Feet are two of the most important instruments in this bodily experience. They carry us through life, provide feedback about the environment over which we travel, and contribute tremendously to our proprioceptive strength. Feet are strong and dexterous, when given the chance.
We wear shoes, and often for good reason as some terrains offer more punctures and scrapes than the pleasant squish of mud or fresh feel of cool dew, but not all shoes are created equal…
Most of the shoes deemed fashionable, and even athletic, are not exactly foot-shaped. Imposing your toes in a space more narrow than your heel is akin to asking your fingers to spread no wider than your wrists. Now imagine spreading your fingers no farther than a few millimeters everyday for your entire life- that is exactly what most shoes do to our feet. A foot-shaped shoe has a wide toe-box, allowing the toes to spread and be active in your movement.
Most conventional shoes have a heel lift. The heel lift issue does not exclusively apply to what we know as high-heeled shoes, but is actually an issue present in most casual and athletic footwear. In a running shoe for example, there is a heel-to-toe difference in cushion thickness that raises your heel above your forefoot. Just try this and you will instantly understand that there are ramifications to the heel lift: Stand barefoot on a hard, flat surface and lift your heels ever so slightly from the ground. In order to keep yourself from tipping forward, you compensate elsewhere. Most of us push our pelvis forward, tuck our butt under, round the upper back, head juts forward. Does that paint a familiar image? Can you see how the heel lift moves loads that are meant for the tendons and musculature of our feet, ankles, and calves up the kinetic chain and into areas not designed for these loads? The heel lift significantly reduces the work in the Achilles and plantar tendon because the heel lift reduces your “push off” distance from the earth. This is why ailments like plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis are relieved by the lift, but also exacerbates the weakness in this area, perpetuating the issue. (Bowman, 2015)
Stability/Motion control shoes offer a “cast” effect. Shoes of this sort are designed to stop the wearer from pronating or supinating (foot rolling in or out) and instead place the foot in a neutral position. But why do you pronate or supinate? It’s likely because the muscles and tendons of your feet and lower leg are atrophied (see points 1 and 2), which collapses your arch. You don’t just have flat feet, flat feet are the result of failure to exercise the over 100 muscles of the foot. In a sense, it’s the difference between a toned muscle and a limp muscle. Activate your feet and you develop an arch. Engage your ankles and lower legs appropriately and you’ll land in a more neutral position.
High heels are not sexy. High heels combine the worst of shoe offenses- absurdly high heel lift plus a crammed toe box (sometimes even bringing the toes to a point). If the heel lift in your average athletic shoe is akin to putting your body in a “downhill” position, then a high heel sends you tumbling down a mountain. Seriously, look at the angle a high heel would send your body if it weren’t for your compensation elsewhere (knees, hips, back, neck). I’ll be the first to agree we are made to travel up and down mountains, but all day, everyday, in a pencil skirt? I think not. As I explained in point 2, these compensations we make to prevent our fall forward misalign us, causing pain and injury. Furthermore, I don’t know how something that literally deforms your body into a disease-causing position became sexy…anyone?
So those are some of the major offenses of conventional footwear, here are some alternatives:
Wear more foot-shaped shoes. Essentially, you’re looking for a wide toe box that allows the metatarsals to spread. New Balance is one of the “big name” athletic shoe brands that tend to have a wide toe box (they also have some of the best humanitarian practices in the running shoe industry).
Zero-drop shoes eliminate all of the heel lift issues I previously described, so this transition is one of the most critical. Zero-drop simply means that the sole of a shoe is the same height at the toe as it is at the heel. The New Balance Minimus and the Altra brand offer a great combination of foot-shape/wide toe box and a zero-drop. There are several others that offer this combination, including some by Merrell.
Spread your toes. This simply takes my advice for a wide toe box to the next level. Toe socks and shoes like Vibram five fingers encourage more toe dexterity and redistribute forces more evenly amongst the metatarsals. Before I had either of these, I started spreading my toes with one of those foam pedicure toe spacers whenever I was relaxing at home.
Go barefoot! Your feet are made for walking barefoot over natural surfaces such as grass, sand, dirt, etc. If you can be reasonably confident that the area is free of hazardous litter, take your shoes off and enjoy the pleasant texture of Earth beneath you. Vibram five fingers and Earth Runners are also great options that provide most of the barefoot benefits but proctect your feet in areas that are rocky or otherwise uncomfortable to go totally barefoot.
Visit https://nutritiousmovement.com/feet-and-shoes/ Here, biomechanist, Katy Bowman, discusses similar topics in further detail and offers strength and flexibility exercises that will help restore the losses you’ve suffered in conventional footwear.
I hope this article was helpful and that you feel empowered to further explore the strength of your feet- your grounding instruments and most reliable mechanism of transportation :)
Smart shoe designs to check out:
Earth Runners: Visit https://www.earthrunners.com and use my coupon code to save 10% (copy & paste) http://earthrunners.com?rfsn=1532292.8d0789
New Balance Minimus: http://www.newbalance.com/minimus/
Bowman, K. (2015). Whole body barefoot: transitioning well to minimal footwear. United States: Propriometrics Press.