Major shoe companies have done an effective job marketing the message that all shoes are designed to be healthy for your feet, to improve your performance, and can enhance your movement. Unfortunately, this is 100% FALSE. In fact, they f**k your feet. It’s amazing how much power and influence the big brand shoe industry has on our perception of what’s beneficial, chasing style over function.
Now, before you jump all over me for bashing your favorite pair of Air-Jordan’s, let me explain…
Shoes serve one purpose:to protect the bottom of our feet from potential damage. That is all. They are NOT meant to “control motion,” make us jump higher, or lift more weight. Our feet were designed to be barefoot,, and barefoot is how they function best. They should be dexterous like our hands, splayed out, and grippy to the ground. Shoes prevent this from happening, molding our feet into whatever style of shoe we choose. Just look at the feet of a ballerina and you will see the effects of constraining footwear.
If you’ve ever broken a bone, you know what the affected body part looks like after 6-8 weeks of being in a cast, all atrophied and weak. This is exactly what our shoes do to our feet over time. In today’s society, it’s “normal” for humans to have weak, fragile, stiff and painful feet, but you CAN change that at any point by spending time barefoot, switching to natural footwear, and strengthening and working on your foot mobility.
Go Barefoot? I Ain’t No Hippie
Although going barefoot is typically associated with the 70’s, tie-dye, free love, and Cheech and Chong, it is also the mark of strong, healthy, durable feet. The muscles that control your arch need to be strengthened, just like our biceps or hamstrings, and the best way to provide a beneficial stress to these muscle groups is by being barefoot. So why is going barefoot so essential? For one, bare feet don’t stink or grow fungus. Your shoes are responsible for that. Ditch them. Your partner thanks you.
Smelly feet aside, the stiffness of shoes prevents natural motion from occurring at the foot and ankle by squishing the toes together. This limits the toes from being able to spread out and put your foot muscles in a good position to function optimally. As a result, we have the majority of people exhibiting a “duck footed” standing and walking posture. Standing and walking like Donald Duck means more rolling in and fattening of the arch, effectively relying on the soft tissue structures like the plantar fascia to bear all of our weight. It also puts more load and twisting force through the knees and encourages you to roll off the inside of the big toe, causing you to not only propel inefficiently, but also increasing the chance of developing bunions and muscle imbalances up the kinetic chain.
Are You Vibrating at My Frequency?
Every surface we walk on delivers a different kind of vibration energy; this is very valuable information that tells our brain where our body is in our environment so we don’t trip and fall. It also provides details regarding balance and reaction time, which is essential for improving athleticism. Cushioned shoes inherently absorb this vibration. We need to be able to sense those impact forces in order to store potential energy and take the next step, jump, change direction, etc. Shoes take away some of that potential energy, forcing our musculoskeletal system in the calf and thigh to work harder. We must now use more energy and take more time to think about the task at hand, decreasing reaction time, speed, and force potential.
The bottom of your foot also contains one of the highest concentration of mechanoreceptors in the body. When the foot is exposed to different textures of surfaces, like wood, carpet, tile, hardwood, rubber, etc, there is a greater stimulation of these sensors that helps “turn up the volume in the brain.” This heightens the activity of your central nervous system and makes your brain’s mental image of your feet more clear, improving reaction time, speed, and rate of muscle contraction. Shoes inherently block this communication between your feet and your brain.
Now, shoes and cleats are necessary when it comes to field and court sports. We need these for protection and to enhance our sport specific playing potential. But, have you ever found yourself saying “I need a new pair of shoes because my feet are starting to hurt in these?” As soon as that cushion in your shoe wears down, your feet now have no choice to be active! Those muscles have been on vacation and are now pissed they need to go back to work. The foot is not adapted to handle the load of your body weight, let alone the impact forces imposed by running and jumping, leaving you resting on a hammock of plantar fascia. This leads to the oh so common complaint of plantar fasciitis – that dreaded disease that wreaks havoc on so many feet in this country. However, taking the time to build durability in these tissues will expand your capacity to tolerate load, saving you time and money that would otherwise go wasted to extra cushion, supports, and unnecessary orthotics.
The Solution is Simple, Not Easy
By this point, you are probably thinking “Yeah, Dr. Z, all of this sounds great but I have this little thing called work that requires shoes be on my feet at all times.” You would be correct. This is the unfortunate situation for most of us. We all can’t be employed in Hawaii, where slippahs and barefeet are king. That being said, I would never ask you to quit shoes all together cold turkey. For one, it would be unrealistic, and in fact, could potentially be detrimental to safely allowing your feet to adapt to a barefoot lifestyle. Remember those Vibram 5 Fingers? Where did they go? Well, they caught a bad rap because people jumped in too quickly and began running marathons in them without ever letting their feet progressively adapt to the new forces. Pain and lawsuits ensued.
Instead, I urge you to tread lightly. If you are used to shoes with a greater than 3mm heel to toe drop differential, or wearing orthotics, begin by taking out your insoles. Let your feet adapt to less cushion, then seek out a flat shoe like Vans for everyday wear and training. The adaptation process will be unique to the individual, but most of my clients will see tolerance improvements within 6-8 weeks. Let uncomfortable soreness be your guide. Wear flatter shoes until you begin to sense discomfort, then throw in your inserts or switch back to more cushioned shoes. Try and progress by increasing the time to discomfort each day. The same guidelines apply to switching from shoes to going barefoot.
Personally, it took me over a 3 year time period to completely get rid of shoes and be comfortable on all surfaces. In that span of time, my shoe size even decreased from a 12.5 to an 11 as the arches in my feet grew stronger and pulled it higher, effectively shortening the length of my foot. This is possible for you too!
If you want to enhance your progress, I also recommended incorporating foot strengthening exercises like the toe isometric movement below. These can be done every day, and even under your desk at work!
Master Your Movement: UnF**ck Your Feet
You need to FEED your nervous system just as you feed your body full of nutrients for fuel.
Here’s your nutrition protocol. Protect. Correct. Develop.
Protect your feet by ditching shitty shoes that are compressing your toes. Correct your movement patterns by wearing toe spreaders, walking more often, and training barefoot on your toes. Develop your feet through consistent and frequent strength training, balance work, and loaded mobility.
Foot pain isn’t a foot problem, it’s an environmentally driven problem due to low vibration. And because of the relationship between the foot, knee, and hip, it is also related to Achilles tendonitis, runners knee, and ITB syndromes. If you need help with any of these issues, check out your feet and contact Power Athlete Training for a program developed specifically for your needs.
EDU: Power Athlete Foot Health Course by Dr. Matt Zanis
BLOG: Training Foot Health: The Kinetic Chain by Dr. Matt Zanis
BLOG: Rehab to Performance – What’s Missing? by Dr. Matt Zanis
BLOG: Attacking Limiting Factors – Arch Development by Tex McQuilkin
PODCAST: Power Athlete Radio Episode 377 – Feet, Fascia, & Dr. Emily Splichal
PT, DPT, FAAOMPT, OCS, ATC, CSCS Former baseball catcher and an avid outdoorsman. Worked with Division 1 basketball, football, and track and field at the University of Pittsburgh, along with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Cardinals organizations. Received a Bachelors in Athletic Training from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011 and a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Duke University in 2014. Is board certified in Orthopedics and a Fellow through the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists. Is a PT with the United States Olympic Committee and USA Shooting. Currently operates his performance therapy practice in Scottsdale, AZ with Dr. Tom Incledon of Causenta Wellness, and became a Power Athlete Block One Coach in September of 2017.
Dr. Zanis utilizes the Power Athlete Methodology to optimize performance, reduce injury risk, and rehab his clients and athletes through movement assessment, coaching, and individualized program design.
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