How shoes can hinder feet performance

Jun 25, 2022
So the next time you go to put your shoes on, have a think about the position they are placing your feet in and the job they are stopping your very capable feet from doing themselves. Source: Getty

There is no other creature on earth with feet like ours. Chimps are perhaps the closest but even then there’s a pretty stark difference.

Our feet have 26 bones each, meaning that between them they house roughly 25% of the bones in the body. They have over 30 joints each and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. Incredibly, they also have thousands of nerve receptors, some suggesting that these actually number in the hundreds of thousands.

To what do we owe this amazing structure and feat of engineering? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the human genome has barely changed in 40,000 years and we were designed to move for optimal function. As hunter-gatherers, we were required to walk hundreds of kilometres, run fast after prey or even faster to avoid being prey, climb mountains, traverse deserts and so on.

Our feet were built to last and to provide our brain and body with a constant feed of information that told us which muscles to fire and neurones to wire to walk, run, jump, land, and balance effectively and efficiently.

Then came the shoe… as summarised 20 years ago by Dr W.A Rossi, things didn’t go well.

“It took four million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot. We have converted a beautiful thoroughbred into a plodding plowhorse.”

I’m not a podiatrist, so I’ll stay in my lane on this one and talk more generally about what happens to our bodies’ structures when they’re forced into unnatural positions for long periods and robbed of their full functional expression.

If I was to sit in a slouched position for eight hours a day, six days a week, forty-eight weeks a year, for four decades, you can bet my spine and the muscles around it would adapt to that position. 

My bones would reform and grow in the direction they are being forced and the muscles would lengthen and tighten around the joints to make that position easier to maintain. After all, the body is always seeking to conserve energy, constantly trying to pull me out of a position I’m determined to maintain is just too much work.

Now, think about the shoes you wear most often. Are they pointy-toed? Do they have a raised heel? I’ll never forget the state of my grandmother’s feet. Her toes looked like they were trying to form a human pyramid, she had corns the size of golf balls, and the arch of her foot had almost gone from concave to convex. She wore heeled dress shoes with narrow toe boxes more often than not.

This is not how our feet were intended to be shaped.

Now, back to the point about the body conserving energy. We’ve all heard the term ‘use it or lose it’. When muscles and their neural connections are not used often enough, the body takes this as a sign that they’re no longer needed and essentially strips them of their resources. It’s a classic ‘restructure’ from the head office kind of situation.

If we put our feet in big soft shoes all day (aka sensory deprivation tanks), we’re stripping our feet and their muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, and nerves of their full functional power. 

Whenever we stop using an area of our body for extended periods, our muscles weaken and start to shrink, our joints start to lose mobility, blood flow to the area starts to reduce, the sensory feedback loops start to decline and more.

This is not how our feet were intended to be treated.

I’m not suggesting you burn your current set of shoes and start running barefoot, this would cause serious trauma to the tissues and structures of your foot. Remember the bit about the body moulding into the shape it’s most commonly in? Same thing here. 

However, there is hope. Many shoe manufacturers are now designing more foot-friendly variations that allow for more toe room and lower heel lifts. There are thousands of videos on YouTube that teach mobility and strengthening exercises for the feet and ankles. Every day there is new evidence proving that the body and brain can reform and regenerate neural connections.

The main message here is that the feet are a hugely important player in our body mechanics and movement quality. Like all structures in the body, they have the capacity to improve, strengthen, and adapt to the environment they are exposed to.

So, the next time you go to put your shoes on, have a think about the position they’re placing your feet in and the job they’re stopping your very capable feet from doing themselves.

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