The Forgotten Foot–Part 1
Anyone who has spent any time thinking about improving their fitness or body composition has probably considered specific body parts or movement patterns that they would like to improve or change. One area that never gets much attention is the foot. Nobody ever talks about wanting to strengthen, improve mobility/stability, or address function in any other manner when it comes to the foot. This is unfortunate as the foot is arguably one of the most important players when it comes to overall health and function. There are between 100,000-2000,000 sensory receptors in the bottom of your foot. This is 3rd only to the mouth and hands. Dr. Emily Splichal DPM uses this fact to draw attention to the importance of training the foot and giving it the sensory input it needs in order for everything else above the foot (knees, hips, spine, etc.) to work and function properly. Many of us now have rather sedentary lifestyles where find ourselves on our feet for about 1-2 hours per day. Our footwear tends to be more along the lines of what strength coach Chris Duffin refers to as “foot coffins”. Typical shoes worn in our society push our toes together, elevate our heel, and give very little sensory input to the sole of the foot. These things all greatly hinder our foot’s ability to function the way it was designed to and to communicate important input further up the kinetic chain. Rarely would a good Physical Therapist or Strength Coach advise permanently bracing or supporting a knee, elbow, or shoulder as a long-term solution to an injury or dysfunction. Instead, they would get a health history, assess the involved joints and movement patterns, and then put together a plan of action to correct the dysfunction or discomfort. However, when it comes to the foot, many podiatrists recommending orthotics or more supportive shoes. While there may be some very limited situations that call for this, I don’t think it makes sense to permanently brace/cast your foot, and limit/eliminate sensory input in hopes of improving function. When it comes to optimizing the foot and therefore the rest of the human body’s function, there are four main things to consider: Footwear, Soft Tissue work, Training, and Programming. Over the next few weeks, I will address all of these.
Ideally, the foot should be level, the toes allowed to spread out, and sensory input allowed to the bottom of the foot. While being barefoot offers all of this naturally, there are some safety concerns for this, and certain situations will require some form of footwear. When we are talking about sporting competition, there is efficacy in wearing footwear that lends itself toward optimal performance. The shoes that have been developed for baseball, track & field, football, basketball, wrestling, etc. have evolved to maximize performance in that given activity. Those shoes can and should be worn in training for that sport and in competition. However, the rest of the day and in fitness training sessions, it is better to be barefoot when appropriate or wear footwear that allows the foot to operate similarly to the way it would when being barefoot.
Many of the shoes that are worn in popular fashion for running or cross training have a toe box that narrows, which smashes the toes together. Many individuals have poor running mechanics, so shoe manufacturers have off set this by making a larger, more shock absorbing heel. While this may feel better to run in, it doesn’t change the impact forces traveling up through your knees, hips, and lower back. Running barefoot is rather self-correcting as it hurts to run with poor running mechanics. I have had countless clients instantly improve their squats and deadlifts simply by removing their shoes. Foot injuries can be a problem though, so in situations with lots of impact, where there is a chance of dropping something on your foot, or training somewhere where stubbing your toe or encountering hazardous debris, it is better to use a solid cross training shoe. Over the last 20 years, I have trained in a variety of different shoes from traditional running/cross training shoes, wrestling shoes, weightlifting shoes, and more recently, more minimalist style shoes. Of the better cross trainers I’ve used (Reebok Nano’s, New Balance Minimus, several Altra shoes, and Merrell Trail Glove 4), the best I’ve come across is the Prio from Xero Shoes. This shoe has the best traction of any shoe I’ve worn on any surface, allows for the toes to spread, has zero heel drop, and is the most durable shoe I’ve worn to this point. I’ve lifted, sprinted, done agility, etc. in these shoes with no issue or excessive wear. The sole gives you some protection, but also allows you to feel the ground you are walking on. I’ve also used Xero’s Z Trek hiking sandals for multiple long hikes and weight lifting with great performance as well.
Precautions: When training barefoot or in a minimalist style shoe, you are working muscles in your foot that you have likely never or rarely worked before. Just like strength training any other muscle, you want to ease into it to avoid injury, excessive soreness, etc. When transitioning, I would recommend only wearing minimalist footwear or being barefoot for 10-20% of the day/training time, and then gradually increase by 5-10% each week, assuming everything feels good. The other thing to keep in mind is properly warming the foot up like you would any other body part. This will be covered in our next installment.
Jeff Tirrell, CSCS, CSFC, Pn1