, American Podiatric Medical Association): Well, thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, people who wear these toe shoes are almost evangelical about them. They just love them. But I'm curious about the potential benefits and - or whether they're actually good for all people when they run, walk or do other sports.

Dr. CHRISTINA: Well, that's really the key to any type of shoe or any type of activity that you do. It's not something that's going to be good for everybody. There's going to be certain people that will do very well with the minimalist-type shoe that don't need a lot of support for their foot and will find it very comfortable.

There are other people, depending on their foot type and the mechanics of their foot, how their foot operates when they run or walk, they really need either the support of the shoe, and then in some cases, they actually need extra support such as an insole or a custom-type orthotic device.

NORRIS: You know, one of the things that people who support these shoes or wear them and the company that sell them talk about is that it lets the foot feel the nuances of the road, and that the feet can naturally adjust to that, and that athletic shoes with those thick soles often prevent the runner from actually understanding what the muscles need to do to adjust to the terrain.

Dr. CHRISTINA: Well, you definitely have more what's called proprioception, the ability to sense the surface when you're either barefoot or have a minimal surface between your foot and the ground. Whether that's beneficial or not, that's what is still out there to be proven through studies, but there's no question that you're going to have more proprioception. You think about the surface that you're walking on if you walk around the house barefoot as opposed to walking in your shoe. You definitely sense things more. You feel things more.

The other thing is it changes the way some of your muscles work. So a lot of colleges with their runners, they'll do some training barefoot in an open field, but they do it just some training because it helps strengthen some muscles, and they feel that that's a benefit to help them compete.

The interesting thing is you don't see a lot of competitive runners running either barefoot or in a minimalist shoe.

NORRIS: You know, one of the things I'm thinking about, if you run, you're always concerned about heel strike, and when you think about a running shoe, it's often built up at the back end to protect the runner when that heel hits, particularly the pavement or cement or a brick road or something like that. There's no such protection in these kinds of shoes.

Dr. CHRISTINA: Well, there isn't, but that's - you're hitting on kind of the key point of barefoot running or a minimalist shoe. You can't heel strike in the shoe, and it actually forces you to hit more into the midfoot, forefoot portion of your foot, which the proponents of barefoot and minimalist running claim is better for you. It causes you to shorten your stride length a little bit. It causes you to really change the mechanics of how you run. For some people, that may be beneficial; for other people, it may be detrimental.

NORRIS: Should people be concerned about letting children wear these shoes?

Dr. CHRISTINA: I wouldn't be so concerned about children wearing them because actually the children, they - particularly the younger children, they need some time for the foot to develop and the muscles to develop, and they need that sensation, so they don't usually need a lot of support.

NORRIS: Thanks so much for coming in. And I should say that you have street shoes on today.

Dr. CHRISTINA: Yes, I do.

NORRIS: OK. Your toes are all together.

Dr. CHRISTINA: And they're all together.

NORRIS: All right. That's Dr. James Christina. He's a podiatrist, and he's also the director of scientific affairs at the American Podiatric Medical Association.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.