Minimalist footwear and concrete surfaces: are they really meant to coexist?

Over the past several years, millions of people have said goodbye to modern footwear (cushion, stability, higher heels) in favor of minimal footwear or even ditching shoes altogether. Whether the decision to forego modern footwear was in an effort to regain foot and overall body wellness or to get back to basics, in doing so, many have run and/or walked into a bit of a conundrum called concrete.

Recently, a post was made on the Facebook group, “Body and Sole,” where a group member described some pain she was having, stating:

“I live in a place where walking on anything but hard flat surfaces is difficult to find, including around my neighborhood and home. I have a pair of Keota Unshoes that are excellent for hiking, awful for going to the grocery store because there is zero cushion. I’ve tried, and I’ve suffered. … I find myself wearing shoes around the house because of the hardwood and tile. Is this normal? Will there come a day when being barefoot or wearing the Keota shoes on all types of surfaces (including hard and flat) will be a reality?

To help answer the user’s question, we are going to delve into the history of concrete (manufactured hard surfaces) and footwear, separately. This will help us understand where the two have come into play in our evolution of footwear and possibly even pain so that we can hopefully answer our question at hand: “are minimal footwear and concrete surfaces meant to coexist?”

Let’s first look at concrete
Concrete, as we know, is the mixture of ground up rocks/sand that is mixed with water to form a substance that can be used to bind things together when it hardens. The type of concrete that is at question here is poured or spread out out to create a hard, even flat surface. This we can all agree on without checking Wikipedia.

Where/when concrete originated is where many are stumped, and it requires a bit more digging. Many believe that concrete is a “modern” surface, only being around since the industrial revolution. However, “Understanding Cement,” the very website that has dedicated its efforts to understanding and educating others on this material, begs to differ.

The site noted that the ancient Egyptians used calcined gypsum as a cement and the Greeks and Romans used lime made by heating limestone and adding sand to make mortar, with coarser stones used for making concrete. The origin of the claims came from an excerpt from the book, “Ten books of Architecture,” stating that concrete floors were made as early as first century BCE by Roman architect and engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.

And while the process of creating cement and concrete surfaces has changed since its early uses, the fact still remains that man has walked on man made concrete surfaces for thousands of years.

Now, a look at footwear
Taking a look at the history of concrete surfaces and footwear, one would assume that the creation of protective, cushioned and even stability based shoes would immediately follow. After all, with such hard surfaces to walk on, people must have been riddled with foot, joint and back pain.

While footwear, specifically sandals and moccasins – what we would call minimal footwear today – were created to protect the feet from superficial injuries (cuts, etc.) and extreme temperatures, other footwear was not created for those purposes.

In fact, according to Wikipedia, ancient civilizations, such as Egypt – even around the time cement was being used – saw no practical need for footwear and used shoes primarily as ornaments and insignia of power. That sign of power related to footwear continued into the middle ages when shoes and newly created high heels were adorned by the most wealthy.

As centuries have gone on, shoes have continued to be a symbol of status and even fashion. And somewhere in the middle of all of this, feet began to feel discomfort. This sparked many shoemakers to create shoes with cushion and stability to remedy the problems people now had.

These shoes that were made to save people from modern surfaces, over time, were weakening the feet, and as a result the person’s body structure. Pain continued to be the norm for many.

Enter: minimal footwear – on concrete surfaces
In May of 2009, author, Christopher McDougall wrote a book titled, “Born to Run,” where he essentially dispelled the myth that modern footwear/running shoes were needed to run. He even wrote about his own challenges with pain, and overcoming them through wearing minimal footwear, particularly, Huarache-style sandals.

This sparked a revolution of sorts with those riddled with foot and joint pain, looking for a solution in minimal footwear. Minimal footwear was the new craze, and nearly every brand was coming out with its version of what consumers wanted. Unfortunately, the trend saw a crash because people were getting injured due to concrete and minimal footwear coexisting – too fast, too soon.

Just think of it as long lost relatives forced to spend every second of the day together without being properly introduced – all the while being told that the family members (or in this case, shoes) you’d known your whole life were to be completely left behind forever.

This is what happened, and there was a falling out with some people blaming minimal footwear/going barefoot, and others blaming hard/concrete surfaces.

So, what is to blame, or can/should the two coexist?
The fact of the matter is, neither concrete nor minimal footwear are to blame because both have been around for a very long time, and actually coexisted peacefully for many years. And just like any long lost friendship, it is important to ease back into it gradually. This can be done by alternating between your previous footwear and minimalist footwear. You should even consider any misconceptions or false indoctrinalizations about concrete and/or minimal footwear that may be causing an underlying fear of new pain or recurring pain you’ve experienced prior. This fear could possibly be leading you to unnecessary chronic pain.

And even after you have rekindled your relationship, it’s very important, if not essential to shake things up a bit. Ditch the cement for a hike in the mountains. Walk on a dried out river bed or even through a stream with river rocks below. Go for a stroll on a sandy beach and feel the warm grains in between your toes and the burn in your calves that tells you you’re getting stronger.

Our feet were meant to walk on hard surfaces just as they were soft, bumpy, grainy and all sorts of earthly surfaces manmade or not. Feet are really that awesome, and should be allowed to show just what they’re made of.

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About unshoes

Creator and designer of Unshoes minimal footwear.
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5 Responses to Minimalist footwear and concrete surfaces: are they really meant to coexist?

  1. Too much, too soon is almost certainly the problem for most people while converting. When I started barefoot/minimalist running some years ago I got a foot fracture within 2 months because of this. It takes time for the bones, tendons, muscles, and nerves of the foot to adapt. But once they do it is pretty awesome. I can’t wear normal shoes anymore.

    A couple of months ago I was taking off my shoes after work, and I suddenly remembered what it felt like to take my shoes off after a long day before I wore minimal shoes. I never feel that aching-foot, so glad to get my shoes off feeling anymore, and I had almost forgotten that that feeling ever existed.

  2. Lu says:

    My cure for aching feet:

    I have found that it pays to be aware of what we eat and how we feel in the following days. For example I have found that for me I get very sore feet if I have been eating too much meat. Specifically, if I eat meat each day then without fail I get aching burning feet, If I only eat meat every third day, or none at all, then I have no foot pain at all. Even on concrete.

    This is said to be due to the acidic crystals that are found in the blood and caused by too much meat in the diet. Its similar to gout I think. I’m sure this will vary from person to person according to the state of their kidneys etc. For me, I tend to get aches and pains quite easily but they can be avoided by changing my diet, i.e. less meat and sugar.

    You will only discover this by eliminating meat (and sugar too, would help) for a week and watching as the pain stops. You will notice how much better you feel. Once the pain has gone, then go all out and eat meat each day and look for the difference in how your body feels. You may be very surprised!

  3. Wally Jasper says:

    Just a postscript to my previous comment: when I say the solution is to do exercises to correct the dysfunction, that doesn’t mean just regular body-building exercises. The Egoscue Method uses specifically designed exercise routines, each different to address different people’s conditions. Please see “Pain Free” and “The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion” for more information. (And BTW, I am not connected with or affiliated with the Egoscue Method. I found it and I use it and it works.)

  4. Wally Jasper says:

    Great article. Thank you. I’d like to follow up on the very real issue of pain a bit more. There is a healing modality called the Egoscue Method developed by Pete Egoscue who has found that our natural body is in fact designed to handle just about any kind of condition it will come across. When pain starts arising, according to this understanding, it is because the body has become out of alignment. Perhaps some injury, some strain on muscles or ligaments that were suddenly being used in ways they hadn’t been doing for awhile, caused the person to hold themselves out of kilter. Then the body starts compensating for inactivity in certain muscles by using other muscles normally used for other purposes to take up the slack. Over time this results in chronic pain. The remedy is to start re-awakening the now dormant muscles in exercises designed to re-align the whole body. Eventually the muscle-memory returns, the skeletal structure comes back to its correct position and the body is able to function as it was designed to do. Pete Egoscue also says, the less shoe the better.

    So the answer to the woman’s question is: no, it is not normal for her to feel pain while walking barefoot on hard flat surfaces. But just wearing the Keotas is not going to solve it either because it will not be addressing her own condition, how her body is functioning, that is causing the pain. After many years of having my feet squeezed into shoes not designed for the human foot, I developed a Morton’s neuroma on my left foot which made it painful for me to walk barefoot, esp. on hard surfaces. I am finding that wearing Correct Toes (developed by Dr. Ray McClanahan in Portland) has totally diminished this pain and with the Correct Toes I can walk barefoot on any surface (well, maybe not over cactuses). This is partially a symptomatic fix (as well as structural fix, since it straightens and re-aligns the toes); but in addition the Egoscue Method is altering how I stand and how I move. I can feel how that, along with minimalist footwear, is strengthening the muscles in my feet, my fallen arches are coming back and my feet feel alive again, responsive to the environment and able to adjust to many conditions. They are again doing exactly what they are designed to do.

  5. Karen G. Krueger says:

    Great article!

    I’ve been wearing my Foragers from Unshoes in the concrete jungle of NYC for many months. Having spent many hours a day barefoot (indoors) for the past decade made the transition easy for me, and in fact as soon as I started wearing the Foragers, my decade-long foot pain disappeared.

    A lot of my friends can’t believe this and comment about how cushioning is required for modern environments, so I’m glad to learn these historical details that help explain why that’s not so.

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