Making the Transition from Orthotics to Barefoot?
Updated: Dec 18, 2022
A lot of people want to get rid of their orthotics and switch to a minimal shoe. They hear the hype of the barefoot movement and want to dive in. Two things usually happen:
They go cold turkey and injury ensues.
They don't know where to start.
So let's talk about it!
First, think about how long you've been in orthotics (months, years?) and appreciate the effect they've had on your feet. Ditching them right away may cause some disgruntled feet as you are asking them to suddenly start moving again.
An orthotic turns off our intrinsic foot muscles and keeps the foot in more of a supinated position. Some rigid foot types (think high arches) are exacerbated when orthotics are added in and remain completely supinated. Or... If you were likely put in orthotics because you "over pronate" (don't get me started) then removing them will mean you will return to that "over pronated" state of gait and weight bearing, but probably more-so after months and years of orthotics wearing. So again, let's just appreciate where your foot is at in this moment.
Now, think about this... how often you are actually barefoot?
Do you go home and immediately take off your shoes or do you wear some form of a shoe up until the moment you get into bed? Or maybe you're somewhere in between. If you take them off immediately, and feel more comfortable without them, then you will probably have less issue switching to a minimal shoe. If you go around your house all day long without shoes without pain, then what are we waiting for - get rid of your orthotics! Unless of course you're doing an extensive amount of walking, hiking, running, etc., then keep them on for those activities.
The constant shoe wearer
For you, it will be a more lengthy transition. But doesn't mean you can't start today. This goes for anyone wearing orthotics all day long, every day. You never put on a pair of shoes without your orthotics, right? The less barefoot we are, the less strong our feet become. The more supportive the shoe, the less our foot works. You will have to keep your orthotic in as you make the transition. The best shoes to make this work, are Altra and Topo. They still have a standard cushioning system, but they are flexible and have a wide toe box so you get to start strengthening your feet just by giving them space. Remove the factory insert from the shoe, slip in your orthotic and boom! RTG!
Now if it were up to me, I would start shaving down your orthotic. Alas we don't all have the tools to do so. So if you're in a rigid orthotic, over the next couple weeks or month, switch it out for a soft one. These can just be purchased over the counter. Wait to make this switch once your feet have accommodated to your new kicks. You do not need a custom orthotic unless your foot has a congenital deformation, you've torn tendons along your medial arch or have such significant loss of intrinsic foot strength that you are unable to engage your windlass mechanism. Your foot would likely have significant toe deformities.
"I am always barefoot" person
You can go as minimal as you'd like, right away. Some of my favorites are FeelGrounds (you will really feel the ground), Lems Primal, and Vivobarefoot. If you're looking for a bit more cushion then start with an Altra or Topo. If you are a runner, still go with Altra or Topo. Xero Shoes, Vivobarefoot and Lems all have great minimal running shoes though they may a bit shocking to your system depending on the surface you're running on.
For All You Runners
Just like anything else, make the transition appropriately. Don't just jump into vivobarefoot shoes for a 5 miler. Even if you haven't used orthotics, and like being barefoot, but have spent most of your day in a traditional shoe - then your foot has still suffered from a loss of strength and stability just from being in a tapered toe box, positive heel drop and/or rigid sole for years. Please be wise, runners :)