Updated: Feb 2, 2021
The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” - Leonardo da Vinci
Foot Health Education & Natural Footwear
One of the dirtiest, overworked, under-appreciated and often hidden parts of the body, our feet have certainly been given a bad rap. Far from being confined to your shoes, our feet are involved in virtually every non-sitting activity we do and their appropriate function determines the future status of our knees, hips and back. If we want to stay upright and active and feel great at the same time, we need to know about our feet. It is often only when they hurt, do we begin to appreciate our feet for the workhorse that they are. Our goal is to convey to you why healthy foot function is the foundation of movement freedom!
Our feet contain a quarter of all the bones in our body! With 33 joints, 26 bones, 4 layers of muscles, 107 ligaments, the human foot is a fascinating biomechanical structure. The foot must act as both a mobile adaptor, absorbing our body weight at each step and adapting to uneven terrain, as well as a rigid lever providing strength and power to propel us forward.
The functional parts of the foot do not stop at pronation and supination. Similar to our eyes which relay visual information about the environment around us, one of the primary roles the human foot is to act as our primary sensor for the physical environment we stand on. With over 200,000 nerve endings (same quantity as our hands), they receive incoming stimuli and send the brain crucial information needed to guide optimal movement. They are our connection to the environment.
Sensors are valuable so it makes sense to protect them. To protect your eyes from the sun you wear sunglasses - they let the visual information get through, but protect our eyes from the sometimes harmful rays of the sun. You don’t wear a blindfold. Our feet are important sensors so it makes sense to protect them from scrapes and cuts by covering them. However, one of the biggest downsides of conventional footwear is the thick foam or cushioning which dampen the wealth of useful sensory feedback. This doesn’t seem to make sense if you’re looking to improve your athletic performance, or even just to feel more balanced and confident as you walk.
Conventional vs. Natural Footwear
Humans evolved in a barefoot environment and that’s how our feet function best. At birth, the NATURAL foot shape is widest at the tips of the toes. This shape is maintained through adulthood in cultures who do not wear conventional footwear. Unfortunately, modern shoes were not built for human feet – this mismatch does not allow our feet to maintain their natural shape found at birth negating their proper function and preventing them from achieving their full potential. Instead, our feet are forced to fit the shape of “normal” footwear, constricting our toes and leading to foot pain and foot issues (bunions, hammertoes, plantar fasciitis just to name a few).
In addition to the tapered toe box, most shoes have an elevated heel which shortens our calf/Achilles complex, limits ankle mobility and throws the rest of the body out of alignment and may be the cause of your knee or back pain.
Their supportive arches weaken the intrinsic foot muscles that are designed to support us when we are upright. They have a rigid cast-like sole which do not allow the 33 joints to articulate as designed thus causing them to become stiff (the effects are similar to wearing a cast for 6 weeks, but in this case, it’s likely been decades!) Finally, they are built with a toe spring, which maintains the toes in an extended position and interferes with the length tension relationship of foot intrinsics and places the plantar fascia under constant tension.
The general public needs to be informed about the “silent” consequences of modern footwear and what to look for in optimal footwear so they can make better choices. There’s no shortage of evidence that your feet can cope pretty well without unnecessary padding, support or orthotics and that foot pain is attributable to modern footwear. In fact, switching over to natural footwear will automatically help to strengthen the muscles simply by walking.
What is natural footwear?
Simply put, natural footwear lets your foot act like it would when barefoot while providing a single important benefit: protecting the sole of your foot from damage.
Features to look for when purchasing shoes, here’s an acronym you won’t forget: WHAT THE FOOT - WTFF
Widest at the tips of the toes — allows for natural splay
Thin – less shoe between your foot and the ground, the more you’ll be able to feel, the more you’ll be able to do.
Flat – i.e. zero heel drop, human beings were not designed to walk on ramps all day, being flat eases tension on upstream joints
Flexible – allows the 33 joints of the foot to move as they were designed
My feet don’t hurt so why should I switch?
Most people with dysfunctional feet have zero foot pain…….at least not yet.
Long-term exposure to conventional shoes changes the structure of our feet and causes them to become stiff and weak. Footwear continually forces foot arches to perform in unnatural ways, altering gait, posture and balance. This leaves our feet dependent on footwear that is structured, cushioned and supportive. Although people may not be aware, a dysfunctional foundation has strong connection to aches and pains elsewhere in the body.
Just like it wouldn’t be very smart to wait until your car starts falling apart to maintenance it, waiting until your feet start being painful is a poor way of treating your body. Fix the issue before it becomes a problem by learning about your feet, working on foot strength and mobility, spending more time barefoot and making the transition to natural footwear.
Now I am not saying to trash all your shoes (although some will become addicted to the feeling of being connected to the ground and may never want to wear conventional shoes again!), it is important to remember that the dose makes the poison. You can wear those cute heels or narrow dress shoes on occasions without much consequence, but wearing them as your primary footwear for long periods of time will cause problems to develop at your foundation.
How to make the transition smooth
Switching to minimal shoes can be very liberating and beneficial... if you do it carefully.
A big part of the solution to resolving foot problems and preventing them in the future is switching to natural footwear that lets your feet become strong and mobile again.
The biggest mistake people make when switching to minimal footwear is transitioning too quickly. Switching to minimal shoes that engage all of those foot muscles differently can be a shock to your system and may lead to injury if not done appropriately. If you've spent decades walking in highly cushioned shoes with elevated heels, tapered toe boxes and arch supports, a slow transition to natural footwear is required to recondition and strengthen your feet.
You have a whole life of healthy feet ahead of you, so don't rush it! The benefits of natural strong, healthy feet are worth it.
Tips to get started:
- Start by spending time more time barefoot at home (it’s FREE)
- Walk before you run: gradually use a pair of natural shoes first as an everyday walking shoe. - Be mindful of how you walk with the goal of being as light as possible
- Work on foot mobility using a lacrosse ball & incorporate a pair of toe spreaders to help re-align foot into its natural shape
-Expose your feet to different textures and surfaces, the natural world is not made of flat wood and concrete
- Once you are able to walk in a pair of natural shoes without any issues, you can then start to incorporate walk/jog intervals as your starting point with running
- Always listen to your body and respect pain & soreness as feedback that you are doing too much too soon and must take it slower. Remember you haven’t used these muscles in a long time!
If you need help making the transition, we are happy to help guide you along the process and make sure your feet are doing their job to support the rest of your body.