My dear reader, you might be a long-distance runner, a busy business (wo)man with little time for physical activity, a lazy couch potato with an Ironman alter ego, or a retiree wishing to enjoy life. Regardless, I am here to help you answer this $100 million-question: “Why does the bottom of my feet hurt?”. I know how terribly annoying and often inexplicable foot pain can be but guess what? The recipe to this problem is the following: understand the problem, get wiser, find the solution.
Our feet are an unparalleled wonder of nature and we don’t even realize it
After years of research, Leonardo da Vinci concluded that the human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art. At that time in the 15th century, little was known about foot anatomy and the actual roles that feet have on the overall health. That is why Leonardo must have had a hard time sleeping after discovering the incredible complexity and efficiency lying behind anatomical foot structures.
I believe that most of us have a different opinion about how wonderful feet are. This is simply because for some reason, they hurt too often to actually be perfect engineering inventions, not to mention works of art. By experience, I know that most people consider them pretty much like two inert pedestals with just the function of supporting the body and somehow, propel us forward.
That’s why we do not have to think twice before enclosing them in thick cages, isolating the sole from the ground as much as possible, forcing the foot to assume improbable shapes, squishing the toes almost with the intent of fusing them together. This ends up making us believe that the feet that Leonardo was amazed by might have probably belonged to some other humanoid. Yet, that is not the case. Same feet, same magic. Our body has not changed significantly in the past few thousands years. The problem is us.
Aligned with a consumerist approach, here too we have the presumption of believing that the more we equip ourselves with, the healthier and happier we get.
Instead, the foot is really a wonder on its own. It suffices to know that the sole of the foot contains over 180,000 receptors, second only to that on the palms of your hands. In fact, feet evolved to act as sophisticated antennae, helping us balance and continuously relaying information to us about the ground we are in contact with. On top of this, in the foot are 26 bones and 33 joints (yes, there are joints in the foot, ankles not included) and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. Their role is to allow us to walk, run, and jump, support the whole body weight, and distribute it evenly in the foot both during static and dynamic situations. This doesn’t only mean that healthy feet result in proper locomotion and balance; it also implies that like the domino effect, what happens down there will eventually impact the rest of your whole body.
Blind feet – Here is why you need to let them see the light again
Have you ever tried to eat French fries or use your phone while wearing oven mitts? If you haven’t yet, I advise you to give it a try. I bet you can’t do too much, besides clapping like a happy seal 🙂 What is happening? You are effectively preventing your fingertips, the palms of your hands, the muscles and the joints from doing their job, that is sensing, sending feedback to your brain, and exploring and interacting with the surroundings. You are experiencing exactly what your feet experience most of the time while wearing modern shoes, with a small additional detail: every square inch of the bottom of your feet is also under more than 5 pounds of pressure.
With the oven mitts (i.e. shoes) on, your feet become blind, almost completely impaired, unable to properly perform most of the tasks they are designed for. In fact, the only thing all those wonderful receptors can sense now is a smooth, flawless insole that carries an insignificant amount of information about the ground; the morphology of the foot gets altered by both elevated heel and the insole’s arch support that modify delicate and complex equilibriums existing among the foot anatomical structures; this also causes the weight distribution to be affected with deleterious consequences, such as inflammation in various parts of the food; finally, these changes propagate throughout the body with effects on posture (i.e. feet/knee/pelvis alignment) and overall health at multiple levels.
How did we get to turn our feet into the most misunderstood part of our body?
While I was working in academia, I saw science reaching levels of sophistication approaching sci-fi movies. Nowadays, we are able to determine the fine structure of proteins, unveil mechanisms of action of drugs, successfully treat many types of cancer, make diagnoses that would have been impossible till a few decades ago. Yet, although anatomically speaking we know everything about feet, the general understanding of how feet work is for the most part incorrect. The root causes that have led most people (and doctors!) not knowing what to do about aching feet are complex but among the main ones is something you wouldn’t imagine: the lobby of running shoes.
The strategy of running shoes companies: how they make us believe we need their shoes
Starting from the ‘70, running shoe companies devised an extremely effective method to rewire the human brain. Nowadays, the vast majority of the population is totally convinced that yes, feet are designed to walk and run but only if they are equipped with thick rubber soles, engineer-designed multi-layered insoles and ankle and arch support. Just like in a pushers-drug addict relationship, these companies were able to make us believe we need something that 1) we don’t actually need and 2) is deleterious to our health. By introducing modern running shoes on the market, they convinced us that our feet are not enough. The reason? Well, additional padding provides a fake sense of comfort but at what price? The price is our overall health: with modern shoes the feet end up being trapped in something that closely resembles a cast. You leave them there for decades and as time goes by they adapt to that condition: foot muscles do not develop properly, tendons and ligaments stay loose and weak, the joints between foot bones do not acquire the right elasticity and the foot sole, supposedly bearing thousands of receptors and natural fat padding, almost atrophies as it never gets stimulated.
At this point we would probably need a superhero jumping onto the scene to rescue our gasping feet and bring them back to life. As improbable as it sounds, in the last decade or so, there have been attempts to introduce a paradigm shift in the shoe world with the advent of minimalist shoes. Minimalist means that all that is unnecessary gets stripped away from the shoes, so that we are left with just two things: a relatively thin sole and the top part of the shoe having the purpose of offering sufficient protection to the foot.
Going totally barefoot in today’s world might not always be a practical solution for obvious reasons, but switching from thick and padded oven mitts to thin fabric gloves appears to be a satisfactory compromise between aesthetics, comfort and functionality.
There is no way any minimalist shoe can be comparable to going completely barefoot BUT this is not a big deal because after almost choking your feet, now it’s time to start re-awakening them. By doing so, a new world opens up: you finally realize that those French fries you were desperately trying to eat with the oven mitts are amazingly crisp and hot. You realize that your feet talk to you, they send you information just like your fingertips do all the time, they have muscles that develop in the same way your more or less hidden six pack did. They really feel like powerful machines. You smile and realize that Leonardo was right, while those companies were terribly wrong.
I am a scientist and like to look at evidence. As far as it seems, there is not even one single piece of evidence suggesting that modern shoes are actually good for you. Whereas, several scientific studies suggest that both barefoot running and minimalist shoes can help you get back on your feet (…) and smile, because for the first time you like that sensation of owning a part of your body you almost lost.
Retake possession of your feet, once and for all
You might be asking yourself “What’s the catch?”. Well, there is one little hurdle to overcome when you start walking or running in minimalist shoes: you have the impression that you don’t know how to walk and run anymore. It feels like you have to re-learn. But remember, you have been walking and running on stilts, far away from the ground and especially, from the truth. You have been lied to for so long but now, I have a shot at redemption for you and you are not going to give up.
Keep in mind that feet can re-adapt fast, especially if this means to bring them back to their natural state. The awesome part is that the entire body senses this change and in turn, adapts too, giving a boost to your overall well-being.
I like to think of feet as the roots of a tree: if the roots suffer, the whole tree will too.
Act now and let that tree thrive again.
PS Get your minimalist shoes here and let’s start this journey together.
PPS Don’t be shy. Please share your thoughts with me, my friend.