"With each step I touch the earth lightly to do her no harm, and in turn she does me no harm."
Feet are among 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 awareness. Feet are strong and dexterous, if given the chance.
But we seldom go barefoot, and often for good reason as some terrains offer more punctures, scrapes, pesticides, or chewed gum than the pleasant squish of mud or fresh feel of cool dew. But not all shoes are created equal. There are alternatives to the conventional foot cast that offer the foot natural movement while also providing protection from the terrain.
I hope this article is helpful and that you feel empowered to further explore the strength of your feet - as they are your grounding instruments and your most reliable mechanism of transportation :)
The Conventional Foot Cast
First, notice the shape of feet versus the shape of shoes. Since an adult foot can be misshapen by years of shoe-wearing, maybe look at a baby or toddler foot. You'll notice that it is roughly fin-shaped, with the heel being the narrowest part and the foot then fanning out to full width at the toes. Most shoes deemed fashionable, and even athletic, are not exactly foot-shaped, but rather taper toward the toes. Enclosing your toes in a space more narrow than your heel is akin to asking your fingers to spread no wider than your wrists.
Additionally, most conventional shoes have a heel lift. The heel lift 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.
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, and round the upper back, which results in the head jutting forward. Does that paint a familiar image?
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 it reduces your “push off” distance from the earth. This is why ailments like plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis are temporarily relieved by the lift, but the weakness is exacerbated, perpetuating the issue. (Bowman, 2015)
What about arch support?
As someone who runs, hikes, and does farm work barefoot or in "Jesus sandals," I get a lot of questions about arch support and how I'm functioning without it. In an attempt at brevity I explain that the arches of our feet are muscular and adaptable to a progressive workload, much like the muscles of our arms or legs. While clearly an oversimplification, this is true.
Sometimes I wonder at the things we humans believe without question....Do we really think we evolved to have weak feet in need of prosthetic support? The belief that arch support of a shoe or orthodic is a necessity is akin to thinking core strength comes from wearing a corset.
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 not accustomed to the balance and stability workload that comes naturally in a walk over varied terrain. A gradual approach to minimal footwear and movement over natural terrain will restore your innate strength and mobility.
High heels combine the worst shoe offenses- an absurdly high heel lift plus a crammed toe box. 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. Imagine the angle a high heel would send your body if it weren’t for your compensation elsewhere (knees, hips, back, neck). These compensations we make to prevent ourselves from falling end up misaligning us and causing pain and injury.
Furthermore, I don’t know how something that literally deforms your body into a disease-causing position became sexy. . .
What's the alternative?
Wear foot-shaped shoes! Essentially, you’re looking for a wide toe box that allows the metatarsals to spread.
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, while offering a more traditional athletic shoe look. Earth Runners are my favorite as they allow my foot to move naturally, breathe, and connect with the Earth. They also have the appearance of a casual sandal that I can wear with a sundress or on a muddy trail run.
Spread your toes. Before I started running in minimal shoes I started spreading my toes with one of those foam pedicure toe spacers for a few minutes everyday. This is a really nice stretch for your feet and helps the skeleton and musculature prepare for more natural movement and positioning.
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.
Interested in rewilding your feet?
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. If you want to dive a little deeper, check out her book, Whole Body Barefoot.
Interested in Earth Runners?
Copy & Paste:
Bowman, K. (2015). Whole body barefoot: transitioning well to minimal footwear. United States: Propriometrics Press.