May 26th, 2008
Isn’t it odd how we pay so little attention to such an important part of our foundation? I am of course talking about our feet. They support us everyday and are the part of us most directly connected to the earth, yet we usually give them little heed.
Our feet were meant to be free and mobile, gripping and sensing the ground beneath us. However, this is not how our feet actually experience the world. For a myriad of reasons, we largely clad our feet in shoes. While there are certainly good reasons to wear shoes, constantly ensconcing our feet in a protective enclosure constricts and weakens our feet, dulls their proprioception, and reduces our perception of the wealth of tactile information from our soles. According to recent news, including this New York Magazine article, shoes are wrecking our feet. Shoes are designed to stabilize, protect, and make fashion statements. In other words, shoes primarily serve to immobilize our feet so we walk unnaturally, cushion them until they’re senseless, and give us consumerist driven social standing (while padding the pockets of the shoe designers).
Our bare feet are actually quite well adapted to keeping us standing upright. The body weight is supported via the heel, two balls, and outside edge of the foot. The toes grip the ground while the toes and ankle work in tandem to stabilize the upright balance. While walking, our unshod feet will naturally land lightly on the heel, and flexibly transfer energy towards towards the outer edge of the foot, the arch, and finally to the balls of the feet and toes to push off for the next step. For the most part shoes don’t allow our feet to function this way.
Ironically, supportive and well cushioned shoes can result in the opposite of their original intent. They can actually weaken your feet and ankles so that you’re more prone to injury, and they also promote bad biomechanics which transmit more shock to your joints. Let’s do a cursory examination of where shoes go wrong (we’ll ignore the egregious example of high heels and other “fashionable” shoes for now, since everyone should know that those are terrible for you). Your typical athletic shoe has a relatively thick, stiff sole, ample cushioning, arch support, a slight downward slope (elevated heel), and an upward curl towards the toes. The cushioning acts as a shock absorber and significantly reduces impact, but the combination of the thick sole and cushioning means you get no tactile information about the ground from your feet. Consequently, you can quite literally slam your heels into the ground and walk with a lot higher stepping impact than you would without a shoe. If not for the cushioning, stepping would normally land more lightly on the heel.
Lots of shoe cushioning results in a elevated, destabilized foot, a winning combination for sprains for someone with insufficiently strong ankles. To compensate for this destabilization, rigid soles, ankle support, and sometimes wider soles are used to add stability. But with a rigid sole, the foot can no longer flexibly mobilize to transfer force from the the heel to toes to push off for the next step. The solution? Make the shoes slope downward and taper the front of the shoe upward so that your step will now simulate a roll from heel to toe and help you push off the front of the foot. If you’ve got fancier shoes, there may even be grooves cut into the sole to give some flexibility to the front of the shoe and better simulate pushing off from the ball of the foot and toes.
With all this artificial support, we come to rely on the shoe to do most of the stepping work for us. Our feet and ankles are stabilized, the slope and front taper perform the push off work, and even the arch support makes it unnecessary to use any of our foot muscles to actually support our feet. With the upward front shoe taper, our toes no longer grip the ground but instead curl non-functionally upward. This weakens the toes, making them less able to assist in pushing off while stepping and less able to function in general balance and stabilization. All in all, inattentive and constant use of shoes can result in weakness and lack of mobility in the feet and ankles.
Weakness and lack of mobility in the feet and ankles lead to hosts of problems. The most obvious consequence would be issues with the feet and ankles. In addition, if the feet and ankles don’t function properly, the body usually needs to compensate for the insufficiency at the feet by overusing another part of the body, such as the knees, hips, and back. Discussing the amazingly interconnected biomechanics of the human body is far beyond the scope of this blog post. But suffice it to say that the body works best as a unified whole. When one part breaks or doesn’t work right, other parts will usually try to pick up the slack. This can easily stress the body since it’s forced to function in a way for which it wasn’t designed. The strained biomechanics from incorrectly functioning feet can cause injuries to distant parts of the body in ways which aren’t immediately obvious.
Countries which don’t have such prevalent shoe use suffer from fewer foot health issues than countries where shoe use is more widespread. Spending more time walking around barefoot and learning to use our feet properly would do wonders for improving our biomechanics and overall orthopedic health. Running or doing more sports training barefoot appears to improve athletic performance, though these more physically demanding activities require some preliminary strength and conditioning before serious barefoot training can begin in earnest.
Of course, that doesn’t mean giving up shoes entirely is completely practical. Regular shoes probably aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. Social, professional, and sometimes even just safety and hygienic issues are going to force us to wear shoes at least sometimes. There are a few (though not many) commercially available “barefoot shoe” alternatives. Vivo Barefoot shoes provide a nice-looking, if somewhat pricey, shoe that close mimics barefeoot walking. Vibram FiveFingers are about as close to barefoot as you get in a shoe, though you’ll certainly attract a lot of attention with their unique design. Water shoes (a.k.a. aqua shoes, aqua socks, surf shoes, bathing shoes, etc) can also provide a a flexible, thin soled, readily available, and relatively cheap alternative. Nike has is Nike Free line of shoes for those wanting something closer to a conventional running shoe. If you want to go the outdoorsy, back to nature route, you can try some mocassins, but those likely won’t last long on the vast trails of urban pavement. EDIT (6/6/08): I found one more possibility with trampoline or gymnastics shoes. They also may not last long on pavement though.
Regardless of whether we choose to live barefoot lifestyle or shelter our feet inside shoes, it is certainly beneficial to mind our feet. Caring for our feet and ensuring that they have adequate strength and mobility goes a long way to keeping us healthy and fit.
Further Reading and Information:
- You Walk Wrong from the New York Magazine
- Barefoot Running article from Run The Planet
- Society for Barefoot Living
- Barefoot Running by Michael Warburton, SportScience 5(3), 2001
- Barefoot practice has paid off for Lady Eagles, Nov. 1997
- Health Journal: Is Barefoot Better?
- TJEPSTER.com – The Minimal Shoe
- Big Toe Power (Q&A article on T-nation.com, scroll to last question)
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