There has been a barefoot revolution lately in the fitness industry. We’ve realized that modern shoewear have been restricting foot and ankle mobility and basically being just crutches to fix bad mechanics (if you’re foot pronates too much when you run, buy an anti-pronator running shoe; if your shins or your knees hurt, buy a shoe with more cushioning; if your foot is flat get a shoe with a good arch support, or get orthotics).
Never have we been thinking: “well, if your foot pronates too much, there might be a cause to it”. The shoe itself became a solution to a problem that most likely originates somewhere else. We never thought about analyzing biomechanics and assessing movement quality at the hips, knees and ankles.
But luckily, we’re coming to the realization that the shoes are not going to be the solution. This trend probably started with the popularity of the book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. A lot pf people started dropping anti-pronator shoes with an arch support and 2 inches cushioning to start running and training bare foot or in Vibram Five Fingers.
That caused another problem, though. People started getting injured because they transitioned too drastically to barefoot running and their body wasn’t ready for that. If you have a problem originating at the hips that cause your feet to overpronate and you jump to barefoot running, not only you’re not solving the problem, but you may be making it worse!
In the book Born to Run, McDougall talks about how the Tarahumara, a Mexican tribe, were one of the greatest groups of runners in the world and they were pretty much running barefoot (using thin leather sandals) and never got injured.
What we failed to realize about the Tarahumara is that they have been running for years and years barefoot, learning to run without shoes, building up their stamina while running barefoot (they probably didn’t start running 10 miles per day), they are very thin and light people who don’t present with any weight surplus whatsoever because they are a more active population than the average person in North America (which also means they probably don’t have as many movement dysfunctions and poor posture from sitting all day), and more than anything else the surface they are running on is soft: it’s DIRT! And we have much heavier people, with sub-par running mechanics, usually pretty deconditioned and running on concrete and asphalt and expecting to get the same benefits out of barefoot running as the Tarahumara?
So just dropping our shoewear altogether is probably not the right place to start. But at the same time it’s pretty obvious that we need to get away from the Nike Shox, Reebok Zig Tech, high top sneakers and 2 inches heel lift running shoes of this world. Before shoes, feet used to be hands; feet used to have dexterity and the brain used to have good motor control over the toes and how they’re moving. Modern days shoewear have completely deprived the feet of any proprioception. This is what feet should really look like:
With modern days shoewear that have made our feet and toes become lazy this what our feet now look like:
There is a problem with that! So where do we start if we don’t drop our very cushioned footwear completely? Here are a couple guidelines to help your feet become feet again:
- Fix any lower body movement pattern restrictions that you might have (having a symmetrical score of 14 on the FMS is a good place to start).
- Buy a pair of shoes with a thinner and more flexible sole to wear daily to get to work, go to school, when you go shopping, etc. Nike Free, New Balance Minimus, and Reebok RealFlex are all great options. You don’t have to wear them all day; you can start wearing them just a couple hours a day and progress from there if you’ve been having lower extremity issues or if you have a weight surplus.
- When you work out, do your warm up barefoot. That’ll be a good place to start to help your feet and your toes gain proprioception, and that won’t be too much stress on your body. You can go through dynamic stretching and low impact movement preparation drills.
- If you lift weights use a thin sole shoe like the ones mentioned above and do your posterior chain exercises (deadlift variations, pullthroughs, good mornings, etc) barefoot.
- If you run distances, keep your regular running shoes for a little while, but try to include some sprint work in your thin sole shoes on a soft surface (grass, dirt, turf, etc) to help improve your running stride and get more of a forefoot strike. This way you minimize the impacts and your body will adjust, instead of having the shoes do all the work without the presence of decent foot proprioception, which in turn leads to having too much of a heel strike when you run (a.k.a not a good thing because a heel strike forces your body into deceleration with every stride).
- After a couple weeks, you can slowly move to sprints barefoot or with Vibram Five Fingers, and start running in a running shoe that has a thinner sole and doesn’t restrict motion as much. If you’re running on concrete or asphalt, I would suggest you stay away from shoes that have too thin of a sole as those surfaces can take a beating on your lower extremeties.
- When you’re at home, try to walk barefoot as much as possible, and try to do proprioception drills for your feet and (especially) your toes.
- Hammer ankle and big toe mobility, as well as lower leg and plantar fascia soft-tissue work.
All of this should help your feet become feet again. Adequate proprioception of the feet and toes shouldn’t be neglected; they give your CNS important feedback that will lead to better stability, more efficient gait and running mechanics and limit the instance of injuries, especially in runnners. And don’t be surprised if your flat feet or high arches get fixed in the process.
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