Some people think they are disgusting, others just find them ugly.
For people like me, they are fascinating and a biomechanical masterpiece.
Those lumps of flesh and bone at the ends of your legs. Your Feet.
With the advancements and research in footwear and running technique that have taken place in the last decade, you would think that foot related injury and dysfunction would be at an all time low…
Unfortunately it hasn’t happened.
Yes, there is definitely a shift to better practices and slowly the majority is moving that way, but I still see LOTS of people that are getting injured because of habits and behaviors that are out of sync with what nature had intended for us.
Our feet need certain stimuli to fully develop and to function at their best. Our ligaments and bones need stress without strain and our muscles need to be challenged frequently. Students of mine would no doubt remember me telling them that as humans are meant to be naked and running barefoot through the mountains. This statement always gets more than a few raised eyebrows, but while it is said with tongue in cheek, there is some truth to it.
Research has proven without a doubt that people, who spend more of their lives barefoot, have fewer issues with their feet. Of course, this recommendation should come with a disclosure statement that says if you have an inherent structural issue or pre-existing injury, barefoot activity should be undertaken with caution and slowly over time.
As a “civilized” species, humans have evolved (I prefer to call it de-volved) into an animal that apparently needs to have its feet “protected” in restrictive, stiff soled shoes that dampen the senses to any input from the predictable, hard and flat surfaces we walk around on all day. This is a far cry from what our feet need to be at their best.
Our feet contain thousands of nerve endings, which provide countless bits of information for us about the world in which we are operating. The feet actually have two very specific nerve endings that are only found in the soles of the feet, and these nerves provide information about impact and shearing forces. The impact sensors tell us about the amount of force we are transferring to the ground when we land on our foot. This information is critical in communicating to the joints up the chain (ankle, knee, hip, back) to tell them when and how much to flex so as to absorb that shock. There are also stack of small joints in our feet and an intricate web of muscles that contort our feet to allow them to adjust to the load we put on them and conform to the contours of the ground so that they provide the best possible support on ground contact.
The shearing sensors tell us about how much forward, backward or sideways shifting is taking place when our foot hits the ground. This information is also critical in avoiding injury to ankles and knees, assist in avoiding blisters and also tell us a lot about traction and how stable our foot placement is.
Put your feet in a leather bound shoe with a soft material inner sole then a centimeter or two of foam rubber under it, then coat that foam rubber with a thick layer of higher density rubber and those highly specialized and very important neurological feedback mechanisms will soon become dormant and ineffective wastes of space.
So what can you do about it?
I firmly believe that no matter how long we have been doing something, we can always work to move toward the other extreme and get positive results.
Barefoot running and natural running form is a topic that I’m very passionate about (in fact, I chose to do my major research project on it for my Masters Degree), so rather than rant on for 20,000 words or more, I’ll give you a check list of things you can do to help make your feet the incredible machines that they were designed to be.
1) Spend some time every day with nothing on your feet. This can be a few minutes or more but if you are used to wearing shoes all the time, build up slowly.
2) Avoid shoes that have a large heel counter. Dress shoes and running shoes are the two types that typically have raised heels. It is easy to see if a dress shoe has a raised heel, and if you can’t help yourself when it comes to heels on dress shoes, try to limit how much time you spend in them. As for running shoes, the specs on pretty much all running shoes can be found on the manufacturer’s websites. Try for 4mm or lower where you can. A 4mm or less heel to forefoot drop is considered a minimalist shoe and allows for a more natural motion through the foot and ankle when running. My favourite shoe by far is the Vivobarefoot. I now have about six different pairs and they are all I ever wear – to any occasion.
3) At least once per week, run completely barefoot on a hard surface such as concrete or bitumen. If you are new to this, you only need to do this for a minute or two, but over time you may find you can run longer and longer. What this does is slap the face of the all those nerve endings in the feet and remind them that they have a job to do. It does wonders for your running technique because it forces your feet to land correctly so as to avoid injury and pain.
I recommend the hard surfaces because the feedback from the ground is immediate and the surface is predictable. In the beginning, a harder surface is a bit like hitting golf balls in a driving range… It allows you to get the fundamentals right before you find yourself in a sand bunker or in the rough. Once things start to feel a bit more natural, you can then “treat your feet” to more unpredictable and challenging surfaces.
4) Stretch! Our calves typically get short from the amount of sitting we do. Raised heels in our shoes will also shorten our calves. Stretching these will help to maintain healthy ankle mobility. Stretching your toes is also very important. Once again, stiff shoes prevent our toes from extending to their full potential when running or walking and thus the joints can become rigid. In the Sports Medicine field we are now finding a high correlation between toe stiffness and lower leg injuries such as Compartment Syndrome, Periostitis, Stress Fractures and other “Shin Splint” type injuries.
5) Let them feel… Your feet can allow you to FEEL so much of the world around you. Give them the chance to feel rough, smooth, hard, cold, warm, soft, wet, dry, sharp, dull, and every other surface you can find. There are so many simple pleasures that we can gain through letting our feet get in contact with the ground, and when we give them the opportunity, what we get in return is a greater appreciation for our environment and better self awareness.
So, with the risk of over simplifying things, take your shoes off and start moving as you were designed. Yes, running technique coaching helps. Yes, starting slowly and building up over time helps. Yes, a dramatic change from decades of doing things differently will be a shock to the body – but so what… it will be worth it.