Foot pain is one ache that most people have experienced at one time or the other. The feet are your base of support, they influence the power output of your hips and glutes, and they carry you off to every adventure you go on. It is therefore very important that they be in good health at all times.
Imagine being engaged in ‘business’ at home and in the middle of the ecstasy, a sharp pain darts from knee pressed into the ‘field’ and radiates to another part of the body, and pronto, ‘business’ ends in frustration, all around. Well, that is one thing you just don’t want to happen, not for once.
Your feet have a lot of working parts: bones, joints, muscles, tendons, connective tissue, and nerves that all need to work together properly. When this anatomy doesn’t get to express itself well, any number of things can go wrong. From developing “flat feet” to the more scary stress fracture, and everything in between.
Constrictive “modern” shoes make it difficult for your foot anatomy to express itself well. From moving as it was built to move.
A healthy foot doesn’t just have one arch shape in it. It has three arch shapes. There is the main ‘arch’ on the inside of the foot, an arch that runs parallel to it on the outside edge of your foot, and an arch running across the metatarsal heads (you may know these as the “balls of your feet”).
Most feet have lost the two less famous arches (or possibly even all three!), and this is in part because the foot muscles have not been able to maintain strength and tone while inside modern shoes.
Yes, shoes do provide support. But, like anywhere else on your body, if an external object is providing support for your body, your body won’t need to provide that support itself. Like a cast on your arm that supports the bones while they heal, your muscle tissue in that area is not providing that support, and thus it atrophies from disuse (this is the theory behind “fragile vs antifragile“).
Shoes do the same thing for your feet
But it’s not all bad! The right shoes provide plenty of benefit: for starters, they protect your feet from things on the ground that might impale your foot if you didn’t have the shoe material between you and the ground.
Shoes also provide a dampening effect, making the hard ground easier on your feet, and lessening any thermal energy that would otherwise come up from the hot ground and burn your feet. The same applies for taking your feet out onto a freezing ground.
Shoes are not meant to replace what your feet should be capable of doing on their own, but rather enhance what your feet can already do and keep them safe. Many people think if they have sore feet or foot problems that they solution is more support, more padding, more arch support. The reality might be that your feet have been ‘coddled’ and need to be rebuilt and re-strengthened so they can support themselves!
For starters, shoes should not squeeze or scrunch or limit your feet from expressing their anatomy fully.
So what should you look for in a ‘better’ shoe? There are four components to look for in a shoe.
If the shoe doesn’t meet these four criteria, then your foot is going to be compromised. A good shoe has:
(a) No heel lift of any kind. When your shoe raises your heel higher than your forefoot (aka heel lift), your ankle and lower leg are being positioned in a slightly shortened position for the duration that you’re wearing the shoes.
When your leg muscles are thrown into a slightly unnatural position, it means your mobility of your ankle will suffer and this will limit all sorts of things: your squatting ability, interfering with your running gait, etc.
This doesn’t just mean high-heels either! This includes most regular shoes, which have a bulky heel and lower toe. In many shoes you’ll see this difference between heel and forefoot referred to as a “drop,” so “zero-drop” shoes are shoes where heel and forefoot are at the same height.
(b) A wide toe box that allows your foot to spread as it lands on the ground with each step. With each step you take, your foot actually spreads wider upon landing. This is impossible for your foot to do when it’s in a shoe that is too narrow.
If the toe box is not at least as wide as your foot when you’re standing on your foot, while it’s bearing your weight, that’s a problem for your foot. Know that as your foot becomes more ‘natural’ it’s possible it will widen further, as the muscles and bones reposition themselves.
Feet crammed into a shoe are like putting a leash on Sonic the Hedgehog: they want to be free!
(c) A pliable bottom that allows your toes to bend fully as you step. Your great toe is meant to flex to 90 degrees as you move through the gait cycle. If your shoe does not allow this due to a hard sole, your feet won’t be able to move as well, and the soft tissues of your foot will get weaker from not being used fully. Plus, when you aren’t flexing your big toe regularly, your body will start to lose the ability to use that joint fully. This can lead to all sorts of problems.
(d) It’s strapped to your foot. If the shoe isn’t strapped around your ankle, your toes are going to grab at the shoe to keep it on with every step you take. This makes some of your foot bones push down and some of your foot bones lift up. That shift means you change the amount of forces on each bone. Over time, this can lead to stress fractures and tissue injuries.
What to do
Now that you know how shoes affect the health of your feet, should you then toss your shoes into the garbage bag? The answer is not to immediately toss out whatever shoes you’re wearing for something that is fully ‘minimal’ in nature.
Also, this isn’t an “all or nothing” scenario. Similar to your nutrition, do the best you can when you can, and if you occasionally wear heels/flip flops for whatever reason, it’s certainly better than nothing.
There is a healthy and safe progression to take when it comes to moving towards a minimal shoe. Here’s how you can begin fighting for your feet…
For starters, determine how far you are from the ‘ideal’ shoe that meets all four criteria above. If you’re wearing a very cushion-y and/or very supportive shoe, or you live your life in high heels, know that there will be several iterations of a “better shoe” for you to go through.
And if you’re already wearing something you’d call ‘fairly minimal’, then your journey may be a bit shorter.
It doesn’t matter where begin your foot journey. What matters is that you can see a place you’d like to get to: your feet are more functional, stronger, and better supported, and happier.
Having better foot mobility means every tissue and joint can play it’s part in flexing, extending, and stabilizing. Developing foot strength means you start developing arches back into your foot, and your feet will be better aligned to actually take advantage of all the muscles in your body, which holds itself up. The more strength and mobility you have, the less support you’ll need from your shoe. In addition, having proper foot and ankle mobility is crucial in performing a proper (below parallel) bodyweight squat.
Perform the mobility work daily, and start with the strength drills every other day. Work gently, and go slow. For some, the foot hasn’t been well attended to in decades.
Try the following while you’re watching TV, or sitting at your desk, or whenever you can.
Rolling out the lower leg A
Rolling out the lower leg B
Toe stretching drill
Seven drills to strengthen your foot
Transition to a Better Shoe
Since it’s not realistic to be barefoot all day in the modern world, we need a transition strategy.
1) The first and easiest way to start making this footwear change is to start wearing your shoes less total time during your day.
The more time your foot gets to be free from the restrictions of shoes, the more your anatomy gets to learn new signals and create new responses. It’s the equivalent of letting your dog run around the dog park regularly instead of having to stay cooped up inside an apartment.
Our feet were born free, and they deserve to be reminded daily what life is like on the outside (of a shoe!).
2) Begin strengthening and stretching. The drills above will get you started on a path to healthier feet.
3) Start the shoe transition process. Now, while you’re spending a little less time in shoes during your day, start taking a look at what options exist for a better version of the footwear you have currently.
If you spend your day in flip-flops, take a look at brands like Unshoes, which makes sandals that strap to your ankle.
If you spend your day in dress shoes, determine what freedom you have at the office to adjust your shoes to something less restrictive but still professional. Can you begin by buying a new dress shoe but one without a slight heel? Or, can you switch to a soft bottom shoe that is still dressy looking on the top of it?
If you’re wearing athletic shoes all day, what about them can you change? You could try a wider toe box, a more ‘bendy’ bottom or a reduced heel (many athletic shoes still have a heel on them, so take a look to see if yours does too).