Take your shoes off and let your feet do their thing. (6 Minutes)
If you know me, you know my preferred state is shoeless. In many areas of my being I subscribe to what may be considered an ancestral way of living, and being barefoot is included. I accept that this is not everyone's mindset and I'm ok with that. I'm not here to be self-righteous, I'm here to help. And in this case I'd like to shed some light on just how beneficial being barefoot can actually be, and how modern footwear may be interfering with how your body functions.
Now, when I refer to being barefoot I'm not just talking about taking your shoes off when you are at home. I'm talking about spending more of your everyday life barefoot. Spending more time walking outside barefoot, running outside barefoot, playing outside barefoot, and connecting with the ground below you regularly, barefoot. Essentially using your feet the way they are intended to be used.
The foot itself is a marvel of design. It consists of 33 joints, 26 bones, 3 arch supports, and over 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons. It is complex. There is a lot going on so why do we cage them in? Instead we should consider letting them run wild.
Firstly, let's make it clear that I do accept that shoes serve a purpose. A very important purpose. Inherently they provide protection from injury and weather, something I certainly appreciate. In fact when in the weight room it gives me peace of mind knowing I am protecting my feet even when only wearing a thin barefoot shoe. However, it is my observation that in the arena of health and fitness, we are very quick to offload our health on to someone or something else. Enter the shoe.
We have begun designing footwear that goes beyond their intended scope and we may be producing diminishing returns. We’ve gone too far trying to make our walk “better” or our run more “comfortable” with a tool rather than enhancing our own technology. And trust me, the foot already has all the technology it needs. With built-in shock absorption, mastery in sensory integration, and multiplane support the foot can do it all. This is why spending more time barefoot can have a tremendous impact on human performance, because it allows you to use these natural advantages.
So why it is that modern footwear may be holding us back?
Most modern footwear has an elevated heel. By elevating the heel we promote a shortening of the achilles complex, and over time the entire back line of the body. Can't touch your toes? This may be a factor. By chronically shortening your posterior chain you compromise ankle range of motion that is imperative for walking, running, lunging, squatting, etc. These are all things we do daily.
Most shoes provide a cushioned sole. Unfortunately all that cushioning significantly reduces our ability to sense the ground below us and that reduced feedback is what takes us away from quality, natural movement. The altered information back to our brain about the position of our body is misleading and creates an environment for compensatory movement.
Most shoes provide too much support for our medial arch. Arches don’t become strong by being supported, they become strong by supporting. By supporting our arch with a shoe, or orthotic, we significantly reduce its ability to dynamically stabilize the foot and across time this reduction is only amplified.
Most shoes are too narrow, especially at the toe box. If you splay your fingers they become the widest part of your hand. It's very uncommon to see individuals with toes as the widest part of the foot. This is because of a narrow toe box. We are creating changes to the anatomy of the foot, which in turn changes the function, which in turn further changes the structure, and so on we go.
As you can see shoes can interfere quite a bit with human performance, and therefore optimization. I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard this before but why is it that gloves are shaped like hands but shoes are shaped like...not feet? By wearing poorly designed footwear we are reducing proprioceptive awareness, reducing mobility, and increasing the chances of foot related injuries such as bunions, neuromas, plantar fasciitis, etc.
Now considering all of this, before we make a change immediately, we can’t. Rather, we shouldn't. It's not wise. It’s important to know that this is not for everyone right now, and that like all things the danger is in the dosage. Just as wearing poor footwear for too long can create dysfunction, so can transitioning to barefoot too quickly. This may not be for you if you are obese, weak, detrained, or unconditioned. It's important to remember there are no quick fixes. So take it slowly, understand where you are at, and what challenges your particular body type is taking on at this time in your journey.
Progression towards comfortable barefoot living requires time. The good news, by focusing your efforts on the goal of spending more time barefoot, you inadvertently improve how the entire lower body functions. I call that many birds with one stone.
(We won't go into specifics today, for time sake, but stay tuned for an in depth analysis of each component.)
So how can you progress?
Phase 1: improve stability of the hip, improve mobility of the ankle, foot, and toes, improve the strength of the intrinsic foot musculature, and splay the toes.
Phase 2: spend more time barefoot outside.
(Not sure how to improve the stability or mobility of your body, remember I'm here to help! I'm always available to provide instruction and answer any questions you may have, simply start the conversation below.)
The goal here is to work your way progressively through each component and increase your time outside barefoot. This will take time. This is not something you transition into in mere weeks, this takes months for the foot to adapt. But in the end your foot will be able to support the arch dynamically and the muscles of the ankle will absorb the force of locomotion adequately so that you won't need shoes. You will also see many other areas of your health and fitness improve.
You see, your feet are perfectly designed to stand, walk, run and climb on their own. Nature has created a better piece of gear than any shoe company ever can, the foot. The best part is that they are already designed to function with the rest of your body too. So let them do their thing by spending time on them because the best way to build a resilient, strong, pain free body is to learn how it works from the ground up. Your feet are your foundation after all.