Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Path to Primal Feet

Primal people who had only simple or no footwear had feet that look like this (thanks to Tim Ferris at The Four Hour Work Week for the first three images in this post):

The toes have interspaces, the ball is wide, the basic shape is almost triangular, and you can draw a straight line through the big toe to the opposite corner of the heel, making this a very stable foundation for posture.  Modern people who wear toe-squeezing footwear have feet like this:

Obviously the latter provides a much less stable foundation for movement, and this transmits up the legs and thighs to the torso.  Dysfunctional (non-primal) feet form a foundation for ankle, knee, hip, lumbar, and neck dysfunction.

Moreover, the use of elevated heels forces the body to compensate by exaggerating lordosis (lumbar curve) and kyphosis (upper back curve), which again causes lumbar and neck pain and dysfunction:

My father has feet similar to those depicted in the second image above, deformed by wearing shoes too small when a child, so my parents made sure I had “roomy” shoes.  Nevertheless, my feet look like this:

 Not quite as wide and stable as primal feet, but not as deformed as feet forced to conform to shoes too narrow or small. 

To move in the direction of primal feet, I use gel toe spreaders:

After just half an hour of wearing the toe spreaders, my feet look like this:

The more I wear them the better it gets.

So I aim to wear them for an hour or more every day when at home.  I also wear Vibram Five Fingers KSO Treks all day long at my office:

  And after a day of wearing this my feet look like this:

Which is a little better than the first photo of my feet above, which was taken after some time in regular shoes.  So it looks like a consistent use of the toe spreaders and Five Fingers shoes will help me get primal feet.


epistemocrat said...

Excellent data points, Don.

I've noticed my running form and toe spread changed naturally, without much conscious effort, from walking barefoot and wearing VFFs as much as possible. Our bodies respond to proprioceptive feedback acutely.

Wider toe-spacing translated into better balance too.



Methuselah said...

I also wear a pair of Treks in the office. They the most comfortable footwear imaginable!

Senta said...

Also check out Yoga Sandals for a less pricey option to the Vibrams. They are thong style, but with four thongs so all the toes are separated. I wear them all the time, even bought some toe socks so I can wear them in the winter. My feet are looking primal too!

Mark said...

Thanks Don -- I have Vibrams but did not know about the gel toe spreaders. Can you recommend a size (I wear men's size 10 shoes)? The most reviewed size on Amazon is small, and one reviewer of the large size said they were enormous.


Don said...


I wear a size 10 shoe also (size 42 in five fingers) and I got the Yoga Toes, medium size. Fits perfectly. Large was too large.

Sanjeev said...

Could paleo man have had fewer foot fungal infections because of this?

But that's probably not right ... if paleo man NEVER got foot fungal infections, why does the foot sweat anti-fungal chemicals?

OTOH (or is it now OTOF?) keeping the toes together (more volume with less surface area) would be a beneficial adaption for cold survival.

Jim Purdy said...

Wow! Those photographs are pretty amazing!

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Don said...


"if paleo man NEVER got foot fungal infections, why does the foot sweat anti-fungal chemicals?"

not to treat, but to prevent fungal infections. People who sweated anti-fungals would have fewer infections, hence better survival.

Less crowded toes definitely would protect against fungal infections. These generally take hold in moist, dark places, like folds of skin. High blood sugar also favors them, obese diabetics have the most trouble with cutaneous fungi.

In cold places, people (like Inuit) simply wore wide, fur-lined foot gear, like muk luks. Although closely spaced toes would offer a thermal advantage, they would confer much disadvantage in mobility and agility.

Got to remember, humans are originally and basically a tropical species (as our lack of fur witnesses), so the widely spaced toes would be the original.



Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure out how to be barefoot in a cold environment. We have a good foot of snow here at the moment and I can't imagine walking around outside without boots and a few pairs of socks! I think I need to change my paradigm. Thank you for posting those photos, that is a lot of food for thought.


Sanjeev said...

Hey Don

Are there any Feldenkrais practitioners near you?

I highly recommend you talk to one or 2, maybe email them this article and ask for an awareness through movement lesson on these themes.

If you manage to widen the contact patch of the ends of the metatarsals, you will change the way your foot torques the fibula and tibula, and the way the forces transmit up through these 2 bones into the knee, then the femur and pelvis.

I doubt your feet would have grown one way and your joints and ligaments and bones all up and down your body grew in a way that did not match.

and your nervous system in a way that did not match all of that.

There are a lot of ATM lessons that deal with this very issue.

Don said...

Hi Sanjeev,

I don't know. I have had MANY sessions with Feldenkrais practitioners (Jeff Haller and Nancy Denenberg), but not in Phoenix. I got some help from them but despite sessions and homework the method never relieved me of the post-injury issues I wanted to correct. Not even in combination with Rolfing, which I have had done twice.

Anonymous said...


Do you know of any research about the efficacy of the toe spreaders?

Don said...


No. Only my own experience.

Sanjeev said...

>> Jeff Haller and Nancy Denenberg), but not in Phoenix

wow - I wish I could get some sessions with Jeff.

sorry to hear it didn't work for you - It can be hit or miss (definite hit for me) and your mileage may vary, which is why I suggest the cheaper class approach to start.

Barehanded Matt said...

I've been running barefoot since 2007. My feet aren't yet primal, but they've come a long ways since my days as a shoe addict.

O'Brien said...

I don't know if you do yoga but the 'Primal' stance or Tadasana (Mountain) pose begins with balance the feet and spreading the toes. Enjoying your website.

Ergonomic Erik said...

Great post! Have been thinking about something like this for a while. Also found an alternative that can be worn inside shoes:

Catalina said...

I want the opposite of this! I have lots of spaces between my toes and I would like my toes to be closer....hehe I would prefer the first picture rather than the last one!!