Last week I talked about how I'd Rather be Barefoot and I got a lot of great feedback from readers like yourself so I wanted to take the topic one step further and talk about what to look for when buying your next pair of shoes.
Now as a side note, I'm not a medical doctor so if you have a physician telling you something contrary to what I've written, listen to them. That being said, I highly suggest you do some research on the foot, its mechanics, and learn how it works. Only then will you realize that the shoes you're wearing to help you are probably hurting you.
The most natural state for the foot is to be barefoot.
This should be obvious since we aren't born with shoes, however, we are born with some pretty neat technology already built into our feet.
So before we get into discussing some guidelines for your next footwear purchase, let's first talk about your feet and what makes them so great in the first place.
What Makes our Feet so Neat
Arches are among some of the strongest and sturdiest structures found in the world. You can look back thousands of years and see arches being used in architecture that still stand to this day (think Roman Aqueducts or the walls of the Colosseum). Arches are unique because they can support great loads and do not need center-load support. When you look at a bridge built using arches do you see any center-load support? Of course not! Because arches distribute their load to their peripheries.
So why is it then that there's such a big trend in having arch support in your shoes? We will revisit this idea in a little bit.
As the musculature of the foot is stretched and loaded (think running) it acts like a spring. If you watch someone properly jump rope, their heels never touch the ground. That's because our feet have evolved into super efficient spring loaded body movers.
Going hand in hand (or should I say foot in foot) with the arches are your Achilles Tendons. These massively robust tendons connect the musculature of your calves with your feet and allow for efficient power transfer and extension of the foot which aids in running, jumping, etc.
The achilles tendon is incredibly robust, however, when neglected and abused they tear, causing a long and painful recovery.
The ankle is fairly complex with a lot of surrounding tendons protecting the joint while at the same time enabling it to move in multiple directions. It is a very robust joint and takes a lot of beating and usually receives very little love. Think of how often you walk, run, swim, jump, change directions, or kick. Your ankles are sturdy enough to handle incredible amounts of force but delicate enough to create high precision control.
There are a staggering number of people who have ankle issues and it's really such a shame. When I'm coaching athletes in the gym, on any given day, I'd say only 1 out of 8 people I'm working with has full range of motion in their ankles. Everyone else has some sort of limitation to one degree or another. And don't get me wrong, I work with some very high level athletes!
Our toes should naturally splay, creating a wide stable base that provides balance and aids in agility. In a healthy human foot, when barefoot, your toes shouldn't (or at least barely) be touching. Like the old saying goes, you can't build a good home without a solid foundation. The same goes with your feet. Proper posture and peak performance is built from the ground up.
A GUIDE TO SHOES
So here's the bottom line. There are good shoes and there are bad shoes in terms of how they'll affect your physiology. There are also appropriate times to wear shoes, and there are times where you shouldn't wear shoes. Like I've stated in this post as well as other posts, shoes do A LOT of good. They allow us better traction, protection, and specialization to perform at our best in nearly any given situation, climate, and condition.
Please remember, there are always exceptions to the rules, especially when you get into specialty shoes like sports footwear but for all the other times when you need to wear shoes, follow these guidelines and you'll be one step closer to a barefoot model.
The words "Zero Drop" or "Minimalist" shoes are pretty trendy right now and for good reason. First let's define a zero drop shoe... A zero drop shoe is any shoe where your feet and toes are at the same level (think barefoot). The opposite of this would be high heeled shoes. As a quick side note ladies, you don't look good in high heeled shoes. I don't care what TV and magazines say, intentionally handicapping your body rendering yourself useless isn't attractive.
What happens when your heel is raised above your toes is that it throws off your posture by sending your joints out of alignment causing the weight of your body to be supported in creative ways other than through efficient use of your musculature. High heeled shoes, dress shoes, work boots, running shoes, and nearly every other shoe on the market has some form of a "drop" with some being more severe than others.
By going zero drop you'll reset your bodies ability to obtain a neutral posture and keep your achilles from shortening.
Arches Don't Need Support!
There's a myth out there that your arches need supporting but arches by nature do not need center-loaded support to function properly. So why do we have industries built around orthotics and shoes with built in arch support?
Generally speaking, most people don't walk or run properly and wear shoes that prevent their feet from working the way they should. Therefore, over time you'll need arch support because if you want duck footed (feet turned outward 10 o'clock 2 o'clock) your foot will roll sideways causing your arches to collapse and your ankles to be sheared off axis. Over time this creates bad motor patterns that only make the issue worse creating an ever more dependent need on arch support.
This is also one of the reasons people develop bunions, calloused feet, and bone spurs. It's all because you're not walking properly (toes pointed forward and arches activated). The good news is that collapsed arches can be reclaimed through various mobility techniques.
Skip the Ankle Support
There's another myth that you need ankle support. What happens when you create high levels of ankle support is that you can no longer hinge your ankles the way they're supposed to. The supporting tendons around the ankle joint never get an opportunity to move around and therefore become short and tight. Over time you are handicapping yourself and yet again creating a dependency on the shoes that are supposedly helping you!
You were born with all the ankle support you need already built in.
A Wide Toe Box
It's important that your toes are able to splay even when inside your shoes. Dress shoes are notorious for having tiny cramped toe boxes that cause peoples feet toes to turn into triangles all in the name of style. This prevents you from being able to properly balance and you lose your ability to be agile.
Think of someone trying to run in high heeled shoes. Between the tiny toe box and the raised heel (and sometimes restricted ankle support depending on the style) it's no wonder the wearer can barely stand up! I find it humorous that so many people subject themselves to such clown-like torture but maybe that's just me.
There are definitely times when you're going to need to wear a shoe that goes against what we've talked about here. In sports it's very common for athletes to wear shoes that sacrifice foot health in the name of boosting performance. But when you're done with your sport, take the shoes off and get your feet healthy again!
Now let's say you read this and you've reached a new realization about footwear and determine it's time for you so make some changes. My word of caution is this...
Your feet didn't become unhealthy overnight, they aren't going to get better overnight.
When you go from high heeled, ankle supported, small toe boxed, foot abusing shoes to zero drop, wide toe boxed, barefoot-esque shoes too quickly, you run the risk of injuring your feet.
Wait what?! So now wearing the RIGHT shoes is going to hurt me?! You need to transition to shoes that are better for you over time and expose your feet to more barefoot activities as you go. Don't just jump right into it.
If you normally wear a shoe with 12 degrees of heel drop, next pair of shoes go to 8, then 4, then 0. Let your body be your guide. The last thing you want to do is injure your feet. After all, that's the whole point of this article is to educate you so you can make proper choices on how you can keep your feet healthy.
Be smart about your footwear decisions and next time you go to buy shoes, make a conscious effort to analyze the shoe to see if it will be good for you based on it's attributes, not just because it's the latest trend or a limited edition color.
Remember, the closer you can get to barefoot, the better. You can reverse the damage you've done to your feet through mobilization and proper footwear so don't think it's too late. Take care of your feet and your feet with take care of you.
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