— Correct Toes, Barefoot Running, & Born To Run —

Friday, May 8th, 2015


The elevated heel, narrow toe box, toe spring, and thick padding of most shoes causes the majority of running injuries and foot pathologies. Minimalist running shoes or barefoot running are excellent solutions. However, years of wearing footwear not shaped like the natural human foot have deformed most people's toes. One solution to reverse this damage permanently is the toe separating splint called Correct Toes. I advocate moreover never again to wear a shoe not shaped like a human foot. There are properly shaped alternatives for running shoes, dress shoes, hiking boots, sandals, etc., from a variety of brands. I will mention my experience with some of these below.


I first heard about barefoot running in 2009. I was about to move to San Diego to begin Air Force ROTC, and I had two important goals to accomplish before I left my home in Pennsylvania: earn my Private Pilot Certificate, and become a decent runner before my military training.

While I looked certain to get my pilot's license before the mid-August deadline, my running was another story. Apart from the smattering of jogging I had to perform in gym class, I hadn't done any real running since I was a boy playing outside. I tried loping along the canal path near my parents' house, but I would get terrible times for the Air Force 1.5 mi run I was practicing for. Also, it wasn't any fun and hurt my legs and knees.

One of my flight instructors, Colin Stuart, CFII, heard me mention my problem and recommended something that would change my life as much as pilot training: the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, and its advice on natural running. The book is an entertaining read, but its most important takeaway is that shoes cause the majority of running injuries. Before running shoes became stylized to have a padded heel, thick soles, a narrow toebox, and a toespring (the angle that points toes upwards in a shoe), running injuries were mostly from accidents like falling, and not from the act of running itself. Up to the 1970s prior to when Nike pioneered the concept of "jogging," runners wore flat, flexible, minimal shoes for their athletics.

The book's author reveals how he came to understand that modern societies have effectively imprisoned their feet in the tight casts of modern shoes that weaken the muscles and ligaments that normally support running. Moreover, human beings are running animals, and not merely walking animals. The past century of podiatry, influenced my mere observation divorced of more holistic thinking, has among its conclusions the very opposite: that the human foot is an ill design for locomotion, and that we are certainly not born to run. While we may not be the sprinters of the animal kingdom like the cheetahs, the findings presented by McDougall affirm that we are long-distance runners. Our feet evolved to run — barefoot — on the unforgiving pavement of the African savannah, which is just as hard as concrete in the drying sun.

Shocked? I was. I liked going barefoot outside most of my young life, and my family would marvel at my ability to walk over gravel, rocks, sticks, and even jagged metal without it bothering me. But in the intervening years my feet had become soft and unaccustomed to walking without shoes. Born To Run convinced me right away, however, that this was the path to healthy feet, and competent running.

It was. By the time I got to San Diego, I had become one of the top 10% fastest runners among all the cadets in that Air Force ROTC program by the end of my first semester. Given my almost total lack of athleticism just six months before, this shocked me even more. Although I had to wear shoes when in the physical training uniform, all the barefoot running I did around campus and on the beach allowed me to learn proper running technique.

Key Elements of Natural Running (and Walking)

The way most shoes encourage us to walk and to run is utterly wrong for us. The lion's share of the blame goes to the elevated heel, creating a considerable drop from heel to toe. The drop causes the wearer of such shoes to walk heel to toe. Have you ever seen a toddler walk? They don't walk heel to toe. This isn't just because they are new to walking. Have you ever tried to walk on a concrete surface? If you strike it hard with your heel, it's going to hurt, walking or running.

The human foot appears to be a brilliant piece of engineering. The weight-supporting arch is a shock absorber. If you watch an accomplished barefoot runner (or someone from an aboriginal tribe that has no shoes or only minimal shoes), you'll see the toes splay out. The runner will strike the ground with the ball of the foot underneath the center of gravity. The phalanges (toe bones) and metatarsals connecting to them are organized with their tendons, muscles, and ligaments into an ingenious shock absorbing system. The heel has no need to touch the ground. Running in this natural fashion dissipates most of the energy of impact within the foot. The ankle, knee, and hip are not good shock absorbers. For shod runners striking on their padded heels, the padding of the heel protects the heel bone from immediate stress, but the shock travels hardly mitigated through the ankle, knee, hip, and back (Born To Run cites these Harvard studies). The knees and the hips are not supposed to dissipate the energy of impact from running. It is any wonder running injuries are so prevalent?

The arch is a perfect name for the shape of the foot, as it accomplishes a similar weight-absorbing function as the architectural structure. Which brings us to another rhetorical question: why should human beings require arch support? An arch is one of the strongest of architecture shapes. Why would it need support from the bottom surface? Arches are supported by pressure from the sides, not from below. In fact, the way to dissassemble an arch is to remove the keystone; that is, to apply pressure from below upwards into the top of the arch. So-called "arch support" is the enemy and does nothing of the kind.

The Missing Pieces

While I had gained immensely from my stints of barefoot running, there were pieces to the puzzle that I did not realize I was missing.

The day I arrived in San Diego, I got a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, which are glove-like shoes shaped like the foot, with pockets for each toe. I had read about these in Born To Run and Colin the flight instructor highly recommended them. They certainly were a nice transition to barefoot running. But I had a problem with them: I could get my fourth and fifth toes into their respective pockets only with great difficulty, and after wearing them for a while my fourth and fifth toes would ache terribly. Since I got the soles of my feet comfortable with any surface quickly in late 2009, I preferred to go barefoot instead of deal with the hassle. Now I realize that my difficulty with the Vibrams was symptomatic of a greater problem.

Also, I decided before Air Force ROTC field training to break in my military boots by running in them. That was a serious mistake. The boots broke me in. I ended up getting a seriously twisted knee and nearly lost my chance to become an officer. Lots of ice and stretching as advised by the family chiropractor by telephone was enough to get my through. But my left knee has been predisposed to pain and injury ever since.

Thanks to essential oils, last February I was able to cure my chronic knee injury in a matter of days. Certain essential oils of therapeutic grade can help connective tissue to regenerate. I was stunned by how quickly I recovered after years of having pain when I run. I tell that story in detail here.

While the chronic pain had gone away, I was still concerned with the feeling that I was somehow twisting my knee a bit each time I went running these past few months. Before and after a run, I would apply the essential oils that help joints, which both increase circulation and decrease inflammation — in fact, they work infinitely better than icing and heating. While I haven't felt any pain during or after a run thanks to the essential oils, I still felt like I was twisting my knees somehow.

I was able to visit the family chiropractor in April, and paid close attention when he adjusted my knee. I saw that he was putting the tibia back into the correct position, that my toes pointed from an angle to straight ahead. This was an "ah-hah" moment for me. I have always walked, and run, even barefoot, with my toes pointed out at an angle, instead of forward. I decided to try to point my big toes when I walked. This seemed to be helping a bit.

I also became conscious once more of my fourth and fifth toes. They were very close together, and the fourth toes were curling under the third toes. This would often cause terrible blisters when running or hiking. For some years I have put silicone toe spacers between each toe, but because they are individual they usually slip out after an hour or so of wear. While they prevented blisters, they were not convenient and seemed to be a stopgap, not a permanent solution.

Correct Toes Saves The Day

I should have Googled this problem much earlier. Once I searched for "toe spacers," Dr. Ray McClanahan's Correct Toes videos came up right away. This was exactly what I needed! Silicone toe spaces connected together so they can be worn barefoot or inside a shoe. A couple days later I got a pair, and I am finally correcting my toe deformity. I detail my progress on the right side of this page.

The human foot is supposed to be widest at the ends of the toes, not at the ball of the foot. I learned from Dr. McClanahan's videos that nearly all shoes are designed with a toe box that is too narrow. For whatever stylistic reason, a narrow toe box prevails. Other unhelpful design elements common to most shoes include a toe spring, angling the toes upward, causing hammer toes, the elevated heel, which I had known to be bad from Born To Run, and excessive padding.

The lightbulb event for me was that running barefoot or in minimalist shoes was enough: wearing standard shoes (and military boots) every day was increasing the deformity of my toes, and causing damage to my knees. Toes are supposed to splay outward so that the big toe and pinky toe with the heel form a tripod. With my toes deformed forward and together like most people's, I was walking with my feet angled outward — just to have balance! As soon as I put on Correct Toes, I easily retrained myself to walk and run with my big toes pointed straight ahead as nature intended.

This is why I couldn't fit well into the Vibrams: my toe deformity made it too painful to squeeze and bend my toes in there! And also, Vibrams don't necessarily correct a person's toes to the right shape fully. The Correct Toes do.

Dr. McClanahan recommends several brands which can be worn with the Correct Toes appliance. I got a pair of zero-drop (meaning no drop from heel to toe) Altras, and what a difference! I found I was finally able to stand up straight without effort while walking around. Since I like to wear dress shoes, I ordered two pairs of Lems brand brown and black leather shoes. Since the black ones are Oxford style, I'll even be able to wear them with my military dress uniform. Belleville also makes a low-drop, wide-toe-box boot called the Mini-Mil which I am extremely grateful for.

At the time of this writing I have been wearing Correct Toes every hour of the day and night except while showering, and my progress has been astounding!

Now that I am wearing my Correct Toes all the time, another analogy has occurred to me: the foot is more like an asymmetrical arch, resembling a flying buttress, with an arching shape (the forefoot and midfoot) balanced by a more rigid side (the heel) at the wall. The main flying buttress of a Gothic church would sometimes have buttresses of their own to help redistribute weight further. These remind me of the toes: the wide splay of toes is like the fanning shape of the buttresses around the sanctuary wall.

If it's good enough for Notre Dame, it's good enough for my feet! Watch the right side of this page for updates on my progress.


Correct Toes Progress


Day 0:.

The before picture, demonstrating my previous total deformity. Not only are the big toes and pinky toes pointed in ward, but there is overlap with the pinky toes and ring toes curled under. My left foot is worse off: this explains the predisposition of my left knee to get injured for so many years.


Day 1.

After about 9 hours of wearing Correct Toes. When I manipulate my toes with my hands to stretch them, the fourth and fifth toes are incredibly flexible. They used to be quite rigid. I have been applying essential oils good for joints and muscles to the toes every few hour to help them to stretch and to take away the pain. Dr. McClanahan recommends wearing Correct Toes just a bit at a time to get used to them, but thanks to the essential oils I was able to teach my toes to stretch and grow into the correct position immediately. I will wear them constantly until my feet are the correct shape without any help, which I expect will take months or years.


Day 2. I wear Correct Toes with shoes that can accomodate them. A wonderful ancillary benefit is that I am standing with correct posture without effort for the first time in my life, both out home barefoot and walking outside with shoes. I have started running while wearing Correct Toes, and I am training my big toes to point forward. Now that my pinky toes are providing balance, I finally run without feel like I'm twisting my knees!


Day 3. I have noticed some mild knee discomfort in both knees. I have isolated this to muscle attachments in the knee joints that connect ultimately at the toes.


Day 4. The knee discomfort vanished. I believe the sensation was a cramping as the muscles change back to the desired length along with the toes in their new positions. I also used to feel cramping in my fourth and fifth toes, but that is nearly gone. The fourth and fifth toes are all pretty flexible when I manipulate them.

Day 5. I woke up witho

ut any discomfort in my fourth and fifth toes. Up to this point I would feel at least a little cramping upon waking, but no longer. This was a limit I was hoping to reach, and arrived sooner than I had expected. I want to add shims to spread the first and fifth toes further towards correct alignment, but I wanted to wait until the fourth and fifth toes had straigtened out more, especially the fourth toes. But it may be time. I will add the shims, cutting them out of the insole of an old sneaker.

Day 6.

The pinky toes are starting to point outward more. The added shims do not cause discomfort. My toes will realign faster like this.


Day 7. Continued improvement. No pain or discomfort.


Day 8.

After a week, I already have fantastic progress. All the shoes that I own or will soon own accomodate the Correct Toes, so I will continue to wear them for the foreseeable future.



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