Shoes: good support or coffins for your feet?

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Brent Stevenson

I will preface this post by saying the best thing I ever did for my feet, my posture and my pain was to stop wearing traditional shoes.  I am very hypermobile and have very high arches in my feet and throughout my athletic life I have been slowed down by foot pain and blood blisters on the balls of my feet and big toes (sorry for the details).  I had tried all different types of shoes, orthotics and tapes, so in 2008 I decided to start working in only socks most of the day and never turned back.  Going barefoot taught me a lot about my own body and how I was creating my own hip and back pain.  The feedback I was getting from my feet helped me become aware that I was standing entirely on the outsides of my feet and how that related to the tightness and aching in my hips.  From the ground up, I progressively became aware of how one part of my body was affecting the other and I have been able to successfully strengthen my feet, loosen my hips and eliminate almost all of the chronic issues I was having.

You will find the Why Feet Hurt video at the bottom of this post.

Being a physical therapist, seeing 14 people a day with different body and foot types, has allowed me to test my posture and movement principles within myself and on my clients.  I have helped a lot of people discover how their feet affect their bodies and their bodies affect their feet.  I have learned that how you hold your upper body can be the root cause of your bunions and how you use your hips can dictate if you pronate or supinate in your feet.  There is very much a trickle up and a trickle down effect on posture, alignment and movement.  The shoes you choose will affect all of the above.

Let me walk you through the path I have taken to create strong feet and good posture as it relates to my shoes.  The first fact that you need to consider is that we are all born and built to function barefoot; you were not born with Nikes on.  The second fact that you should know is that your body adapts to the forces you put on it; so your body will compensate and adapt to the shoes you have chosen throughout life, usually in a negative way.  These compensations and adaptations happen over years and typically catch up to you sooner or later in the form of pain or deformity in your feet, knees or back; so your body is built to function one way, but you have forced it to function in another.  If you truly want to restore normal functioning, it takes time, concentration and persistence to undo the strongly engrained movement patterns and weaknesses in your feet and body.

I started by taping up my feet in a way that compensated for all my weaknesses; the tape performed the mechanical action my weak muscles weren't able to provide.  The results were incredible.  I felt 20lbs lighter.  My toes straightened all out instead of bunching up and I could feel my feet become levers to push me forward when I was walking.  To top it all off, it got rid of my foot pain.  I started taping up most of my clients' feet and 75% of them found the same result.  The trouble was the tape job only lasted about two days and became impractical to tape all the time, but it motivated me to strengthen my feet and made me further realize how traditional shoes were causing my problems.

The foot is built to bear weight on the heel, the lateral portion of the sole, the ball of the forefoot and the toes, just like what you would see in a foot print on the ground.  The front of the foot is supposed to be able to flex and extend just like the ankle can flex and extend.  You should be able to wave goodbye with your forefoot, but shoes don't permit foot flexion, only extension.  Your feet are built to literally lightly grab the ground and lightly contour to the surface you are walking over to help provide balance and support to the body, but shoes prevent your feet from doing any work by artificially lifting you away from the ground and providing a gripped, stable base.  Shoes can make certain activities easier for your body, but they can be a coffin for your feet.  Imagine what would happen to your hands if you wore mittens all the time that didn't let you make a fist, grip or use any dexterity.  They would eventually deform and your fingers would curl up, just like most toes do in shoes.

Foot should bear weight like a tripod and have lengthwise tension for support

People have come to believe that they need the support that shoes and orthotics provide and some people do, but they need the support because of the shoes they have been wearing their whole life, not because they are meant to have something physically pushing their arch up from below.  You can become very dependent on your shoes and orthotics, and can progressively need to get stiffer and more supportive shoes over time as your feet get weaker and weaker.  This is the path many people choose because it can demonstrate the most immediate comfort, but I warn you that it leads to balance and pain issues later in life.  I encourage people to learn how to use their feet in conjunction with the rest of their body to naturally build arches and strong feet; this process takes time, but pays dividends in the long run.  If you are older, and your feet have already developed large bunions and hammer toes, your best option may be to compensate for your feet with supportive shoes and orthotics, but most people could benefit from shedding their traditional shoes even part of the time and go for a barefoot walk.

The footwear industry has started to shift towards a less is more mentality when it comes to athletic shoes.  There are a handful of companies starting to produce their version of a "barefoot shoe."  These are extremely light shoes that protect your feet from sharp objects, but don't provide a lot of cushioning or support; they let your feet do the work.  Most traditional running shoes have an elevated, cushioned heel, a stiff mid foot section and a relatively thinner sole in the forefoot.  Compared to going barefoot, running shoes are high heels, they promote heel striking and make it challenging to use the front of your foot properly.

Traditional running shoe

Nike was the first major company to work on making a more minimalist shoe with their Nike Free line.  The Free is extremely light and has slats in the sole that allow more movement to occur in the foot, but it still has the elevated profile of a traditional running shoe.  The heel is significantly higher than the forefoot and the shoe facilitates more extension in the forefoot, but still doesn't allow the forefoot to flex.  I view this shoe as a good transition shoe towards barefoot, but mechanically it won't help you very much.

Nike Free 5.0

Vibram developed their Five Fingers shoe back around 2006 to really start the barefoot movement and have been the leaders ever since.  Their shoe is the closest thing on the market you will get to walking barefoot, but they also look like you are wearing monkey feet.  To their credit, they have developed a handful of new lines with more style over the past five years, but you will still end up in a conversation about your shoes everywhere you go, if you wear them out.  Personally, I love mine and wear them for walks, hikes and short runs in the spring and summer.  They have been a key ingredient to strengthening my feet and I recommend them to almost everyone confident enough to wear them in public.

Vibram Fiver Fingers Bikila

Terra Planna has the best selection of practical, nice looking bare foot shoes with their Vivo Barefoot line.  I use these as work and casual shoes.  They have a flat profile and a wide toe box to give your forefoot room.  The sole will protect your feet, but you feel what you are walking over.  These shoes made me change how I walk.  Not having a cushioned heel on them made me realize how much I heel strike then slap my foot as I walk.  My heels got sore and you could hear me coming as my feet slapped the floor.  I learned to lean forward slightly and land more on my mid foot….my heels felt better, my feet got stronger and the slapping stopped.  Unless you live in New York or London, these shoes can be hard to come by, but check out this link for their online store.

Terra Planna Vivo Barefoot

Merrell has recently teamed up with Vibram to make a super light hiking, athletic shoe.  They have a similar sole to the Five Fingers shoe, but are a bit more rugged and don't have the toe slots.  If you love the Five Fingers, but don't like the monkey feet look, these are your next best choice.  These shoes replaced my Nike Frees as my casual shoe of choice.  I believe New Balance has since come out with a similar shoe as well as a number of smaller companies have been building their own brand of minimalist shoes.  You can see them all at Bare Foot Running Shoes

Merrell Glove

Another type of shoe gaining popularity in the alternative footwear world are the shoes with a negative heel and cushioned rocker bottom.  Sketchers has been promoting their Shape Ups shoe recently, but it is simply a cheaper version of the MBT shoes that have been around for years.  MBT stands for Masai Barefoot Technology, but these shoes are far from a barefoot experience.  They can be a very good learning tool to teach back dominant people to use their butt and hamstrings more when they walk, but they won't do wonders for your feet.  If you have a very anteriorly tipped pelvis and swayed back, these would be good walking shoes for you.  Once you figure out how to walk in them comfortably, I encourage you to also try a truly flat barefoot shoe to incorporate your feet into your new walk.

Long story short, there are more options out there for you than simply stiff, elevated shoes, and orthotics should not be the default prescription for foot and back pain.  I will talk more about orthotics in another post, but to generalize people that pronate (flatter feet) tend to do better with orthotics and people that supinate (high arch) tend to get worse.  I encourage you to learn about your body and make an effort to get your feet stronger whenever you can.  Please look through the videos and blog posts listed in the instructions manuals to the right for instruction on foot strength, posture, barefoot walking and running.

Where do you go from here?  Read some of the related articles below for more information about how to deal with your body as a whole.  You will find videos of exercise progressions to help you discover your body.

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