In this series, I will be taking a closer look at our feet and how to keep them healthy and strong for your movement practice.
Our feet are our first direct connection to the earth. They are the first part of the structural chain that prevents you from collapsing (your skeleton). You could compare them to the foundations of a building – if they are unstable, the whole structure will be vulnerable. Modern habits have started reshaping our feet and ankles. The constant enclosure in feet-prison (better know as shoes) and the lack of exposure to a wide variety of terrains and conditions have resulted in atrophied, immobile foot-ankle systems.
Characteristics of Healthy Feet
Before delving a bit deeper into these problems, let’s have a look at some healthy feet. Below is a collection of pictures of feet that have never worn a pair of shoes in their lifetime.
What do we notice in their feet?
- There is a very wide base of support: a lot of space between the toes, big toes are bent outwards, a high arch and a wide triangular shape. The wider the legs of a tripod, the less likely it is to fall – the same applies to your feet.
- Feet and ankles are very hypertrophied: thick stabilising muscles on both sides of the feet (below the ankles) and a very thick padding on the bottom of the foot.
- They are very mobile and utile, more life in the feet which allows them to be used for a very wide variety of tasks.
These characteristics provide for a very well stabilised system, protecting against ankle twists and sprains, just to name a few injuries. And guess what one of the most common injuries amongst movers is?
Now let’s take a look at how modern habits are changing the structure of and weakening our feet.
Constant enclosure in shoes
Compressing your feet weakens all muscles (in both feet and ankles) and rearranges the structure of your bones – leaving your feet atrophied, immobile and without a good base of support. Without a good base of support, you are much more prone to injury. Your body always finds a way to compensate for structural problems, but they always come at an expensive cost. Misalignments in your feet can cause your entire skeletal structure to become unbalanced from the bottom up, with your ankles, knees and hips being especially affected. Some common structural problems are flat feet/collapsed arches, hallux valgus, overly externally rotated ankles and internally rotated knees.
Elevating your heels adds to the equation with a different set of problems. It shortens your Achilles’ tendons, greatly reduces dorsiflexion and places your entire body in an unnatural forward leaning position, which messes with the natural curve of your spine.
The lack of exposure to a wide variety of terrains and conditions
Our feet no longer need to use their natural mobility to navigate the environment. We have straightened out nearly all surfaces by paving roads and paths. This puts them in a constant neutral position, but our feet were designed to complex situations. They were designed to adapt to situations like avoiding rocks and tree branches, running up and down hills, jumping over and off of obstacles, being able to walk over small sharp stones, etc. Padding in shoes further eliminates the need for our feet to build their own layer of protection.
Go check out part 2 of the foot series, where we look at minimalistic footwear as a means of passive (p)rehab!