Do you have flat feet, or on the contrary, high arches? The problem isn’t actually the height of your arches, it is that your feet are weak! Weak feet are plaguing our society. From plantar fasciitis, Morton’s foot(where the big toe has pulled behind the 2nd toe), Bunions (big toe joint deformity), even ankle, knee and back pain may be contributed to a poor foot foundation that then escalades with the use of orthotics and footwear.
The truth is, your shoes are making you weak. If you broke a bone you’d want to stabilize it so the tissue can heal in proper alignment. That is why a cast or brace is applied to a broken limb. Once that implement is removed from the stabilized tissue after those weeks of healing, would you expect that region of the body to be stronger than before the injury? Of course not! When the tissue is immobilized for a prolonged period of time it begins to atrophy and become weaker. It would take time to then re-establish strength, flexibility, mobility, proprioception, and sensation in that area of the body.
Now, let’s apply that concept to how we are housing our feet. If you wear shoes, you have been casting and bracing your feet for decades, therefore your feet are weak. How am I certain of this? With the sedentary lifestyle that we have grown accustomed to, there are only a few hours of each day that are spent placing the body in a standing position which activates the muscles of the foot. Of these hours, that the majority of this time is spent in shoes which may be altering the mechanics and structure of the foot. If you spent this amount of time binding and desensitizing any other portion of your body, such as putting your hands in mittens, we’d have complete and total dysfunction. Yet it is somehow acceptable to create and foster a dysfunctional foundation to our structure.
Now let’s be clear, I’m not saying that shoes are unnecessary, I’m saying that we must dramatically rethink them. This is not a new idea, and I’m certainly not the first proponent of this concept. Our feet are crucial for proper neurocognitive development. Yes, your feet are necessary for your brain to function properly from the most foundational developmental milestones. Our feet provide vast amounts of input into the sensory cortex that allows the body and brain to integrate and sense the environment that we are in contact with as we ambulate.
Shoes are meant to protect, that is it. Shoes should still allow sensory information to pass to the foot through the sole. The shoe should be flexible and not restrictive to allow the foot to perform the normal bio-mechanics and support the body. Modern shoes apply new “technologies” that aim to provide cushion, motion control, and shock absorption. These “features” put your foot into a bind and lead to an unnatural way of moving the foot, which leads to injuries. Changes in the way the foot moves and the shape of the foot alters the body’s natural way of moving and absorbing pressure. A correct shoe should allow your feet to bend, flex and move just as if you were barefoot while providing some layer of protection.
Strolling down the street there are millions of different types of shoes. Advertisements riddle our social media from fashion forward, high heels, functional, and the ultra-comfortable but shoes are unnecessary for us to to live a happy and healthy life. In contrast to western countries, foot complaints are rare in Africa. This is remarkable, as many African adults walk many hours each day, often barefoot or with worn-out shoes. Sure there are certain protective measures that shoes provide, however, the shoe is at best a protective coating keeping us safe from sharp objects.
Wearing highly cushioned shoes or wearing orthotics actually immobilizes your foot and causes your gait to change, forcing the heel to strike first with the ground. This alone places an aberrant amount of pressure into the knee, hip and low back. When you strike with your heel you are no longer contracting the stabilizing muscles of the foot (if you don’t use it…you lose it). If the heel of the shoe is higher than the toe box it forces the Achilles tendon to shorten and become tight. By creating tightness in the Achilles tendon, you are then creating tension in the sole of the foot- the plantar fascia. The tension in the calf, Achilles tendon and plantar fascia completely takes away the capacity for the calf and the sole of the foot to act as a shock absorber. It is at this point that pain, dysfunction, morphological shifts and altered foot shape set in. Walking or running in bare feet (or barefoot mimicking shoes) push you to strike with your mid-foot and forefoot. With repetition this strengthens the muscles of the feet. By utilizing the natural design of the foot we can take the pressure off of the joints which are designed to bend the body, and return it to the muscles of the foot and calf which are perfectly designed as a supple spring and suspension system.
So what now? First, take a close look of how you have been supporting your feet. What do your shoes look like? Are they binding and narrow? How stiff are they? Can you roll them up? Do they have a heel? Is the heel portion of the shoe higher than the toe portion of the shoe? Now that you have some idea of what you are wearing, you can now assess if you need new shoes and how much work you may need to restore normal feet function.
Like any training regime for the body, adapting to barefoot style shoes will take time. Throwing away all your old shoes may be a hasty decision, as switching to 100% barefoot only shoes cold turkey can cause foot soreness and pain as your body is getting used to the new biomechanics. One should begin by making barefoot shoes your everyday walking shoe prior to adapting them as your workout shoe. Over time you can then make barefoot shoes your primary source of foot support while wearing other fashion-forward shoes on rarer occasions. Our favorite shoe brands are VivoBarefoot, Groundies, Softstar, Lems and Xero Shoes. To propel your foot health, we also suggest improving mobility and flexibility of the toes and ankle. To do this, you must first touch your feet daily. Pull your toes, spread them, move each joint. Using a ball, like a lacrosse ball, you can then begin to break up adhesion within the plantar fascia and toes. You can find the plantar protocol here. This is a great place to start. Once these measures have been taken, you can take it to the next level by initiating Healthy Hoof Hygiene.