How Shoes Damage Your Feet & How Walking Barefoot Can Make You Stronger
The protocol for determining natural movement is pretty straight-forward:
1. Look at hunter-gatherers
2. Look at children
How did we move before technological advances? And how did we move before we were told how to move?
It became evident that hunter-gatherers ran fast when they needed to (escaping a predator), and children go fast when they choose to (playing), but otherwise both are consistently moving slow.
They also don’t wear orthotics, Nike 6.0’s, or high heels. Hunter-gatherers go barefoot, protect their feet with sandals, or wear a very thin fabric wrap. Babies are born barefoot, and usually don’t wear anything on their feet until Mom or Grandma takes them to OshKosh. In both cases, this means strong untainted feet that are used as designed. The weight is distributed on the 3 pads of the foot, with significant support from a solid arch. And the bones and muscles stay strong because they’re consistently loaded.
In the hunter-gatherers case, this is maintained; in the baby’s, it is not. Unless of course, the baby is lucky enough to be born into a family that’s signed-up for the alexsandalis.com newsletter.
The Foot Is The Shoe
We are not born with shoes, so we rely on our feet for support. Fortunately, they were created to withstand all of the walking, sprinting, standing, and jumping we decide to put them through.
Nearly 25% of the bones and muscles in your body are below the ankle.
The arches are designed for consistent muscle tension when you’re on your feet. This tension holds your arches up and your foot bones together. The more the arch is asked to support, the stronger it gets. The less the arch needs to support, or when it has a consistent supportive system doing the work for it, the weaker it gets.
In 1995, researchers in the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery determined that flat feet were more common in children that wore shoes before the age of six (8.2%), compared to those that wore none (2.8%).
Many are surprised to learn that our feet were actually designed to grab the ground and assume the surface they’re walking on. As depicted in the American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery in 1905, this is how your feet would look if you never put them in shoes.
Dr. Philip Hoffman, the orthopaedist that delivered this “Comparative Study of Barefooted and Shoe-Wearing Peoples,” also included this fantastic visual to show the deformity that occurs from shoes:
The foot on the right (A), is a child’s foot after 3 months of wearing shoes. The foot on the left (B) is an adult’s foot after a lifetime of going barefoot. Despite being a brief 3 months, the toes in foot A are already starting to curl, and the big toe is angling inward.
Shoes change the form and function of the foot, by providing too much support and permitting unnatural movement.
Shoes = Coffins For Your Feet
When our feet are crammed into odd-shaped shoes with an arch support, we’re telling the them to conform to an unnatural position, and we give them permission to get stiff and stop supporting. Along with creating a weak arch, this disrupts regular functioning.
Why would your arch continue to support when it doesn’t have to?
Why would you keep your weight on the balls of your feet, when it’s easier to stand flat-footed?
Why would your toes and ankles maintain their range of motion when they’re trapped in a box all day?
Why would you brace your knees and hips while walking or hiking on a rough surface, when you can wear shoes with built in shock absorbers?
The impact of shoes on our feet is comparable to wearing restrictive mittens that didn’t allow you to make a fist. The dexterity you would lose in your fingers, and discomfort in your wrists, forearms, and shoulders, is exactly what’s happening to your feet. The difference being, your feet are supporting your entire body!
You’ve been wearing shoes for so long, that you’ve likely never considered how different it feels to walk or run in your bare feet. Walking without shoes requires a lot more caution and consistent assistance from your knees and hips. There’s also a noticeable transfer of weight from the back of the foot to the front, which is especially evident while walking on a harder surface. The knees need to bend and hips need to sit in order to protect the pads of the feet from pain, and the ball of the foot takes control, while the heel seems to barely touch.
Shoes affect the gait of children. With shoes, children walk faster by taking longer steps with greater ankle and knee motion and increased tibialis anterior activity. Shoes reduce foot motion and increase the support phases of the gait cycle. – Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, 2011
Similar to any structure, when you weaken the base, the parts above shift and adjust to compensate. When we lose the strength and change the shape of our feet (the base), the way our hips and knees align, and how the muscles fire to hold our weight changes. Though the damage isn’t obvious overnight, this consistent restriction and compensation eventually results in pain and deformity in the knees, back, and feet.
The sad part is, as your feet get weaker and discomfort continues, the more supportive shoes and orthotics you’ll seek. Meaning, the extra support is only leading to weaker more deformed feet and a broken unbalanced physique.
Rebuild Your Arches
Obviously, the answer is not quit your job and move to the woods to please your feet. It’s come up with a strategy to do the best you can in the circumstances you’re given.
Here are some ways you can do that with your feet:
1. Go Barefoot When Possible – In your home, at the cottage, or at a park. Practice walking in barefeet for short stints outdoors, like watering the grass or going to get the mail.
2. Improve Foot Mobility – Point and flex at full ranges (toes & ankles). Spread your toes and rotate your ankles. Get used to moving your feet around more.
Increase Foot Strength
- Invisible High-Heels – Stand and walk on tippy-toes
- Flex to Point – Stand and move from heel with dorsiflexed foot (toes up) to ball with full point
- Angled Toe Points – Stand and transition from flat foot to balls of feet at various angles and various surfaces (ex: stair) for multiple reps.
- Side Rolls – Stand and roll from outside edge of foot to ball of foot with full point of toe
- Bounce Walks – Walk forward on balls of feet, while bouncing from low heel (1 inch from ground) to high heel
- 1-Foot Balance & Grab – Balance on front pad of 1 foot, while trying to grab floor with toes.
- Sand Walking – For those that have the luxury.
Purchase Minimalist Shoes (Vivo, Vibram, etc.)
- Look for wide toe box, flexible sole, no drop (heel and toe same height), minimal-to-no cushion & ankle support
- Start with standing and short walks until your feet build up a baseline of strength. Incorporate the foot strength drills mentioned above.
- Avoid sprinting and more dynamic movements until you have been walking for a considerable number of weeks (4+) without soreness.
There’s no guarantee that going barefoot or wearing less supportive shoes can reverse your already fallen arches or flat feet, but there’s plenty of success stories of individuals improving the performance and function of their feet. Whether your arches return doesn’t change the fact that you’re strengthening some of the most important muscles in your body.
This is an excerpt from 1% Fitness, where Mike shows you how to maximize your results with a minimal commitment to exercise. Along with 9 Principles for ‘Moving Better’ and ‘Training Smarter,’ the book includes free access to 14 weeks of workouts with video demonstrations you can access on your smartphone.