Feet: The Taboo Body Part.
I went to a podiatrist (foot doctor) for ankle pain at around ten years old. I remember walking in a bit nervous because no one had ever touched my feet before, and I barely touched them myself aside from putting on socks and shoes.
My doctor instructed me to take my shoes and socks and lay flat on the table barefoot; then, he did a bunch of tests to see if my ankle was healthy. After that, it was smooth sailing, and my feet were fine.
That’s a lie. What actually happened was my doctor grabbed my foot, and then I almost kicked his head into outer space. I’m ticklish; what can I say? My ankles and feet were also really jacked up from not taking care of myself.
We don’t talk about feet unless there’s a problem, and even then, most people have no idea what their feet do (or what they can do).
Think about it: when was the last time you actively trained the functions of your feet?
demystifying your feet.
Stand up. Look down. Those are your feet.
Believe it or not, the human foot is complex; it contains 28 bones, 33 different joints, and a boatload of connective tissue. In addition, there are over 7,000 nerve endings in each foot, which explains why I tried to field goal kick my podiatrist. Well, that partially explains it; more on that later.
Your feet serve many purposes:
- Supporting your body weight.
- Providing balance.
- Shock absorption.
- Transferring ground reaction forces (i.e., force that is distributed to the body from the ground).
- Proprioception (i.e., sensory information to help you accommodate to your environment). (1)
In essence, your feet allow you to do pretty much everything in your daily life. However, to make things simple, we will talk about the foot in two contexts: the ankle and the toes.
Ankle. Say it again. Ankle. See, it’s fun!
The ankle contains three joints (I told you it was complex), but we’re not going to delineate them. So, for now, all you need to know is that your ankle can perform the following movements:
- Dorsiflexion – bringing the foot closer to the shin.
- Plantarflexion – gas pedaling the foot.
- Eversion – rolling the ankle outward.
- Inversion – rolling the ankle inward.
We illustrate all of the ankle functions in our ankle CARs video below.
Having a healthy ankle means you can adequately perform all of these functions and appropriately load them as needed. For instance, having good control and tissue quality in ankle inversion might help mitigate ankle sprains when you accidentally roll it. (2)
This little piggy…
The toes might be the most neglected body part in our profession, yet your toes are imperative to your existence. Your big toe (hallux) and lesser toes (2nd to 5th digits) are proprioceptive powerhouses, allowing you to better sense your environment (i.e., where you are in space–not space like outer space, but kind of. It’s complicated.)
Your toes help you run, maintain balance, and can be used in place of one’s hand/fingers in cases where one’s hands may not be a suitable option (e.g., amputations). Believe it or not, your toes have similar dexterity to your hands; it’s just that you never consciously use your toes, so this seems like an impossibility.
To have healthy toes and a healthy foot, you should be able to flex and extend your big toe independently from your other toes. Conversely, you should be able to flex and extend your 2nd through 5th digits together without relying on the big toe.
We do a great job of explaining how the toes work below.
Because your toes receive so much information from your environment, they must be functioning and not just immobilized blocks attached to the end of your foot.
The chicken or the egg?
Unfortunately, we see many people with unhealthy feet, and I’m not shaming them. I used to be the same way. In fact, my ankles still leave a lot to be desired, but I digress.
Do people have poor functioning feet because no one taught them how to use their feet, or because shoes inherently inhibit the need for you to keep your feet healthy? I think it’s both. But if you’re unsure what to do about your toes and ankles, come see us; we can help you decide the best path toward healthier feet and ankles.
I love shoes as much as the next person, but traditional shoes were not designed to keep your feet healthy.
Shoes ultimately serve one purpose: protection from your environment (e.g., cold weather, rain, abrasive/sharp objects). So, once shoe manufacturers covered those bases, shoes became an object of appearance rather than function.
Furthermore, the modern design of most shoes alleviates the need for your feet to do work, which is mind-bogglingly contradictory to everything else we do. Think of it this way. You go to the gym and exercise to keep your joints healthy and mobile; you don’t wrap your entire body in a protective bubble and prevent it from moving around to keep it healthy.
Well, you do, if it’s your foot.
Ultimately, we know that traditional shoes can:
- Prevent your toes from spreading and moving. The picture above illustrates this perfectly. Under no circumstances is binding the toes a good thing. Just imagine if you did that to your hands. Do you think your fingers would articulate well?
- Stiffen the ankle. For instance, some shoes can compromise the length-tension relationship in the Achilles by putting it in a prolonged shortened position (think of a shoe with a heel lift). And some shoes will force more support through the ankle, inhibiting natural eversion/inversion from occurring (high-top shoes and boots are excellent examples of this).
- Blunt proprioception. Remember when I said my foot was sensitive? Maybe it was overly sensitive because I never let my foot do or touch anything. We want feet to adapt to our surroundings, so exposing the foot to different stimuli is crucial to its health.
- Change the structural integrity of the foot. Smooshing and compressing the foot will inevitably change the structure of your foot. Bunion development is directly linked to shoes for this reason. (3)
Vivobarefoot is one of the first shoe companies to really call out the shoe/foot problem, and they detail their scientific position here. It’s worth the read, so definitely check it out.
Vivobarefoot goes out of its way to design shoes that let your feet do their job by simulating a barefoot experience.
Their shoes have a wide toe box, are zero drop (i.e., the bottom of the shoe is flat because there is no angle change from the heel to the toe), and are thin enough to give you the sensory feedback you need to have thriving feet.
This is why our gym exclusively uses Vivobarefoot to exercise and train clients and why we partnered with Vivobarefoot to promote their unique products.
If you’re interested in switching to shoes that will do your feet and body justice, use MOTIVE at checkout and get 10% off your order anytime.
Our favorite shoe is the Primus Lite; it’s an athletic shoe that can be used for pretty much all activities.
It’s simple, really: treat your foot like you would anything else. Give it room to move, and move it often. Do your ankle and toe CARs every day. Don’t bind or restrict your foot unless that’s required of you (e.g., sports).
If you do that, you’ll put your feet in a much better position to be healthy, which is precisely why we prefer to use our feet the barefoot way.
And you should, too.
Brian Murray, FRSC, FRA
Founder of Motive Training
Fight Pain. Gain Strength. Get Results.
Personal Training in Grand Rapids, MI, and Austin, TX. Online Coaching is available, too.