If you go to the doctor and you’re asked to take your pants off, you wouldn’t think twice.. So why do I often get looks of horror when I ask a client to take off their shoes? Are they wearing odd socks? Do they have unsightly holes in the heels? Is it embarrassing foot odour?
"Maybe it’s because you're not a doctor?" i hear you say.
Fair point, but consider this... people in western countries spend an extraordinary amount of time in very unnatural footwear which protect us from danger on the one hand, but also deprives us from a huge amount of sensory feedback and prevents the foot from functioning the way it was designed.
Let’s step back and look at the big picture; what’s the big deal about shoes?
There are two human inventions that I am constantly heard cursing practically every day; chairs and shoes. Today, I plan on elaborating the on latter.
The invention of the shoe can be traced back as far as 7000 to 8000 BCE, these shoes, however, were purely designed for protection from extreme heat, extreme cold, and harsh surfaces. Often a mix of different hides or leathers held together with some bark-string or leather cord; they were a far cry from the shoes that we have come to know and use today. In fact, many civilizations across the world have no need for shoes at all, where sandals would sometimes be worn but bare feet were the preferred mode of transport.
I'll take 2, with extra grass!
In the developed world, it has come to a point where people have forgotten a time without shoes. As the years have passed, people’s feet have become softer and more fragile, to the point of being virtually unable to venture outside without protection.
Shoes have become a necessity of the 'civilized' world, and being seen without shoes outside of the house is often associated with gypsy-like behaviour or vagrancy, and generally frowned upon by many.
It can be noted that in the advancement of a built society consisting of man-made surfaces and objects, we encounter mostly surfaces which our ancestors would never have, the pivotal question can be asked: How much protection is enough. How much is too much?
The issue arises when the true functions of the foot and ankle are lost amongst the bells and whistles of shoe company marketing campaigns. Words like ‘arch support’ ‘pronation correction’ ‘shock absorption’ don’t really belong anywhere near your foot. Essentially these properties in a shoe make your feet weak and lazy; they stop your foot from being able to move the way it was originally designed and stop you from being aware of where you are walking and how you are moving.
Let’s be honest, all you need is a layer of some material that won’t allow pieces of glass or stray hypodermic needles access to your tootsies, and something to keep it in place. However, this would be very inexpensive, not very sexy, and very hard to sell to the general population, which is why you have 10 million different types of shoes advertised to you, all offering a plethora of benefits that in all honesty, you don't need.
The issue with most modern shoes is, ironically, exactly what the advertised ‘benefits’ are;
They absorb shock. Consider that the foot and ankle are composed of 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 ligaments, tendons and muscles. This structure has evolved over countless years to transfer forces of up to 6-7 times bodyweight in a full sprint. You probably don’t need clouds tied to your feet as you potter around the city.
They limit movement. I would ask what movement is being limited and why? What effect is that having on the rest of the body? Any time movement is restricted in one area, it must come from another area, and given the vast complexity of the foot and ankle, and its role in dealing with forces in a number of planes, you probably don’t want a knee trying to do a foot/ankles job, especially on top of its own workload.
They support your arches. Perhaps the question you need to ask is; why do your arches need support? What other structures are not pulling their weight further upstream? What will external arch support do to/for your body in the long run? The answer is, you don’t need support, well, you shouldn’t. I have never seen a person with ‘flat feet’ that didn’t also have dysfunction at the hip and/or knee. More often than not, as these dysfunctions are resolved, issues at the foot either resolve or become much easier to fix.
So are all shoes bad? Should I throw mine in the bin? Is this some sort of shoe-mutiny? Should i burn my pants too?
Definitely not, and it all depends on your personal situation. A recent lawsuit against a popular minimalist footwear company should serve as a warning to those making bold and scientifically unsubstantiated blanket claims, every person’s situation is different and must be evaluated as such.
If you take someone who has been moving in 'well-supported' shoes for 20 years and tell them that they will be healthier if they throw those shoes in the shredder and go barefoot, you have yourself a recipe for epidemic plantar-fasciitis, and lawyer fees to match
This notwithstanding, I am a firm believer in the notion that the large majority of active folks should aim to gradually return to a shoe that puts them closer to the ground. I feel that this will not only reduce the incidence of injuries caused by repetitive overload in the wrong areas, but also increase performance by strengthening the musculature of the foot and improving proprioception (body awareness) in the lower leg.
So what do you do if you’ve been getting around in restrictive shoes for a long time?
Spend a little time each day moving out of your shoes, preferably on a soft surface. Go for a walk around in your backyard or down at the local oval for 5-15 minutes. Check to see how your body reacts to this new stimulus over the next few hours and the next morning. If you feel fine, increase the amount of time as the days progress, then work up to a 2-3 minute jog and repeat the process
Work on your hip control, a lot of foot and ankle issues originate further upstream, exercises for you gluteals and abs will help keep your hips in a neutral position. This will allow you to absorb shock more efficiently through the whole body and help to control the knee and ankle far better during movement.
Gradually reduce the amount of heel drop and arch support your shoes provide. As long as you don’t notice any adverse effects, a gradual regression of your shoes to a more basic type is recommended. Every time you buy new shoes (6-8 months depending on use) take another step towards a smaller heel and less support.
Wrapping up: It seems that as time goes on, we get further away from the functions that our bodies were designed for. The more inventions we create and the more comfort we add to our lives only seems to bring about more dysfunction in our physical bodies. It is my opinion and the opinion of several medical professionals i have consulted with,
that we should aim for our bodies to function as they were originally designed to. While some of these things may seem beyond rescue, the way we treat our feet is not, so consider giving some freedom to yours.
Until next time…