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Your Shoes are Making You Slow, Weak, Stiff and In-Pain!
Meet Your Feet
Busting Myths About Proper Footwear
The Worst Shoe Hall of Shame List
Plantar Fasciitis and Shoes
What to Look for When Buying a Shoe
By Brian Copeland
Warning, don't read this article if you are afraid of change!
Many people in an effort to do what is healthy spend a lot of money on high-tech shoes which offer everything from fitness, healthy feet, pain-relief, etc. But the real story on shoes is a little darker than that.
Meet Your Feet
If you have been reading any of my articles or worked with me in-person you by now understand the importance of joint mobility in every single joint of the human body.
The three areas of the human body with the most joints are...
The Skull with 142 joints or "sutures" tops out the list
The Hands with 50 joints in each comes in second
And the Feet with 30 to potentially over 37 joints rounds off our top 3 areas
Now you can look in various medical texts and find arguments about how many joints are in each of these areas based on what is counted as a joint and what is counted as a facet, but that is not relevant to our conversation, what is relevant is that these areas contain the most joints.
Interestingly enough most of the joints in the human skull cannot be moved actively, meaning there are no specific muscles to move them like you would move your elbow, the TMJ (your jaw) being a significant exception. Having said that there are ways to passively move these joints but we will curb that for another discussion.
The human hand has lots of joints and typically they move fairly well because we use them so much in our daily lives.
But the foot my friends... when was the last time you exercised your foot?
Some other facts about a human foot:
There are 26 bones in one human foot
There are 107 ligaments
There are 19 muscles and tendons
The great Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci, the first individual to create accurate anatomical drawings of the foot, called them "a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art."
Your feet mirror your general health. Such conditions as arthritis, diabetes, nerve and circulatory disorders can show their initial symptoms in the feet -- so foot ailments can be your first sign of more serious medical problems.
The average sedentary person takes about 3,000 steps per day with active people taking over 10,000 steps per day!
With each step your foot strikes the ground with roughly 3 to 4 times bodyweight... multiply your bodyweight X 3 to get each footfall's weight and that number by 3,000 steps per day to get the total load in pounds on your feet per day... for me at 200lbs X 3 = 600lbs x 10,000 minimum steps per day for over 6 million pounds of load per day!
Each foot strike of Usain Bolt, the world-record holder in the 100 meter sprint, hits the ground with over 1,200 lbs of force!!!! Athletes need strong mobile feet and shoes that help develop that strength and mobility.
Clearly your feet are workhorses.
Now let me ask you an important question...Do you believe that those bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles of your feet are made of a different type of material than the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles of any other part of your body?
No of course they are not, they are the same as the rest of your musculo-skeletal system... so why do you treat them different than the rest of your body by not exercising them and wearing restrictive casts (shoes) on your feet? ... stick with me.
Myths About Feet: Arches vs. Flat Feet, Pronators & Supinators
If you have visited a specialty shoe store, especially one that specializes in jogging you will have no doubt encountered some minimum wage earning kid with a special machine that can read the action of your foot to determine which shoe inserts you need...
"Oh ma'am you are an excessive pronator so you need a special shoe insert with extra arch support."
"Oh you have really high arches so you need extra arch support"... or
"Oh you have really low arches so you need extra arch support"... or
"Oh you have really normal arches so you need extra arch support"...
... huh? really?
The Human Gait Cycle
In a normal human gait, the foot is supposed to land on the calcaneous (heel bone) in a moderate degree of supination (on the outside of the foot) and then as you roll through the mid-foot to the ball of the foot you transition to a moderate state of pronation (pushing off of the inside of the foot).
This is normal. That is why you will mostly wear away the sole of your shoe on the outside heel of your shoe first, then the big toe area next.
Are there people with excessive pronation or supination? Yes
Do you need special inserts to fix that problem? No!
Baring a significant birth-defect someone who over supinates or pronates their foot can get fixed in just a few minutes with some foot mobility drills from Z-Health. I used to be an over supinator... I fixed it.
What about high arches or low arches or no arches?
Once again I will say "who cares?"
It is not bad to have high or low arches. Low arches, flat feet or "fallen arches" are simply very mobile ankles, nothing more nothing less. If you don't like the way they look we do have some ability to rebuild the arches through specific targeted mobility and strength drills.
The fastest sprinters in the world have flat feet.
Some of the best boxers in the world like Muhammad Ali had high arches.
Both of these athletes wear shoes with zero arch support!
I have high arches and wear zero arch support.
Your body is perfectly designed to move naturally without any high-tech mumbo jumbo trying to change your natural movement. You are not a cyborg!
Having said that, you do have the responsibility to make sure all of your joints, especially those in the feet, move well so that you can have healthy, natural, pain-free movement.
What Are Bad Shoes & Why Are They So Bad?
Bad shoes are defined as this, "anything that alters the natural way your foot was meant to contact the ground and anything that alters normal human gait."
What are characteristics of a bad shoe you ask?
Any degree of elevated heel
Any degree of arch support
A small toe box (toes crammed for space and jammed together)
Inflexibility throughout mid-sole
Any degree of heel cup / support
Let's explore each of these and why they are so bad.
Women by far and away have more low back pain than men. Now maybe God or evolution (depending your how you choose to look at it) likes men better than women... or probably more likely it has to do with the elevated heel that is more pronounced in women's footwear.
The elevated heel shifts your body into a forward pitch, to keep from falling over you lean back. Where do you lean back from? From the low back of course. Now there is excessive extension in the lumbar spine which causes wear and tear that leads to back pain.
Even men's dress, casual and exercise shoes have an elevated heel, go ahead, take a look at them. Now throw them in the trash where they belong and order the types of shoes I recommend in this article. ... stick with me.
You don't need arch support, you already have it... it is called the joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments of your foot. These structures are designed as a shock absorbing system. Adding an artificial arch support simply allows these structures to get weak, stiff and will lead to a number of body-wide dysfunctions.
Ditch the arch supports and let your feet get strong. Sometimes this is a process and you may need a transition shoe with a moderate arch for the first couple of months but that also depends on the current state of health of your feet, how many hours per day you are on your feet and what type of surface you walk on.
But as a general rule, you want to work towards zero arch support.
Small Toe Box
I think the first man to design women's shoes was a woman hater. For some reason women's shoes come to a point which forces their toes to jam together in an uncomfortable, but stylish and frankly masochistic display of foot abuse.
This leads to bunions, hammer toes and a number of other skeletal deformities.
Ladies, if you want to look nice on the town for a special occasion then go ahead and wear your cute shoes with the high heels and points... but the rest of the time you should wear a shoe that does not disfigure your foot.
Inflexible Through Mid-Sole
Can your shoes do this...
Go ahead, grab your shoe, I'll wait.... hurry up!
Modern shoes have a piece of metal or thick stiff plastic inserted from the heel to the ball of the foot making them stiff.
Unless you have an approved shoe it likely only flexes at the toes.
Your foot moves in 3 dimensions, don't you think your shoe should too?
Restrictive shoes prevent the foot joints from moving, joints that stop moving turn into bones! You don't want a foot bone you want a lot of foot joints. The moral of the story, get a shoe that bends and twists from toes to mid-sole to heel.
Too Tight and Heel Cup
I decided to combine these two since I have a video that nicely summarizes what happens when you jam joints and make them immobile... observe comrades!
What you just saw a demo of is called the arthorkenetic reflex. Too much to go into right now but just remember that when joints get compressed the nervous system normally responds by creating weakness and tightness. Mobility in your joints creates movement and strength.
Now do you think that turning your hamstrings off is a good or bad idea? Right, bad news!
Do you remember how many steps a sedentary person takes on average per day? About 3,000! Now imagine wearing heavy weights on your feet all day, you would be exhausted right?
Well no one thinks of their shoes as weights until they pick up my shoes. Both of my shoes combined, which are men's shoes, weigh less than half of what a single typical woman's athletic shoe weighs.
I can walk all day long without fatigue because my shoes are light, I feel athletic, light as air and awesome in my light weight shoes... don't you want to feel that way also?
Even athletic shoes in sports like soccer (futbol) and basketball are being made lighter and lighter to help increase speed and reduce fatigue in athletes.
A thicker sole puts you up higher off of the ground which raises your center of balance. Also the thicker sole prevents you from feeling the ground with your feet. Remember grandma falling in her orthopedic shoes?
Your feet are filled with nerves that sense pressure and movement, this allows your brain to make quick responses to correct slipping on ice, balance and stepping on obstacles such as rocks or the cat's tail.
Wearing a thinner sole will make you feel more rooted and grounded. You will be less likely to fall and will feel more athletic... the cat will appreciate it too!
The bottom line on shoes is this, the smarter the shoe, the dumber the foot that lives within it. Don't put restrictive shoes on your feet, they act like casts preventing the 30+ joints in the foot from moving. Joints that don't move get stiff and weak.
Ever been in a cast? What happened when you took that cast off? I bet your joint (elbow, knee, etc.) was stiff, weak and felt injury-prone... Don't treat your feet the same way, let them breathe and get strong and mobile and supple and ultimately athletic!
Oh by the way, the 2 continents with the most knee and back pain are... North America and Europe where fancy high-tech footwear is common.
Can Barefoot Walking Eliminate Your Pain and Tension?
The American Medical Association published a recommendation for walking barefoot. They discovered that people who suffer from knee arthritis experienced relief from walking barefoot.
This coming from a very conservative and slow to change organization!
When you walk barefoot your brain can feel the ground via the nerves in your feet. This "feel" is known in the medical world as proprioception. Proprioception is literally your 3-demensional GPS system. It allows you to feel sensations such as stretch, movement, tension, relaxation, pressure, stepping on objects, tickle, itch, scratch, rub, hot, cold, etc.
The feet specifically are full of nerves (just like the rest of your body) that send proprioceptive information to your brain.
When you step on a surface in bare feet your brain can feel the surface and make a determination about how to approach that surface. It can figure out which muscles need to fire at exactly the right time to make your joints move properly and help you maintain your balance, stability and joint integrity.
Thankfully this process is pre-cognitive, meaning it is not something you consciously have to do. It is like breathing... it just happens.
But put a pair of shoes with a thick sole and arch support and the brain can't feel the sensory information from the ground anymore. It does not know what you just stepped on. Did you just step on something slick? Did you just step on the cat's tail? You can't feel so you don't know. The brain's natural defense for uncertainty is... tension! Any wonder why people walk around with a stiff neck and low back? Look at their shoes.
The brain's natural defense for uncertainty is... tension! Any wonder why so many people walk around with a stiff neck and low back? Look at their shoes!
So to answer the question, "can barefoot walking eliminate your pain and tension?" Well, in many cases yes it can.
Shoe Hall of Shame List
The Worst Shoes Ever Invented
a.k.a. The Shoe Hall of Shame!
These shoes are popular in certain circles and for all the wrong reasons.
#1 Worst Shoe
Sketchers Shape Ups are becoming more and more prevalent for what I like to call the "give-nothing-get-something-in-return" phenomenon. We can observe this phenomenon on late night TV infomercials such as 2-Minute Abs and other ridiculous snake oil ads.
These Sketchers not only violate ALL of the elements of a healthy shoe, they radically change the normal healthy gait of the wearer which down the road will lead to severe dysfunction.
Plus the claims of toning your legs as you walk are preposterous. You will no more get slender toned legs wearing these than you would wearing tin foil on your head to keep the aliens out.
Sketchers Shape Ups are # 1 on the Shoe Hall of Shame list.
#2 Worst Shoe
Masai Barefoot Technology (MBT) shoes are actually the shoes that Sketchers stole the idea from, one more reason Sketchers are at the # 1 slot for Hall of Shame. But these shoes are just as bad.
For the record, go Google the Masai tribe in Africa and you will notice they are either barefoot or in homemade sandals which fit the description of good shoes I list later.
So for lying about the Masai, creating a shoe that is harmful to humans and making people think they need to spend money on a silly gimmick to be healthy, the MBT shoe ranks as # 2 on the Shoe Hall of Shame.
I wonder if anyone decided to tell the creators and sellers of the Masai Barefoot Technology shoe that the Masai don't wear them?
As you can see by this picture the Masai create their own sandal from the hide of animals. The soles are 1 - 2 layers of hide (very thin) and have some wraps around the top of the foot and heel so they will stay on while sprinting and moving around.
The actual Masai get a top ranking on the Approved Shoe List due to their low-tech awesome shoes!
#3 Worst Shoe
The classic Military or Police boot ranks as the # 3 worst shoe on the Shoe Hall of Shame list.
The only reason Police wear this boot is because they think that it makes them tough or something. There is no functional benefit to wearing a heavy non-athletic shoe.
Can you imagine trying to chase down a suspect wearing these heavy restrictive things? What do Olympic sprinter wear? Nothing like this I promise, Google it!
The Vietnamese wore tennis shoes in the War and thus didn't fall victim to fatigue like the American G.I.s did. Also they could sneak up quieter, run faster and didn't get foot rot.
There is nothing functional, tactical, practical or athletic about these boots for Law Enforcement or otherwise. The one exception I might make is someone riding a motorcycle for protection or someone working in a steel mill and even then they are wearing steel-toed boots. Steel-toed athletic shoes would be much better.
Any of my Law Enforcement or Corrections Officers that I get wearing a more athletic shoe, such as an Onitsuka Tiger Tai Chi in black, for their work duty shoe and they will tell you they love them.
And yes there are combat boots for military that meet some of the requirements of a better shoe and minimize the bad characteristics of a bad shoe. Check out the Nike SFB (Special Field Boot) as an alternative. It is lighter and has a relatively flexible sole plus a nice grip for traction.
If you "have to" wear a boot then this is the way to go.
#4 Worst Shoe
The Orthopedic shoe is the worst joke played on a trusting American populace I've ever seen.
This shoe violates every single characteristic of a healthy shoe.
What is worse is that this is what they stick the elderly in.
Ever wonder why grandma keeps falling?
70% of balance comes from the visual system, but the elderly usually have poor vision. So now where does balance come from? The vestibular system (inner ear) and the proprioceptive system (the ability to feel the ground under your feet via nerves in the feet).
Well the vestibular system declines with age so grandma is left with only her ability to feel the ground under her feet... well these shoes completely eliminate that with their thick soles.
Another broken hip later and these shoes are still being prescribed for the elderly! Ask me what is wrong with health care in America... go ahead, ask!
I have trained blind individuals who were wearing these shoes when they first came to see me, they lacked confidence in moving around because they couldn't see the ground for balance (of course) but they also couldn't feel the ground. I got them wearing Onitsuka Tiger Tai Chis and they loved them, they walked with more confidence and less fear of falling.
Plantar Fasciitis & Shoes
Plantar fasciitis is a condition in which the fascia of the mid-sole becomes inflamed and hurts. Now most of the time when I get a new client who comes to me with complaints of plantar fasciitis they don't really have plantar fasciitis. What they have is pain in the plantar area of the foot that either they self-diagnosed or they had a lazy health professional who diagnosed it without asking enough questions.
First off anything that ends with "itis" means inflammation. Rarely do I see inflammation with people who complain of this pain in their foot but what I often find is a foot that does not move well.
Usually a stiff foot will cause foot pain. People that wear orthotics ironically develop stiffer and stiffer feet which creates more and more pain over time.
Sure, occasionally I have run across someone who swears by their orthopedic shoes but let's not forget that the placebo effect works for shoes and pain... seriously!
Regardless of whether someone feels like they have less pain in a restrictive shoe ultimately they are causing more damage to their feet by wearing them, and while an orthopedic shoe or orthotic insert might be a temporary fix for pain it shouldn't become a permanent thing.
In fact people should try to wean themselves off of orthotics as soon as they can before they get frozen foot syndrome, where the foot becomes stiff and immobile.
As far as eliminating the pain in the foot, the pain is often caused by tibial nerve entrapment due to an immobile foot and even sometimes a bone spur on the heel that can be an easily fixed issue that a well-trained foot specialist can fix quickly. Z-Health foot mobility exercises and/or tibial nerve gliding (a very specific type of stretch/mobility drill) will usually fix most foot pain issues fairly quickly.
Walking around barefoot will keep the area mobile so the pain does not return.
What To Look For When Buying Shoes
Dun dun dun dun dun dun duhhhhh!!!!!!!!! (Not sure if the text relayed the trumpet sounds?)
The moment of truth.
If you have stuck with me this far then you are ready to make the big step towards improving your health by starting with the millions of pounds of load you put into your feet every day.
What to look for when buying shoes
Zero to very little heal
Zero to very little arch support
Flexes through full sole from toe to mid-sole to heal
Twists through full sole
No heel cup
Wide toe box
Very thin sole - you want to feel the ground
Some of mine and my client's favorite shoes include but are not excluded to...
Onitsuka Tiger "Tai-Chi" - these shoes are the Japanese version of Asics, they fit every single category of a good shoe.
Amazon has these in black with red stripes (as of current 11/25/13), classicsportsshoes.com has them in black with white stripes but only 500 are released per year so you may have to wait.
Vibram 5 Fingers - These really bizarre looking shoes mimic being barefoot all the way down to the individual toes! Personally, I can't bring myself to wear these shoes but I have female and male clients who wear them and love them to death! They wear them when they walk, run, exercise, etc.
Vibram 5 Finger shoes. Yes they come in different colors and styles.
You typically don't wear socks with them although there are special socks with individual toes but that seems like they would be too tight.
To wash them just throw them in the washing machine.
These are very demanding on your foot mobility and strength so you may want to wear them for only an hour per day for a couple of weeks to build up a tolerance to them.
Merrell - Merrell makes some barefoot technology shoes that are great. They have a Vibram sole but unlike the 5 Fingers above they don't have individual toes, so it looks like a normal shoe. The Trail Glove and Train models are fantastic.
FEIYUE - Feiyue has some shoes that have a flat and flexible rubber sole and have a light weight canvas upper. They are super cheap (good since they wear out quickly) and you can find them on Amazon.com.
Pumas - Puma makes a number of shoes that meet all or most of the requirements of a good shoe. Pumas tend to be made for people with narrow feet. Not all Pumas are good so you still need to test them by the standards listed earlier.
Vivo Barefoot shoes - Vivo Barefoot from Terra Plana make a variety of shoes for men and women that look like normal shoes but meet most if not all of the requirements of a good shoe. Many of my colleagues and clients love these shoes.
Nike Free - I used to recommend Nike Free shoes to both men and women but lately they are being designed with higher heels and heel cups and more arch support... so these are not the best shoes anymore. But I must pay honor, these are the most expensive shoes ever designed. They don't cost very much but Nike invested a lot of money to make them. The Stanford track team was sponsored by Nike, but when a Nike rep showed up at a training session the coach had all of the track team running, jumping, etc. barefoot. The Nike rep told him that if reporters showed up they needed to be wearing Nike shoes. The track and field coach said, "they perform better when I train them barefoot, it strengthens their feet." So Nike designed the "Free" shoe to simulate being barefoot so that Stanford would wear them during training. Better shoes are around now but these are often a good transition shoe between a normal shoe and one of these other recommendations.
Nike Eclipse - These are only made for the ladies but they are a normal looking athletic shoe that meets pretty much all requirements for a healthy shoe. They are very similar to Nike Free shoes but have much less heel lift and arch support.
There are plenty of other athletic shoes out there that meet these requirements but what about dress shoes?
Well I don't really wear dress shoes so you are going to have to do some of your own digging. Frankly, as an athlete and martial artist, I don't wear any shoes that I can't run or fight in, just in case I ever have to.
Ecco and Merrell have some shoes that meet some of the requirements of a good shoe, or minimize the bad elements. Frankly barring a funeral, wedding or similar suit and tie event I never wear anything other than my Onitsuka Tiger Tai Chis. They look like nice casual shoes so I wear them with jeans or athletic wear.
By the way, I do pretty much all of my exercise barefoot... Sprinting, jumping, kettlebell lifting, martial arts, etc. I want my feet to be strong, supple and injury-resistant... if you do as well then follow my lead.
What About Sports Shoes
Certain sports do require specific footwear. I play indoor soccer and I would not wear my Onitsukas because I would be slipping all over the place, I must wear cleates. Also I need a little more protection for when someone steps on my feet with their cleates, so yes I wear soccer shoes (or football boots as we call them). Do they violate some of these rules? Yes.
They are fairly stiff through the midsole and they are intended to be worn a size too small and tight. If they didn't I would slip all around in them, have poor traction and blisters galore.
American football, bowling, tennis, baseball and many other sports do require that you break some of the rules listed in this article. But I would like to point something out... These shoes are for your competition, not for your daily walking around.
Remember to not make absolutes, women can wear their cute heels and the like when they want to look stylish and male and female athletes can wear shoes that fit the needs of their sport as long as we spend the lion's share of the time taking care of our feet and wearing healthy footwear.
By the way, Adidas created a 3.5 oz soccer shoe!
Your feet contain a lot of joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc. If they are not healthy, you will not be healthy
The muscles, bones and connective tissues of your feet are no different than any other skeletal area of the body, so don't treat them different by wearing casts on your feet
Bad shoe characteristics:
Stiff unbendable sole
Small toe box
Good shoe characteristics:
Flexible and twistable through full sole
Zero to very little heel lift
No heel cup
Wide toe box so toes are free to move
Zero to very little arch support
Not too tight, snug for athletics, looser for casual
If you have foot pain then you most likely have a movement issue in your foot, we can fix that, typically really quickly
If you are an over pronator or over supinator we can fix that fast
Z-Health foot mobility is super important for healthy feet
The best way to get started with foot mobility is through the R-Phase DVD and manual from Z-Health.
Anyone seeking to restore lost function to joints, remodel tissues from old injuries or perform at your best should begin with the R-Phase DVD/manual. It will teach you the A, B, C's of movement, reeducate your nervous system about good movement and remodel old injuries. From there moving to the I-Phase and S-Phase products will be desired for an athlete that seeks superior performance.
You can get the R-Phase product here:
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