«You only feel your foot when it touches the ground» .- Buddha
As Leonardo da Vinci said: “eThe foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art”. It is made up of an intricate network of muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and bones (a quarter of your bones are in your feet). The sole of the foot has a higher density of nerve endings than any other area of the body, offering the same sensory richness as the hands.
And what do we do with these sophisticated gifts of nature? Lock them up. Condemn them to isolation cells.
Like other animals, we walk barefoot for millions of years. The oldest known sandals are about 5,000 years old (detail). They offered protection, but did not alter our basic movement pattern.
So was almost all footwear for the last thousand years, until Nike altered the course of our feet in the 1970s. It convinced us that our natural biomechanics were unsuitable for sport. The era of cushioning was born. Inner tubes and several inches of heel became the norm. Our way of running changed and, therefore, our anatomy.
Let’s review some of the consequences of modern footwear.
Deform your feet and lose functionality
More than a hundred years ago, Dr. Philip Hoffman photographed feet in societies that had never known footwear. The fingers were spread apart, offering a stable base of support. And he compared them to feet that had worn shoes all their lives. Do you notice differences?
Not all damage is repairable, but your feet can regain some of their natural structure and functionality. Dr. Nick posted on his page a patient’s changes after two years of minimalist footwear. There is life after the confinement.
The problem is much bigger than deformed fingers (detail). Muscles atrophy (study), the natural arch weakens, and the fascia becomes stiffer.
Elevated heel shoes shorten the Achilles tendon, the strongest and thickest in the body. Our Achilles tendon was one of the evolutionary adaptations that allowed us to go from herbivores to hunters, giving rise to our advanced brain. This large tendon stores elastic energy, propelling you with each stride and reducing energy expenditure (study).
Something similar happens with the arch of the foot. It is our natural cushioning system. A dock with a dozen ligaments and four layers of muscles. By placing an external support under this arch you interfere with its operation, and it weakens over time, contributing to the high prevalence of flat feet (study, study).
External damping also affects your proprioceptive system. The sensory richness of the foot allows the brain to form a mental image of the terrain (unevenness, texture, irregularities, temperature …). When wearing shoes, this image arrives distorted, worsening balance and stability (study, study).
Your feet are your foundation. If they don’t offer good support, the rest of your body suffers.
Your posture worsens
The heel of the shoe carries the weight of the body towards the toes, causing a cascade of compensations upwards: rotated pelvis, lumbar hyperextension, advanced neck… (study). Sitting for hours increases the problem, but it all starts with the feet.
Very high-heeled women’s shoes are especially dangerous. A party with heels to accompany your evening dress is allowed. Wearing them daily in the office is a recipe for disaster:
- They are the direct cause of many falls and injuries (study).
- They modify the natural way of walking (study) and the structure of the fingers (detail).
- They impair posture: forward head, pelvic anteversion, knee or X knee … (review).
- A recent study concludes that very high heels (more than 8 cm) can cause knee osteoarthritis.
Increase risk of injury
Poor stability and posture increase your risk of injury in any activity. But they are not the only problem.
The weakness of the bridge, your natural cushioning, along with a short and loaded Achilles tendon (study), put great tension on the fascia, which becomes inflamed, leading to plantar fasciitis.
The “solution” of many experts is the same as always, treat the symptom. Add more support and protection, relieving symptoms in the short term, but further weakening the foot.
Risk is magnified by running. 70-90% of runners get injured (study, study), despite all the “advances” in footwear in recent decades. Any species in the wild with these rates of running injury would have long been extinct.
Is it possible that too much cushioning is really to blame for much of these injuries? The evidence finds Nike guilty:
- In this study, runners with footwear reported more injuries than those who ran barefoot.
- Several studies indicate that the more expensive and sophisticated the footwear, the more injuries occur. Those who wore sneakers over $ 90 had twice as many injuries as those who wore sneakers over $ 40. For double the price, you have double the pain.
- Spending more money analyzing your footprint to select running shoes also does not reduce injuries, and can even increase risk (study, study, study).
- According to a study by the American army, injuries are more frequent in those who wear conventional footwear compared to those who run with minimalist footwear.
Definitely your running biomechanics are more important in reducing injuries than footwear. But footwear conditions your biomechanics.
When running barefoot (or in minimalist footwear) no one would land on the heel. Intuitively you prioritize the front or the middle of the foot, in itself less damaging (study). Practical example: try jumping as high as you can, right you wouldn’t think of landing on your heel? Well, the same when running.
Heel also generates a high initial impact peak (shockwave), potentially damaging to the knee and hip. This effect disappears when starting contact with the front or central part of the foot, without blocking the ankle or knee, facilitating the natural cushioning of our body (detail).
A real example. While the typical runner strides and lands steadily on the heel, the barefoot runner lands under their body, close to their center of gravity, without stretching their leg, minimizing ground contact time and taking advantage of natural elastic force. .
There are different running techniques, but all the good ones share many elements. A good example is Romanov’s Pose method.
Impacts cognitive development in babies
According to many experts, the main function of the brain is to control movement. In fact, movement shapes the brain.
An interesting paper, subtitled “Barefoot children equal smarter children”, Details how Pre-walking and crawling shoes interfere with psychomotor development of the child. Some messages:
- In the first years of life, moving barefoot is essential for the proper development of the nervous system.
- Motor development is the substrate of intellectual development. It is essential to access higher thought processes.
- Taking your own feet produces experiences on the limits of your own body, and consequently cognitive development. Bare feet and feet brought to the mouth help the maturity of proprioception.
- We must not suppress the tactile sensitivity of the feet by wearing them. They inform about the outside world, transmitting sensations of temperature, textures … that favor the psychomotor development of the child. We must take care of and promote the freedom of movement of feet and fingers.
- The child needs tactile stimulation, pressure, and irregularities in the terrain to develop proprioception, improve joint position and strengthen muscles.
The final conclusion is clear: “We must not impede the child’s proprioceptive, neuromuscular and intellectual development by enclosing their feet in shoes that they do not need, on the contrary, children should be encouraged to enjoy their body and their motor skills with bare feet”.
In adults, we have at least one study that finds better mood in runners wearing minimalist footwear, and it is investigating how the increased sensory richness of the feet can act as an antidepressant.
Disconnects you from the earth
With cushioned shoes, the terrain is always the same for your brain. It does not perceive if you walk on stones, grass, sand or concrete. As a result, it ends up ignoring the information it receives from the thousands of nerve endings in the foot. Walking barefoot reactivates that enormous sensory flow. The basic walking experience becomes magical.
Shoes for every occasion
If you fear the impact on your social life of going barefoot on the street, do not suffer. It is not necessary to go to that extreme. It is not about avoiding footwear, but about choose it better. There are more and more options, for all tastes and occasions.
Simply walking more in minimalist footwear strengthens your feet (study). Over time, your performance will also improve, as this study indicates in children who spent more time barefoot (study).
Any minimalist footwear should adhere to these basic rules:
- Flexibility: it should not limit the movement of the foot in any direction.
- Wide toe: do not compress your fingers.
- No damping: thin sole, which protects but allows feel the land.
- Minimum «drop»: known as drop to the elevation of the heel, or unevenness between the heel and the metatarsal. Normal footwear has a 1-2 cm drop, while the ideal would be zero. But a gradual reduction should be made. Starting with 4-8mm is acceptable.
- Vibram FiveFinger: the quintessential minimalist shoe and one of my favorites (I have several pairs). The individual space for each finger facilitates the recovery of its natural shape. Very comfortable to walk, but I do not recommend using them for running without a long transition before, with a new way of running.
- Merrel vapor glove: Less flashy than the five fingers and at more moderate prices.
- Saguaro: Minimalist footwear of reasonable quality at a good price.
Even Nike seems to have understood the importance of freeing your feet.
Transition: the path to freedom
Despite the enormous benefits experienced by many of those who have freed their feet from the tyranny of shoes, some experts warn of the increased injury by becoming minimalist (example, example). And they are right.
Your feet have been in a cast for decades. What happens when you get a limb in a cast? Muscles atrophy, bones weaken, and the proprioceptive system is inhibited. Your feet need rehabilitation.
From walking in heels and running with 2 cm of rubber under the heel, you cannot jump barefoot into the mountains. With high probability the result will be an injury. As always, you must move well before moving much.
In the second part we talk about how to transition to a less oppressive life, at least for your feet. The path to freedom is built step by step.
Read now the second part