Thursday, April 6, 2017

Bulletproof Feet

Now that I have bestowed my opinion on the webernets regarding what makes a healthy shoe, it's time to talk about the feet again.  But first a disclaimer...

The purpose of this post is NOT to make you a barefoot runner but rather to help you have feet that are strong and functional and a stride so soft and smooth that you could run barefoot on pavement without pain if you wanted.

This is important because weak, deformed feet that do not function as nature intended can and do set us up for injury, pain, disability, and expensive treatments such as injections and surgery.  Before I continue my rant, please enjoy this short news story on barefoot running from 2005 which features "Barefoot" Ken Bob and Dr. Irene Davis, director of the Spaulding Institute.

Science has shed light over the past several decades that our obsession with shoe technology (aka bad shoes, see post on healthy shoes) has led to the following problems...

- toe deformities (bunions, hammer toes, etc) and narrowing of your base of support
- de-differentiation in the brain, decreased awareness and muscle control (aka maladaptive neuroplasticity)
- decreased bone density, weakened cartilage, tendons, and ligaments
- compensations from the ankle, knee, hip and spine
- decreased feedback leads to transient impact peaks when running or performing higher-impact activities (higher impact peaks are associated with injury)
- I feel like I'm writing about a terminal medical diagnosis right now

Death by shoes.

Fortunately this problem is all by our own doing and it can be reversed with intelligence and patience.  Many of the shoes we've been told we need to wear actually act like a cast on the foot, offering completely unnecessary support and cushioning.  We know that when we remove a cast we have one of two options.  Option #1, we continue to rely on the cast for support and hope for the best or, option #2, we diligently strengthen and retrain that body part.

Keep in mind that while strength, flexibility, and all the other training principles are important, how strength or flexibility will be applied to each individual is different.  While many roads may lead to Rome, you still need a plan to get to Rome.

I believe that a healthy mindset of the body includes strengthening and improving its functions regardless of age.  This path involves learning new things about yourself, breaking through old barriers, improving your health in a sustainable way, and maybe even becoming even better-looking than you already are.  After all, improving your health and knowledge should improve your confidence and everyone knows confidence is sexy.  At the very least your goal should be to avoid the fate of many aging Americans...the walker, bed pan, and catheter.

The gentleman on the right, Ray Moon, is 83-years old in this picture.

Here is the problem with all this ideological speak.  If we have weakened our feet or been told we needed support and just went with that, transitioning to less shoe or no shoe is not going to happen overnight without sustained effort.  Transitioning a feeble body part to normal function is a very slow process in the beginning.  The equivalent of what most people do is attempt a 500# deadlift when they haven't picked up more than a jug of milk in 10 years.  Be sure to start where you're at, not where you want to be.

The only thing that can protect you from injury is your plan and listening to your body.  First, you'll want to develop a simple and smart plan to improve mobility and strength in your feet and ankles.  This will be a plan where you gradually and progressively add load and difficulty and you'll listen to your body to ensure you get enough recovery between bouts of exercise.  How long it takes to get where you want to be depends on where you are starting and where you want to go.

It's too bad you don't see exercise charts for feet and ankles at the gym.
For some reason our society treats our feet like they are not part of the body
when the reality is they are the base of everything we do in weight-bearing (which is most human activity).

While I can't tell you exactly what you should do as an individual through a blog post, I am going to outline several important steps that I took to regain foot and ankle health.  Ready, set, GO!

STEP ONE:  Wake up your feet and get your brain interpreting the information better.

Spending time barefoot in your house or outside can be very helpful if you aren't diabetic or otherwise have neuropathy or are concerned about minor cuts.  Walk over a variety of terrain and things that are a little uncomfortable in a safe manner.  #darwinism  Successfully transitioning to less shoe requires that you can feel your feet but for whatever reason there are people who do not interpret body signals very well (this occurs in the brain).  Without good awareness the likelihood of injury is extremely high.

There are two major benefits to moving barefoot.  One benefit is the natural strengthening and mobility that occurs with having less shoe and using your feet more naturally.  Your muscles and tendons get stronger making them more resistant to injury, perhaps your foot widens and your toes begin to straighten, and you even improve the bone density in your feet.  The second benefit involves everything else about your movement that changes for the better.  Without a shoe you learn how to protect yourself.  You learn to land softer and step lightly, all of the behaviors which protect your joints and work your muscles properly.  This is a complete paradigm shift from what modern marketing tells you to do, which is buy their product to protect you.  Unfortunately many people take that route in life and end up using a walker.

If you're like most Americans and you cannot spread your toes apart, I would consider investing in a pair of Correct Toes.  Wear them as directed by the website and the insert in the product packaging.  Like going barefoot, you can get sore feet and overdo it early on.  Avoid this pain!

It has taken a few years but my toes have widened to a healthier stance with more space between the big toe and second toe (as it should be).  I still use Correct Toes at night and sometimes during the day to help improve and maintain my GAINZ!

STEP TWO: Get out of bad shoes.

How you do that is entirely up to you, there is no single perfect way to transition for everyone.  You can start simple by wearing a flat shoe with a wide toe-box and only the amount of cushioning you need.  Sandals work great too, which is why I wear them nearly all of the time.  Regardless of your choice, your shoe should feel comfortable and not compress your toes in any way.  Tired or sore feet are okay but pain is not.  If you have pain, whatever you just did was too much for your current foot fitness level.  Spend more time on step one and three and re-visit footwear changes later.

Whatever you do, don't take your foot out of a cast and blast out sled pushes, distance running, plyometrics, or whatever fun thing you like to do.  Go slow.  Start with short walks barefoot or in minimal shoes.  Do the basic exercises outlined in step three.  If ready to run, run at a slow pace and for a very short distance.  By going slow in your program you will actually be speeding up your transition.  Nothing slows athletic progress down quite like a new injury.  I would know because I am the Queen of hurting myself in the name of science and discovery.

Be the test dummy.  "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." - Aristotle

STEP THREE: Incorporate basic mobility and strengthening exercises into your routine.

This will be the equivalent of doing the seated-granny exercises in your house with 5# weights.  Yes it's sad and kind of funny but it's completely your fault that you let your feet get so weak.  Stop complaining.  This will be fun.

Start by working soft tissue mobility if you need it.

Ankle dorsiflexion mobility is important for everything you do in weight-bearing.  Running and squatting can be a disaster without good ankle mobility.

Foot control and strengthening exercises.  These are just a few ideas I captured on video.  If you appreciate these you may also like this cool video by GMB with additional ways to strengthening the foot and ankle.  I have tested the GMB movements in my own routine and find them valuable.  I also like the book, "Barefoot Running" by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee as a step-by-step guide to helping you achieve strong feet/ankles as well as proper running technique.

As you feel more comfortable with barefoot walking and basic exercises, you can progress to other movement drills and plyometric movements.  Working on plyometrics will help improve your natural springs over time.

STEP FOUR: If running in minimal shoes or barefoot, improve your technique!

One of the worst things you could do would be to take away protection that your body is used to but never improve your technique (aka impact moderating behavior).  Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a fellow sandal, minimalist shoe, and barefoot runner, did an excellent podcast with Trail Runner Nation on this exact topic.  This is important.  People who transition shoes but never improve their movement almost always hurt themselves.  It's not a surprise why this happens.  If you're banging your head against a wall then taping a pillow to your forehead will help but it is best to learn to stop banging your head against the wall in the first place.


Inevitably we will all run into at least a few obstacles when making a huge change in how we use our feet.  Think about your own personal training and how difficult it can be to keep balance between exercise and rest.  Sometimes you overdo one area and learn the hard way.  In general your feet will usually tell you when you've done too much.  That said, having a smart transition plan can do wonders to keep you out of trouble.  Here are some principles that I have found helpful in my journey.

- Foot pain IS NOT part of the program.  If you have pain you did too much and need to recover more.  Remember that STRESS comes in many forms (i.e. if you remove support and/or cushion, if you have poor running technique or you lack normal joint range of motion this increases the stress).  Take frequent inventories of these stresses and understand if you change many elements at once it can easily overwhelm your tissue.  You might need to improve mobility and strength for a few months before ever considering running in minimal shoes or barefoot and that is OK.

- Start with less than you think...seriously.  The body can take 6-12 months to adapt to the stress of being barefoot or in minimalist / healthy shoes.  This is because tissues such as tendon, bone, fascia, etc take many months to remodel.  This is not a personal weakness on you, it's just science.

- Always start with barefoot or minimalist shoe walking before your try running.  I recommend at least a month of walking every other day, increasing your distance or time as tolerated (i.e. no pain but mild soreness is okay).  During this month you should also work on basic mobility and strength exercises to wake up your feet.

- Always carry shoes or sandals if barefoot in case you need them.

- If building into running, as Barefoot Ken Bob teaches, consider it an entirely new activity even if you run every day in shoes.  I personally recommend this basic program...jog 50-yards at a slow pace, take a day off, jog 100-yards at a slow pace, take a day off, continue adding 50-yards a day to your distance every other day (if and only if you do not have pain).

- Learning proper technique is king.  Even strong feet can be injured if you're always over-striding or otherwise landing with a high transient impact peak.

Life is truly meant to be lived and cherished each day.  One of my missions in life is to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering and educate people on how to fix themselves.  One of my beliefs about the world is that if you want to achieve something, find the person who did it and see what they did.  I listen to many surgeons, doctors, therapists, and podiatrists bash minimalist and barefoot running.  Funny thing is the ones that do have never done it.  Frankly, don't ask a fish how to fly or a wrestling coach to lead your basketball team to a national championship.

I'll leave you with some remaining resources I have enjoyed over the years.  These are people who walk the walk and I learned from them so I could fix my own problems.  Couldn't have turned out better.  Best of luck to you in this journey.

Christopher McDougall talks about running.
Barefoot Ted talks about running.
General articles by Stephen Robbins on issues with footwear.
Barefoot Ken Bob's website.
Barefoot Ted McDonald's blog.
Harvard Lab's Daniel Lieberman's webpage.
The Spaulding Center led by Dr. Irene Davis.
Dr. Mark Cucuzzella's Natural Running Center.

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