In recent years, I've begun teaching more and more about foot health and the problems of most shoes we wear. One of the most common topics of concern is arch support. Whether it's flat feet, high arches, plantar fasciitis, or some other foot malady, "good arch support" seems to be the answer. But what if it's not?
Don't get me wrong, arch supports may be absolutely necessary in your world right now, but they most likely aren't necessary for the long term.
[Note from The Management: I am NOT advocating throwing away your supportive shoes and custom orthotics. Read on for my complete thoughts on the matter.]
If you break your foot, you will likely have it put in a cast. The cast is there to keep your foot immobilized while the bones heal. When your foot has healed and the cast is removed, your foot will be weak, the muscles atrophied, the joints stiff. Do you therefore put your foot back in a cast because it's weak and stiff? Of course not. You start physical therapy and work to restore mobility and strength to your foot.
Plantar fasciitis, collapsed arches, high arches and the like are certainly not a broken foot, but they can cause considerable pain and they most certainly are accompanied by weak muscles and tight joints. (Just a reminder, there are 33 joints in each foot. THIRTY-THREE! And they need to function fro your feet to be healthy.) Your orthopedist may well recommend "good," stiff, supportive shoes while you are in acute pain. You may be given arch supports to put in your current shoes. Either way, you are putting your foot in a cast. Arch support may not look like the cast you have for a broken foot, but it does the same thing. It splints your foot so the joints and muscles can't move fully while the inflammation goes down and the pain lessens. But once the pain has receded, do you really need to use them for the rest of your life? That is the common answer most orthopedists give: wear these forever; never go barefoot again; never buy shoes without good, solid arch support.
Why do we readily work to regain strength and mobility after wearing a plaster cast or boot, but we don't even consider physical therapy after wearing orthotics or stiff shoes?
(I don't have an answer to that question. I'd love to discuss it with some orthopedists some time.)
Having worked with numerous students and clients over the years, I have watched as feet become stronger doing simple restorative work on a daily basis. I do NOT tell those students to get rid of their arch supports (supportive shoes or orthotics). What happens instead is that over many months of foot restorative work, my students start to notice that the stiff shoes, the external support starts to interfere with the function of the feet. They start to wear the orthotics less or rediscover shoes with less support.
This does not happen quickly.
Let me repeat that: THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN QUICKLY.
I used to wear Converse a lot in my 20s. In my 30s, I started buying "good supportive shoes" and wearing them more often. I gradually found I couldn't wear the Converse anymore without my feet hurting. I thought this was a natural part of aging, needing better support in my shoes. But it was actually the stiff, supportive shoes that were causing the problem. As my feet no longer had to work to support themselves, they stopped being able to.
Two years ago, shortly before I turned 50, I started doing truly restorative work for my feet, their joints, muscles, arches. After about six months, I was back in Converse and could walk several miles in them with no problem. Six months of daily work on feet that weren't in any kind of daily pain, though I did have the occasional bout of plantar fasciitis. Six months for feet that are not in shoes when I teach or when I'm at home. Six months from a pretty strong starting point. Six. Months.
If your starting point is always wearing shoes, always wearing orthotics, already in pain, think well beyond six months. You are looking at a year or more, at a MINIMUM. Wear the orthotics. Wear the shoes you have. But if you really want healthier feet, you need to work to make them stronger and more mobile. You need to do the work BEFORE you change the external support, and for as long as you intend to have healthy feet.
I did a whole series of videos about a year ago called Sit Less Move More Foot Week. (I've linked to the first video in the series. There are four in total.) They are a good resource for general restorative work you can do for your feet. They are also a good source of info about shoes and some of the problems with what we think of as good shoes. If you're truly serious about your foot health (which directly leads to overall health), I'd love to meet with you, in person or online, to help you create a practice for your particular foot issues.
So ... do you need arch supports? If you're using them currently, yes, stick with them. But consider that with better function of your feet, you might not need them forever. Start where you are. Begin to move your feet more as you are able. And in time, those feet will move more for you.
Kneeling and squatting.
Two positions that are missing from the movement vocabulary of a lot of people.
There are numerous reasons why either of the above positions might be inaccessible. Your hips and knees could be the problem areas. So could tight leg muscles. But one particular factor is not having enough range of motion at the ankle. I still struggle with this myself. Notice there are two photos of me squatting. One of them shows my heels off the ground. That's how I squat without assistance. The only way I got my heels down for the bottom right photo was by holding on to the couch for balance.
Why the heck are our ankles so stiff? A good part of that stiffness is from the shoes we wear and from how we use our feet. Or rather don't use our feet. Stiff shoes keep your joints from moving to their fullest range of motion. Having the heel higher than the toes (even most "flat" shoes have a heel) shortens muscles that impact mobility. And walking on flat, smooth surfaces prevents us from exploring the variety of movements that the ankle and foot are capable of making. (And yes, injuries can also be implicated here. I did some serious damage to my ankles decades ago.)
"Who cares if I can't squat or kneel?" I hear you ask. "That is what chairs are for." Well, actually, not using all the range of joint mobility humans are designed for turns out to have overall health consequences. It is hard to miss all the headlines proclaiming that sitting is the new cancer. But it isn't actually just sitting that is the problem. It is not moving that is the problem. And the less you move, the less you CAN move. The ability to get down on the floor and back up with ease (the Sit/Rise test) is a predictor of longevity. Squatting in particular has implications for digestive health as well as hip, knee, and ankle health. Healthier joints = healthier you.
Given all the ways we create tight muscles and joints in the feet and ankles, it occurred to me to show you two simple poses that you can do anywhere. One brings extension to the top of the foot while contracting the muscles in the bottom of the foot and the calves. The other contracts the muscles on the top of the foot and the front of the shin while extending those on the bottom of the foot and the calves. Practicing one pose helps the other, as you'll see in the video. (NOTE: Chair pose is not squatting. If you want to add squatting to your world, you will need to strengthen those gluts in addition to loosening up a variety of joints. A whole other blog post coming soon on the subject. Meanwhile, you can check out this for a bit of squatting help.)
Tight muscles are not strong muscles. They limit your mobility, impinge your joints, and when stressed, they tear. Try these two poses. If your ankles and feet are tight, don't hold these for very long. Go gently. I use the word "Painful" in the video, but really I mean tender or intense. If it is painful to do the Top of the Foot Stretch, try the seated modification I mention. Alternate the poses and see how one pose affects the other. Watch your stiff ankles become a bit more flexible.
I hope this will encourage you to keep your body moving. Ankles are as a good a place to start as any other body part. As you have the ability to move more, move more. Use it or lose it is pretty accurate when it comes to your physical abilities. And improved physical ability leads to Healing and Balance.
"What are you going to do about shoes this winter?"
That is the question many folks in my classes and online have been discussing in recent weeks. If you live in a milder climate, this is not a big deal as there are numerous minimal shoe options that will get you through a cooler time of year. (Hell, if I still lived in AZ, i'd be stocking up on different colors of Converse and calling it a day.) But if you live in a cold climate, minimal winter shoes and boots present a real challenge.
For those of you who may not know much about minimal shoes, they have specific characteristics:
I wrote an earlier blog post about transitioning to minimal shoes. In it, I listed safe ways to increase your foot strength and mobility. I have a list of minimal shoe companies under Resources. They are mostly ordered online (though Altra running shoes can found in local running stores and at REI, and Merrell makes a zero-drop running shoe you can sometimes find at REI as well).
Winter boots have their own set of specific characteristics:
After spending the better part of the past year barefoot or in minimal shoes, I have really noticed a change in how I use my body. As Fall approached, I tried on my old shoes and boots and cleared out most of them. Even the smallest of heels made me feel how tipped forward I was (and used to be all the time without noticing). They were very stiff or they had high arch supports that no longer were necessary, and in fact prevented my now-mobile feet from being able to move. In short, they now made my feet hurt. They had to go.
I kept my snow boots for now because Minnesota, but the heel (about 3/4" higher than the toe) really bothers me. I can feel how it pulls me out of alignment and away from using the back of my legs and my gluts to stand and walk. But they're warm and they keep my feet dry. And I have to walk the dog all winter so ...
Meanwhile I started looking for minimal boots for winter. (Google it. Lots of stuff comes up.)
At the top of my list are Steger Mukluks. They are made in Ely, MN and are rated to -20 degrees F. They have good grip and are minimal. They are also expensive ($180 - 300) .
Manitobah Mukluks are another good option, truly made for cold temperatures and snow. And right up there for price ($150 - 350).
So are SoftStar Phoenix boots. They meet every requirement for both minimal shoes and good winter boots. And they will set you back $250.
Vivobarefoot has good winterproof boots. Not inexpensive either ($150 - 250). I do know that if your feet are wide, this brand can be tight at the toebox and may not work so well for you.
Camper isn't a minimal shoe brand overall, but their Peu line is. Again, pricey, but stylish, ankle boots. Only one pair that is truly winterproof and, of course, $240.
I am not quite ready to spend money like this on winter boots. I know that these are all incredibly well made, will last several winters, and are really good for my feet and body. But given that I have to order them online, pay for shipping, and hope they work for me, I'm not ready to cough up that kind of money on a pair that may or may not fit..
What to do in the meantime?
For starters, there are many days here that are cold but dry. For those days, I saved up $115 and I bought myself some Lems Boulder Boots. (I think Camper Peu ankle boots would do nicely for this type of use as well.) They are minimal boots that are warm and comfortable with a bit of padding inside. I bought them in canvas, but wish I'd bought the leather pair simply because they'd soften up more with use. (Fair warning, I don't use the top two holes for the laces, nor does my friend, Sue, who wears her Lems for hiking. They are a bit stiff at the top of the shaft and uncomfortable against the back of my leg --- another reason the leather might be nicer.) I wore these boots on a pretty bitter day, 24 degrees and windy, walking over cold ground for a couple miles and my feet stayed toasty. That's saying something since my feet are NEVER warm. I tried a waterproofing spray hoping that would turn them into winter boots, but no go. The seam around the toe still leaked walking several miles through wet grass, and the tread was not very good when I wore them in light snow. They are great boots for colder days, well worth the expense, but not for the snow and slush that's coming my way.
I need new boots, so I'm looking at what is curretnly out there and on sale or not too expensive. The sturdy boots at REI or at the department stores are too stiff for me, and most of them lift up at the toe. (Walk into REI and check out the display wall of hiking and winter boots. All the toes turn up! That is not what feet should do at rest.) I'm the one you see in shoe departments bending and twisting the boots, seeing if the arch support is removable.
What it really comes down to is where am I willing to compromise. I cannot do a heel anymore, and I need warmth and traction. So I am planning to sacrifice flexibility. There are lots of Ugg knock-offs that are flat or nearly flat and have toe room and warmth. They don't curve up at the toe. But they don't bend much at all. Which means I'll be doing a LOT of rolling my foot on a ball this winter.
You might decide a little bit of heel is okay if it gives you flexibility. In which case, lots of calf stretching for you this winter. Just notice what limitation you're creating, and figure out how to move to counter that. And you might choose fashion over function completely. In which case, please roll your feet on a ball, walk on a folded blanket, calf stretch, use toe spreaders, do everything you can to undo the shaping of your foot by the boot you choose.
One last thought to keep in mind, even minimal shoe companies have sales. The sales right now are for shoes, but in January or February, the boots you've been eyeing just might go on sale. (I remember seeing sales on Vivobarefoot boots last Spring, but I was busy getting sandals at the time.)
Here's to the day I can get a really good pair of minimal winter boots. Until then, what am I going to do about shoes this winter? I'm going to do my best. As will you.
I've been talking to my classes (and anyone else who gets me started) about minimal shoes. The more I learn about alignment and its relationship to overall health, the more I return to the feet and how important it is that feet be strong and mobile. Foot health is not a new topic for me. I've been getting classes and clients to roll their feet on super balls for about 15 years. I've been talking about the problems with flip-flops for at least that long as well. Recently, I've learned more about shoes that are designed for optimal foot health. They're call minimal shoes, and yes, you should want them.
BUT you may not be ready for them yet. Consider this a primer on what a minimal shoes are and how to transition toward them.
First of all, what are minimal shoes?
Minimal shoes meet certain criteria:
So many people tell me they need stiffer shoes or better arch support because their feet hurt without them. I thought the same thing. I gave up my beloved Converse years ago assuming I was just too old, that my feet needed more support as I aged. The truth is, like any other body part, if you don't use your feet to their fullest, they weaken. Feet have 33 joints in them (each). Yet our stiff shoes and flat, level walking surfaces mean we use very few of those joints. As feet get more mobile, the muscles and bones work as they should to support themselves. The arch no longer needs help to maintain itself. Depending on the kinds of shoes you've been wearing and how old you are, re-developing this mobility can take months or years. I gave up high heels years ago and have spent quite a bit of my time barefoot every day for most of my life. It took me about six months to make the transition. My feet no longer hurt wearing Converse (yay!) and I have minimal shoes that I love, that I can walk miles in. If you've been in stiff-soled shoes with a heel, if you spend most of your time walking on hard tile floors, this transition might take much longer.
All my talk of minimal shoes needs some qualification and some explanation as to how you begin transitioning. Don't go out and buy the most minimal shoe right away. Don't buy anything new for now. And don't try everything at once. Make one change that you can live with. When you're ready, try another. The following are some of the easiest ways to start:
If you are starting to think about making changes for your feet (which I highly encourage that you do), please go gently. Contact me for movements and exercises that you can add into your day. Those feet you've been standing and walking on need time to relearn their natural state. You may not have enough pads left in your feet to go to the thinnest soles. You may have nerve damage or conditions such as diabetes that will always require a bit more cushion. You may work or live where there is no choice but to be on hard, flat surfaces. (Trust me, you'll want more padding if you live in NYC.)
Without buying any new shoes, you can start making better choices for your feet. Check out your closet and see what you've been wearing and if you have better options. (You probably do.) If you do start buying new shoes, have fun. As a shoe-loving woman myself, it hasn't been easy parting with some of my favorite (unhealthy) shoes. But now, I have a whole new set of criteria. And a good reason to get new shoes. Next time you see me, check out my cool minimal shoes. They're pretty much all I wear. My whole body is happy.
Think of it this way: you're not transitioning to minimal shoes, you're transitioning to healthier, stronger feet.
Note 1: I link to several minimal shoe companies on the Resources page on this website. I personally have Otz and Unshoes now, to go with my Converse. EarthRunners, Softstar, and Lems are on my wishlist.
Note 2: For information on how feet impact your overall health, you'll just have to wait for the next blog post.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.