Your Shoes are Making You Slow, Weak, Stiff and In-Pain! Part 1

Foot Facts

  • 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 2 to 4 times bodyweight… multiply your bodyweight X 2, 3, o4 4 to get each footfall’s weight and multiply 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.
Bones in the human foot

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?

Correct, they are the same as the rest of your musculo-skeletal system… so why would someone treat them different than the rest of his or her body by not exercising them and wearing restrictive casts (shoes) on their feet?

Clearly the feet deserve to be exercised. They must be supple and strong to hold up to the impact forces that we demand of them.

Arches vs. Flat Feet, Pronators vs. Supinators

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 the sole of your shoe should wear out on the outside of the heel and inside of the toe.

If it is worn out on the outside of the heel and outside of the toe then you are likely an over supinator.

If it is worn out on the inside of the heel and inside of the toe then you are likely an over pronator.

Can this effect your arch?

Human foot arches

Yes. If you are an over supinator you likely have a high arch. If you are an over pronator you likely have a flat foot (or an overly flexible ankle).

Is this a problem?

Maybe. Frankly you are a unique human being and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But from what I have seen with my clients people that are dramatic over pronators or supinators can experience knee pain, foot pain, and difficulty getting low in a squat.

Whereas people with moderate pronation and supination rarely have any issues. Having said that everyone should take measures to ensure that they get as optimal of pronation / supination and arch height as possible by doing corrective exercises.

What about arch supports for over pronators?

While in some extreme cases they might be appropriate arch supports are the equivalent of crutches or a wheelchair. Basically your body never learns how to use the foot correctly. Therefore when you take your shoes off or take the arch supports out you are still an over pronator.

Once again it is far better to do some brief daily corrective exercises to strengthen the correct muscles, mobilize the stiff tissues, and teach the brain how to use the foot appropriately.

How to Identify Shoes That Are Bad for Your Feet

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?

  • Elevated heels
  • Arch support
  • A small toe box (toes crammed for space and jammed together)
  • Inflexibility throughout mid-sole
  • Too tight
  • Too heavy
  • Heel cup / support
  • Thick soles

Let’s explore each of these and why they are so bad.

Elevated Heel  

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 chronic tension and tenderness in the low back muscles.

Most men’s dress, casual and exercise shoes have an elevated heel.

Arch Support 

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 

Shoes with small toe boxes will jam the toes together. As one pushes off of the foot it causes the big toe to point medially (inward). This is especially pronounced in people who are over pronators. Over time this will reshape the big toe joint causing hammer toe or a bunion.

Hammer Toe

Inflexible Through Mid-Sole 

Can your shoes do this?

Go ahead, grab one and try it.

Modern shoes often have a thick piece of plastic and sometimes metal that makes the shoe stiff. Only the toe joint area will bend.

My soccer cleats have a hard plastic that prevents the shoes from moving but it is appropriate for certain sporting shoes such as shoes with cleats. For everyday walking around shoes it prevents your foot from moving the way a foot was designed to move.

Too Tight and Heel Cup 

When your shoes fit too tightly they can not only decrease circulation but can pin your foot bones together which pinches nerves and causes what is known as the arthrokinetic reflex. Basically when joints get compressed the nervous system thinks something is wrong (because there isn’t movement) and thus it will respond by making your a little slower, weaker, and tighter so you don’t hurt yourself.

I remember when I used to tie my soccer boots too tight and I just could never move as quickly as I could when I would train in my barefoot shoes.

Too Heavy 

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 and basketball are being made lighter and lighter to help increase speed and reduce fatigue in athletes.

Thick Soles 

A thicker sole puts you up higher off of the ground which raises your center of gravity making balance harder. Also the thicker sole prevents you from feeling the ground with your feet.

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.

On the flip-side 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!

Get as Close to Barefoot Walking as Possible

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.

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 scientific 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!

Summary Before Moving on to Part 2

Your feet are super important to your health, athletic competence, balance, and can have a positive or negative impact on other areas of your body.

The shoes you wear can have a significant impact on the health of your feet.

Choosing shoes that most closely mimic being barefoot is generally the best idea.

There are of course exceptions such as extreme cold weather, specialized shoes for sports, going out for a night on the town, etc.

But your general purpose everyday shoe should be as close to barefoot as possible.

In part 2 we will discuss:

  • The Worst Shoe Hall of Shame
  • Plantar Fasciitis
  • What to Look for When Buying a Shoe