I am a runner, I have been since I was 14 and I like to see myself running like a carefree kid even when I am old and surrounded by grandchildren. Then, I look at lots of my fellow runners, read statistics, check out what most running shoe brands have to offer and I feel like banging my head against the wall. Why? Because foot pain after running as well as while running has become the norm. This is totally unacceptable for someone like me who thinks that running, just like any other sports, should make you spark joy, and kindle a sense of freedom in you. Not pain.
The (in)volution of our feet and the dangerous path we are walking on
What really makes me furious about this is that the vast majority of people and doctors (!) are totally convinced that the feet are the source of the problem. They believe that feet are needy creatures desperately looking for attention, extra-care and protection. And by this they mean a lot of protection, because feet are so delicate and fragile, right?
Perhaps they think that the feet they’re talking about belong to a new human species that evolved over the past 50 years or so. This must make them feel quite special because Homo sapiens has been the only human species on Earth for about 40.000 years. Now, let’s welcome the new arrival!
Interestingly, for some strange evolutionary reason, they can use those feet only when wearing specific protective cases designed by engineers and marketing experts. Ah, these cases, aka shoes, unfortunately don’t work that well either, as they continuously cause pain to the feet… Something is telling me that these new humans are doomed to exctintions.
Let’s stop putting the blame on feet. Once and for all.
I cannot afford to let them go extinct without trying to take action and change the course of events. I am saying this not because I feel like a sort of SuperGreta Thunberg but simply because I know that the solution is very simple, right at your feet. Although feet are among the most misunderstood parts of our body, the medical and sports community believe they drilled down all the secrets of foot anatomy and bio-mechanics. If that’s true, then why do 50% of runners get injured so badly every year that they end up missing important events? Why do runners all have the same foot issues (knee pain, plantar fasciatis, etc)? Why do most people find so difficult to stand or walk even for a relatively short period of time?
The answer is that feet just want to be left alone as they were born perfectly designed to do their job. We don’t need to tell them that the arch should be lifted, the heel must be elevated and that the bottom should rest on ultra-padded insoles. It’s like taking the David by Michelangelo and removing some marble from the hands (“Eh no, way too big”), some from the abs (“You make me envious otherwise”), some from the feet (“Btw, where are your shoes?!”). It’s ok to find beauty subjective but when it comes to tens of thousands of years of evolution, we all should be asking ourselves a few questions before grabbing the scalpel and disfigure our feet.
Walking with the devil without even realizing it
What’s scary about this is that such a process of self-harm has been happening almost completely unnoticed for decades, to the point that it looks like it’s something we all have to go through during our running experience. The outcome is that by now non-runners say “Do you know how bad running is for your knees?“. Or, how many runners have I encountered who had to give up on their racing goals for inexplicable foot/knee pains?
The truth is that modern running shoes are the main culprit for this epidemic of foot issues and we can easily extend this statement to almost any other modern shoe designed for walking, hiking, etc. As I discussed in a previous post, you can’t ignore feet for too long before your overall health starts being affected, simply because, anatomically and functionally speaking, feet are really the foundation of our body.
Feet are sensitive creatures
Did you know that the skin is the largest organ of our body? On average it takes up 22 square feet (2 square meters, half a table tennis). Impressive, uh? Now, consider this: of such a huge surface your hands and feet are in theory the only surface that is designed to physically interact with the outer world. It’s not a random occurrence that hands and feet are the regions with the highest concentration of sensory receptors. So, why keep our feet in quarantine most of the time? Why preclude them from giving their contribution to our everyday life?
Some scienc-y stuff about feet
Feet are designed to communicate with the rest of the body through these sensory receptors as well as several other mechanoreceptors present in muscles, joints and tendons. There is a fundamental neuro-muscular mechanism called proprioception (literally, the perception of the self) through which the brain is able to instantly collect information about position and movement of the body. There are ways to trick the brain, though. Regarding feet, one effective way to accomplish this is to isolate the sole of the foot from the ground with thick padding. By doing so, the feet become completely unaware of what’s really happening outside with the consequence that the amount of information they can now send the brain is close to zero. All the instantenous adjustments of both the ankle/knee position and the tension of leg and foot muscles that should take place simply don’t. The brain can’t send the right electrical signals back to those regions to compensate. The outcome is that at every step we take, the force of the impact ripples from the foot all the way up to the hips and spine in a highly disorder fashion causing damage, slowly but surely.
This is not the end of the story. In fact, unlike hands, feet are subject to about 5 lb/in2 (0.4 kg/cm2) when standing, which is roughly equivalent of placing a 2 liter-bottle on your thumb. If you walk, run or jump, this pressure can increase several folds (ouch!)! Whenever such pressure is not properly distributed on the bottom of the foot and within the inner foot structures (bones, muscles and tendons), we observe the emergence of issues, such as localized inflammation (in the heel, the plantar fascia, the arch, etc.) or microfractures in the bone components, just to mention the most common. Ouch.
The foot has such a peculiar shape for a reason
The ball of the foot with all its fat pad and strong joints absorb the very first impact, the arch bends like a wooden plank allowing the whole foot to spread and distribute the impact further as the heel goes down, in turn the bones (cuboid, metatarsal and cuneiform) shift slightly but significantly to complete the motion. Of course, along with this there is much more happening in the ankles, knees, etc. (check out next posts for more). But this should suffice to show you that when the foot is cramped inside a shoes that alter foot biomechanics, blood flow and disrupt proprioception, that’s when feet start suffering.
Every time you go for a run with your highly technological shoes , your feet go through this deleterious process about a hundred times a minute (!). By the time you get to the end of your jog, your feet are asking you for mercy. Ah, you get a similar result when you spend the whole day standing or walking in shoes that prevent your feet from functioning as described above. Feet are sturdy bioengineering devices, so for some time (weeks or even years) they might hold up but be sure that sooner or later all that misuse will knock on the door and present you the bill.
We need to free our feet, there’s no other solution
Fortunately, Homo sapiens are smart creatures. Some of them realized that by stripping away all that extra material from modern shoes and basically, going back to the origin is a totally viable strategy to rescue the feet. This is how minimalist shoes were born. I remember the first time I wore them. Oddly enough, I felt confused. The confusion increased when I went for a run. In hindsight, I understood what happened: my brain-feet connection was restored after 20 years spent in modern running shoes. I came to the shocking realization that my feet had never been the problem, the pain I often felt represented smoke signal my feet were sending to warn me. After that day, I could never wear modern shoes ever again.
The conclusion is that good minimalist shoes really solve the problem of foot pain, as they act on restoring proprioception and proper biomechanics. When all the subtle mechanisms I described function harmoniously, pleasure arises. Every step you take is a step of self-discovery. You begin to unveil the true potential of your feet once you plug them back into your body. Amazingly, this process of self-discovery happens simultaneously with a process of overall regeneration. The further along you go, the more you get addicted to being able to explore the world pain-free, knowing that you only need two things to succeed: good minimalist shoes and your passion.
Live wise. Live in motion.
PS It’s time to discover the best minimalist shoes.
PPS Please share your thoughts with me, my friend.