“The human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.”
Okay ladies, I know you love those cute shoes you scored for a screaming deal on Black Friday! The cute heels (that really aren’t too high), peep toe, patten leather…how could you resist, right? Shoes absolutely make the outfit! And, believe me, as a 6’0″ woman who spent years wanting to minimize my height, I’m very aware that finding an attractive flat shoe is much easier said than done.
But, your feet are the foundation for your entire body structure. The human foot is comprised of 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles and tendons. All of the tiny structures of your feet combine to create a supportive yet resilient structure that carries you in standing and moving.
Unfortunately, Western society suffers from “Urban Foot Syndrome;” our feet are habitually crammed into poorly designed footwear that cramps and limits the movement of our bones, joints, tendons and ligaments. Further complicating the issue, when our feet fail us and plague us with pain and inflammation due to the fact that they’re squished into faulty footwear, we add more devices, lifts, arch supports, and other “corrective” paraphernalia to our shoes in an effort to prop the foot into a natural position.
All of this stabilization of the foot negates is natural purpose: movement! Have you ever felt a cat’s paw? Have you worked your fingers between their toes, squished around the tiny little bones? If you have, you’ll know how soft and malleable their feet are. If you haven’t had this experience, quick, find a cat, preferably one with clean paws and trimmed claws!
Our feet should be as soft and pliable as the cat’s paw. This would allow us to adapt to uneven surfaces, like rocks, dirt paths, hillsides, tufts of grass, etc. Urban warriors live in a world of paved roads and paths, staircases built into our city trails. Everything is smooth and even, so our feet don’t have much of a chance to feel what it’s like to walk with the earth.
The images below are from a study published in 1905 by the American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery.
Notice how the shod feet have restructured themselves to look exactly like the shape of the shoes. That’s not a natural shape for a human foot! Even more frightening is the below image comparing a modern, high-heeled shoe and ancient Chinese foot binding.
“When a woman wears a high heeled shoe, the anatomy is changed and the pressure is put on the heads of the metatarsals rather than the base where it is designed to be (shown in the picture).” Beverly Hills Aesthetic Foot Surgery
High heels are a form of modern day foot binding. They make our feet appear smaller, cuter, and make women look taller. Rarely does a trip to Nordstrom or Macy’s reveal hot new trends in flexible, natural footwear. Our footwear is mostly driven by the fashion industry, and stilettos aren’t showing any sign of vanishing soon.
Raising the heel any amount affects the posture of the entire body, shifts the balance of weight in the foot, and causes changes to spinal curvature. As you can see in the diagram below, there is a natural plumb line that falls down the lateral side of your body (Figure A). When you are standing with your weight properly balanced over your feet, the spine and back are relaxed and balanced, allowing freedom of movement.
In Figure B, the addition of high heels shifts the plumb line. It’s impossible to stay upright with weight centered over the eye of the foot (the space just in front of your heel) when wearing heels. Instead, it’s necessary to contract the muscles of the lower back, pulling your weight over your center of gravity again. As you can see in Figure C, this causes increased curvature of the lumbar spine (lower back), resulting in back pain and other tension throughout the body.
What does a natural foot look like? Studies done by the American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery show that in native barefoot population of the Philippines and Central Africa, the toes spread easily and naturally to create a wide base of support for standing and walking. Also, you can draw a line from the big toe through the ball and heel of the foot. No such line exists in the shod foot.
The world-record for the marathon was set by Ethiopian Abebe Bikila. He ran it in 2:15:17 at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
“People have been running barefoot for millions of years and it has only been since 1972 that people have been wearing shoes with thick, synthetic heels,” said Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. Studies and anecdotal evidence alike have shown that the thick-soled, highly supportive shoes popularized by companies such as Nike have done nothing to decrease injury and incidences of plantar fascitis. From a purely functional standpoint, these shoes just don’t make sense.
Your foot was created to be the perfect springboard, propelling you forward with every step. There is a highly sophisticated system of ligaments connecting the bones of the foot. Three arches transfer weight during walking: medial, lateral, and transverse. The medial arch is the one most people are familiar with and is found on the inside of your foot. The lateral arch runs parallel to that, and the transverse arch is just behind your toes.
Your medial arch collapses with each step as the weight of your body comes over it. The ligaments stretch, triggering proprioceptors (cells that tell your body where it is in space and how much each muscle fiber has been stretched). The proprioceptors send a signal to your brain that they’ve been stretched, causing a contraction to take place that propels the arch upwards, and your body forwards.
When you insert an arch support under this amazing structure, it defeats the whole purpose of having an arch in the first place. Yes, now your foot is lifted and you may temporarily experience less back pain, but in the long run, you’ve taken away your gas pedal. Now every step costs you extra tension and more work; you’re no longer moving forward efficiently.
That increased level of tension results in new, different aches and pains. The quadricep muscles become hypertonic – overly contracted – pulling your pelvis forward and causing your hamstrings to shorten in response. This results in…you guessed it! More back pain.
Natural walking feels like floating. It’s as though your body is suspended from an invisible hook in the sky as your feet glide across the earth, stepping effortlessly on hillocks, pebbles, curves and dips in the ground. The Native Americans commented with European settlement that the “white man bruises the earth with his step.” Natural walking allows you to walk with the earth, feeling the texture of the ground beneath your feet.
So how do you get the natural walking effect in an urban jungle?
The challenge for most of us is that, even if it were acceptable to go barefoot everywhere, it’s just not safe. The streets are littered with debris like broken glass and rusty nails, and no one wants a fungal infection from traipsing barefoot through gyms, grocery stores, and other high-traffic locales. But if you’re looking for that barefoot feeling, you’re in luck!
Lately, shoe companies have gotten hip to the fact that the Africans are kicking our butts in the Olympics…barefoot. They’re developing shoes that mimic the experience while still providing protection from the elements. Some of the best picks include the Vibram 5 Finger Technology and Nike Free.
“But I have flat feet…”
So do babies. Arches aren’t created until we start walking as children – and the key word there is created. Adding arch support to flat feet doesn’t create an arch, it props the foot up, like putting a jack under a car with a flat tire.
Arch supports may be appropriate for a time while you work to create a more functional foot, but you’ll want to wean yourself off of them by increasing the time that your foot is without support. Arch supports cause the muscles in your foot to become flaccid and lazy because the wedge is doing all the work. Strengthen your feet by walking barefoot (or in barefoot technology shoes), starting with 15 minutes a day and increasing the time by five minute increments each week. Also, simply laying a towel on a slick floor, such as tile, linoleum, or hardwood, and using your bare foot to scrunch the towel and then spread it out again will work the muscles of the foot, building your arch.
For athletes and other active individuals, I highly recommend training barefoot. I competed in kettlebells and always lifted barefoot – squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, keg walks, jerks…you name it, I was doing it barefoot. During competitions, I used a thin, bendable shoe that closely mimicked barefoot lifting. I even traded in my stiff, rigid riding boots for a flexible, moccasin-like boot that protected my foot while still giving me sensory perception and mobility for horseback riding.
You’ll be amazed when you begin to restore your relationship with your feet how your entire body shifts; tension melts, pain disappears, and you have more energy.