Walking in Minimalist Shoes Is Effective for Strengthening Foot Muscles

Sarah T. Ridge; Mark T. Olsen; Dustin A. Bruening; Kevin Jurgensmeier; David Griffin; Irene S. Davis; A. Wayne Johnson


Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(1):104-113. 

In This Article

Clinical Applications

Minimalist footwear use has been primarily targeted toward reducing injuries in runners. Research that focuses on runners who have transitioned to minimalist shoes shows increased muscle size in both feet and legs,[20–22] suggesting that the increased stimulus triggered strengthening in the intrinsic foot muscles. However, previous research from our laboratory showed that 50% of runners who transitioned to minimalist shoes by merely gradually increasing their running mileage developed a bone stress injury over the course of the 10-wk study.[23] Based on those results, it is clear that habitual traditionally shod runners need to prepare their feet for the increased stress of running without cushioning before beginning training in minimalist footwear. Either of these interventions used in the current study show potential for this use.

Although most of the research on minimalist footwear has focused on running, there are a number of clinical populations that may benefit from MSW. Previous studies have shown that 6 months of walking in minimalist footwear relieved pain and decreased knee loading in subjects with knee osteoarthritis.[41,42] Neither study reported ankle kinematics or kinetics, so the mechanism of pain relief and unloading is unclear. In addition, intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscle strength were not measured, but based on the results of the current study, it can be inferred that muscle strength would have increased after 6 months of walking in minimalist footwear. It should be noted, however, that a more diverse population of subjects, rather than active runners, may experience different results than our subjects did.

Intrinsic foot muscle weakness has been associated with the occurrence of plantar fasciitis.[3–5,43,44] Few studies have used a strengthening intervention in people suffering from plantar fasciitis, but those that have shown decreased pain.[6,15] If short-term pain relief can be found, subsequent strengthening of the intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscles may result in more effective rehabilitation from plantar fasciitis and decreased recurrence rates by reducing the stress transmitted through the muscles to the plantar fascia.

A variety of studies have shown benefits of foot/ankle muscle strengthening in subjects with diabetic neuropathy. Dynamic balance training and ankle flexor/extensor muscle strengthening resulted in increased gait endurance with subjects with diabetic neuropathy.[16] Other study has shown that increased intrinsic foot muscle size or strength is correlated with better balance and/or fewer falls.[45–47] Sartor et al.[48] also showed improved plantar pressure distribution and better foot rollover after subjects participated in an intervention including stretching, strengthening, and functional foot and ankle exercises. Finally, a recent preliminary study showed ROM and sensory perception improvements in subjects with diabetic neuropathy after a barefoot, weight-bearing exercise program.[17] Again, the results of the current study suggest that exercise interventions may be replaced with minimalist footwear walking, which may have greater compliance rates.