Bunions, hammer toes, heel spurs, plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome (“Runner’s Knee”), sciatica nerve pain, and the list goes on! Do these conditions sound like pretty typical things we experience here in the West? Do you ever see ads on public transportation, highway road signs or the TV for podiatry or orthopedic clinics that treat these problems? Ever walked into the shoe support section of the pharmacy and seen tons of varieties of different insoles that are supposed to offer just the right amount of support for you feet?
This is our modern life.
Genealogy of Footwear
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t wear shoes, and neither do our modern hunter-gatherer cousins from around the globe, (the Kalahari Bushmen, the Piraha of the Amazon, the Batak of the Phillippines). Yet, they do not suffer from the same chronic pain that we do despite all of our vast technology and cushy, ergonomic comforts. Besides our numerous differences in diet and lifestyle, one of the biggest reasons we as a society, have foot, knee, and hip problems is because we wear modern shoes. We are introduced to them when we are toddlers just beginning to walk, and we stay in them for most of the day as we get older. Most of us wear mass-produced shoes that are medium width, and have at least a small heel lift. If you look at our feet, every single one of us has a different width, and not a single person naturally walks only on their toes. Modern footwear actually deforms our feet by squeezing our toes into toeboxes that are too narrow, and shortening our Achilles tendon by keeping the heel elevated. As we walk, due to the elevated heel, we tend to try to lift our feet higher, but the only way to do that is to hyperextend our leg and excessively dorsiflex the ankle. As we plant, we let the heel slam against the ground. When we try to run, we end up with a similar style gait, only we land a lot harder.
How Running Style Affects Your Feet
The ideal gait for humans is one that uses our system of joints as natural shock absorbers. When we take a step, our lead leg should have a slight bend to it. When that foot plants, it should plant gently in the heel, and then roll off for the next foot to plant in the same manner. When we run, our planting naturally shifts from the heel toward the forefoot, which allows us to better absorb the shock of each step in rapid succession. The arch of the foot, the ankle joint going into a slight dorsiflexion, and the flexion of the knee and the hips all allow for the body to utilize its innate shock-absorbing system. When we lock out these joints and flatten our foot arches, we negate this natural absorption system, and the increased shock takes a toll on our bodies.
Our modern sneakers actually came around in the 1970’s, when athletic shoe companies were trying to find a way to gain a marketing edge over the products of their competitors. The innocuous habit of jogging eventually became a selling point for ankle stabilizing sneakers, portraying running as a potentially dangerous hobby that requires the assistance of these patented technologies. No research has ever shown that any of these expensive sneakers actually have a positive effect on injury prevention. On the contrary, researchers have found that these shoes actually cause an increase in injuries!
Balance Through Footwear
All of the muscular imbalances that poor footwear cause also cause very bad balance. Whenever we stand on one leg or go on our tip-toes, or even slip off a curb, the strength of our feet and calves are supposed to work together to prevent us from falling over or rolling our ankle. In order to retrain our lower extremities, we need to strengthen these atrophied muscles by regularly practicing standing on one leg, curling our toes (almost as if into a fist), and doing standing calf raises with first both feet and then progress to one foot, without holding on to anything for stability. Standing on a BOSU ball with the flat side up with both feet first and then progressing to just one foot is another great exercise. When the BOSU ball gets too easy, using a balance board would be the next level of progression.
When I am working with new clients, I suggest taking off the shoes during the assessment phase so I can identify foot and ankle dysfunctions. I also offer suggestions for new footwear here.
About Rui Li