We are born barefoot and are genetically built to stand, walk and run with our feet interacting with the ground. Our feet are built to be both shock absorbers and rigid levers for us to push off with. They have allowed human beings to navigate over uneven ground, hard, flat planes and soft, spongy meadows for thousands of years. It is only relatively recently that we started flattening out our world with concrete and supporting and cushioning our feet with fancy shoes and orthotics. The feedback our bodies get from our feet is a crucial part of posture, balance and movement development, but we tend to cut that off almost immediately by putting our children in stiff, cushy running shoes as soon as they can walk. As people grow up, the role of work, fashion, and sport dictate their footwear choices and it usually comes at the cost of body awareness, foot strength and balance. As a result, it is almost the norm for people’s feet to slowly deform over time and develop bunions, hammer toes, fallen arches and plantar fasciitis. Ultimately footwear choices become less and less about fashion and more and more about cushioning and supportive comfort as we age. This path is a major source of balance and pain issues throughout life.
The mechanics of our feet are closely tied to those of our hips. Tightness or weakness in one will directly affect the other, which ultimately affects the whole body. There are 3 main arches to the foot. The main one being the medial longitudinal arch, this is the part that will pronate (flatten) or supinate (arch up/over). There is also a smaller lateral arch along the outside of the foot, but the most overlooked arch is called the transverse and is suppose to dome up the front part of the foot. This arch collapses in most people due primarily to wearing shoes all the time, only walking on flat ground and our tendency to try to walk overly erect. The muscles on the bottom of the feet get extremely weak, the muscles in the calf get way over worked and as a result the mechanical support and leverage the foot can provide is lost. Pain, bunions, hammer toes and plantar fasciitis follow closely behind.
The foot is made up of a lot of little bones that require muscle tension along the length of the foot to hold them all together. When this muscle tension weakens the bones won’t lock up together effectively and the arches will collapse. The result is typically poor shock absorption for the body and poor load transfer of the work that is done by the rest of the leg. In other words, the hip and leg muscles work to extend your leg backward to propel you forward, but a lot of that energy is lost in the foot if it doesn’t have the strength to lock up into a rigid lever to push off. This is an example of inefficiency of movement and when it happens with every step you take, the result is usually a tightening of the hip muscles and eventually pain in the foot, knee or low back.
When the mechanics of your feet are compromised your glutes are not able to do their job properly. When your glutes aren’t working well, your deep rotator muscles underneath them and you groin muscles get completely over worked trying to stabilize your hip. These muscles play a key role in the alignment of your pelvis and the orientation of how your hips sit in their sockets. The deep muscles in the hip tend to rotate the leg outward, while the groin muscles tend to rotate the leg inward. How your leg functions depends on which muscles are winning the tug-of-war. Typically if the hip muscles are winning, the leg rotates outward, your foot overly supinates and you put most of your weight on the outside of your foot; if your groin muscles are winning, the leg rotates inward, your foot overly pronates and you load too much weight on the inside of your foot. If your leg becomes bowed or knock kneed it can get more complicated, but as you can see there is a close relationship between your feet and your hips. There is a trickle-up and a trickle-down effect; both are equally important.
Unfortunately the accepted practice of dealing with foot issues is to try and solve everything by giving people stiffer and more supportive shoes and orthotics; this practice usually helps people that pronate and hinders people that supinate. The pronaters are happy with their motion control shoes and orthotics, but become very reliant on them and run into trouble when sandal season comes around. The supinaters want to believe their orthotics are helping them because they paid $500 for them, but they usually either make no difference or make the person worse. Cushioning and support are good for your feet when you are in pain. When you are not in pain, giving your feet a chance to do some work and experience the ground is the best thing for them and the rest of your body.
It is not realistic to expect everyone to stop wearing shoes, but there are a growing number of flatter, more flexible shoes on the market that protect your feet while allowing them to work. Women will always wear high heels, but if they don’t want killer calves, ugly feet and a painful back, they should consider switching it up occasionally to flats and take their shoes off as much as possible. It is easy to opt for the shoe that is the warmest and cushiest, but I warn you that what feels good in the short term may be very harmful to you in the long run. The best compromise is to buy a variety of shoes and use the flat ones as training tools to strengthen your feet and become aware of your posture. The videos on Why Things Hurt.com will further teach you how your feet and the rest of your body are more connected than you realize.
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