On Vivo Barefoot shoes and achilles pain
I’ve got osteoarthritis in my right big toe at the ball of the foot due to an old kickboxing injury. I’m kind of slowly growing a bunion due to it. It got to the point where the toe would go rigid after a run and was excruciatingly painful. It also was getting difficult to do some yoga poses like Hero pose / Virasana as my foot would cramp up.
A little under 3 years ago now, a massage therapist recommended that I try Vivo Barefoot shoes as they allow your feet to spread out and encourage a greater foot mobility. They also make the muscles in your feet stronger as they move more as your foot has less support from the shoe. Given that I know that movement of the joint and strengthening of the muscles around it is good for arthritis, I decided to try them, and it worked! The pain in my toe decreased massively and the flexibility really improved. I was happy! I also really liked lifting in them as I felt more stable under / over the barbell.
As well as that, I loved to feel the ground underneath my feet. For the first few months, I would actively seek out uneven surfaces to walk on as I just loved the feeling. It was like getting a foot massage! All in, they seemed like a total win and I bought loads of pairs over the next couple of years, although I will say that I do not rate their flagship Primus shoe, as my toe went straight through the mesh on the top.
My favourite are this lovely green pair from their Made in Ethiopia collection. I wore them all of the time unless I was a) actually barefoot, or b) running. I want to stress that I never, not once, not ever wore them when I ran. I wore barefoot shoes exclusively as lifestyle, walking, and gym shoes, and continued to run in my super cushioned Asics.
So good so far, right? So why have I been writing in the past tense? Well, for the past few months, I have been in physiotherapy for some really serious achilles tendinopathy / tendinitis which was caused by wearing barefoot shoes. I cannot stress how debilitating achilles pain is: even walking a measly 5,000 steps to the shops and back can be agonising. When I wake up, it can be tricky to walk at first as the achilles are so stiff. Some days they are so bad that they stiffen after sitting for an hour or two. I obviously cannot run, skip, hop, or jump, and it has even affected my ability to squat. Not good at all.
Vivo Barefoot shoes in particular are the darling of many an online fitness influencer, and some PTs love them too. I know that Vivos, and barefoot shoes more generally, work really well for some people, and jeez, they seemed to do me well for 2+ years. As I say, they really helped my toe arthritis and I genuinely loved walking about in them, but I do not think this negative side of them is adequately discussed.
Both of the physiotherapists I have been seen by (thanks dysfunctional NHS for swapping my clinician mid-treatment) face-palmed when I said I had been wearing Vivos. Apparently they are well known to physios for causing achilles problems. My case is interesting in that I was not wearing shoes with big drops before (I mainly lived in Air Force 1s or Shells), and have never worn a pair of high heels in my life, so it’s not like I had anything to ‘transition’ from, which is where you sometimes see the achilles discussion pop up. In addition, the achilles tendinopathy didn’t start until 2+ years after I ‘transitioned’ to barefoot shoes, which is also strange. It is also significantly worse on the same side as the arthritic toe, but I have it to a lesser degree on the left achilles too.
I suppose the tendinopathy could be due to my age (late 40s), since things stiffen as we get older. Perhaps Vivo Barefoot are a young person’s shoe? Regardless, my symptoms started firstly with calf stiffness and then progressively worsened from there, so my advice would be that if you are a barefoot shoe wearer and you start to get tight calves, go and get the advice of a physiotherapist pronto. You might be able to catch things before you end up in absolute fucking agony. Have my hindsight for free.
Of course, this left me with a dilemma: the Vivos stopped my arthritis pain, but swapped it for achilles tendinopathy. What was an active old wench to do?! The physio referred me to a podiatrist and he recommended Hoka shoes. I got a pair in the winter sale (40% off!!!) and, whilst it is early days, I am very impressed. He told me to get the Cliftons but I was worried about the durability of the mesh upper, so I got the Challengers instead.
What I love about them is that they allow my toes to spread out like the Vivos and give me a sense of foot mobility. They are also super cushioned, have a rocker action (as in, the shoe kind of forces you to push off with the ball of your foot which feels good for my big toe), and they stop the rest of my toes bunching up to protect Dr Big Toe of Stiffness when I walk. Hopefully these Hoka shoes combined with my rehab exercises will get me back to my normal level of activity some time soon.