Keeping Your Feet Healthy
If you don’t think your feet are important and you don’t think you should be working on your body from the ground up, think again.
The average mildly sedentary person in this country walks about 5,000 steps a day. With one to two times your bodyweight in force being put into the ground on each step, these 5,000 steps add up to millions of pounds of force every year.
When you realize how much stress the foot undergoes even during simple daily activities, it becomes clear just how important looking after our feet is to our health and safety.
In the following article, Ron Jones gives some important points to help you look after your feet:
- What to look for when buying a new shoe, including which designs encourage the foot to function more naturally and which will end up hurting the feet, possibly even causing knee and back pain
- A great tool for those suffering from diabetes or plantar fasciitis
- How to look after your ankles as well as your feet
About Roy Jones
Ron Jones is a corporate wellcoach from Los Angeles who began noticing foot problems while working with his senior clients 10 years ago. He’s been helping his clients improve their foot fitness ever since.
1. Get your feet into the right shoes
The first step toward improving foot fitness is to get your feet into a shoe that’s more flexible. The more flexible the shoe, the better the feet can feel the ground.
The foot is filled with sensory nerves that provide information about movement to the brain. Stiff, rigid shoes limit the amount of information the feet can send to the brain.
Getting your feet into more flexible shoes will allow them to provide more information about the surface it’s on as you move.
Here are a few things to pay attention to when looking to buying a more foot-friendly shoe.
Flex lines of foot and shoe
Flex lines are built into most shoes. With most traditional shoes, if you put one hand on the toe area, one hand on the heel and compress it like an accordion, it’s going to bend in one spot. It’s going to be somewhere around the balls of the foot. This is called a flex line.
The balls of the feet are basically the metatarsal joints. It’s the primary flex line in the foot. Some shoes bend right there and nowhere else.
A lot of shoes today are flexible throughout the whole structure. They don’t have set flex lines. This allows you to to feel the ground better.
When buying shoes for kids, make sure you don’t buy shoes that are too big. If you buy a shoe that’s too big, the flex line in won’t line up with the flex line in the shoe. This can create some problems with the foot fighting the shoe.
When you put your foot on the ground and load it with weight, it should be able to spread wider. This gives the body a wider base of support to put force into the ground. Most shoes, however, bind the foot and take away the ability for the foot to spread.
Look for shoes that allow the feet to spread a little.
The Converse All-Star
While thin-soled shoes may appear more foot-friendly, don’t be fooled. Thin-soled shoes can still be extremely rigid, while a thicker-soled shoe can be more flexible depending on the material. Shoes like the Converse All-Star Chuck Taylors or even some Vans skate shoes have thicker soles, but they’re highly flexible. That’s what you want.
So pay attention to how flexible the sole is, not just how thick it is.
One simple test you can do to see how flexible a shoe is through the arch section is what we call the ‘taco twist shoe test.’
If you take the shoe in your hands and try to crush it in the center like an accordion—toe box in one palm and the heel in the other—most shoes will bend at the flex line near the balls of the foot.
However, a really foot-friendly shoe should do these two things: It should taco in the middle through the arch, and then you should be able to twist it like a towel diagonally through the arch.
That’s a real quick way to find out if a shoe is more foot friendly.
Sole tread design
The design of the tread can affect the way the foot functions
The design of the tread affects motion control. Flip the shoe over and look at the tread design. If it’s asymmetrical—meaning the lines aren’t perfectly matched and are going in different directions—the foot will be forced into a certain position, which isn’t optimal.
The foot and ankle will always need to position itself differently depending on the situation. There are times when we need to pronate, supinate, flex, extend and tilt. If the shoes are predetermining the position, that’s bad news for the health of our feet.
One of the things to look at when it comes to sole tread design is how much surface area it allows us to put on the ground. Because a lot of soles are concave, some of the sole is lifted off the ground and therefore reducing the effective surface area of the sole.
If you have shoes pulling up the edges of your feet, pulling your toes off the ground or lifting the base of the fifth ray—one of the tripod-type areas that’s supposed to be for weight distribution on the lateral side of the feet—this reduces the contact surface area. But the more surface area you can get, the better off you’re going to be.
Lateral support is something built into shoes. But you really don’t need a lot of it if your feet are fit. One thing you’ll notice about running in Nike Frees or running barefoot is that the lateral challenge in your feet will come back because the foot isn’t bound by the shoe anymore.
In shoes that are too long, the flex line will be off. However, if they’re too short, you’ll be binding the feet and possibly deforming the shape of the toe joints. Make sure you get a shoe that’s the right length that allows your feet to spread and grasp the ground.
Heel lift might look good, but isn’t good for foot health
The craft of shoe making has historically had nothing to do with science or function, but everything to do with fashion. This is ingrained in the tradition of shoe making.
The only reason we have heel lifts in shoes is to make us taller. They serve no functional purpose. In fact, they’re detrimental to foot health and can make knee problems worse.
If you have any kind of heel lift, you’re taking the Achilles tendon out of the equation to some degree. This will cause compensation in the glutes, quads, low back and other areas.
The Achilles tendon is like a huge rubber band that stretches out, snaps back and helps propel us into the next step or running stride. This is important for movement efficiency. In fact, a lot of people think the reason why Kenyans run better than American or Western runners is not because of race, but because they grow up barefoot and have better Achilles function.
Heel lift can also make knee issues worse. The higher the heel lift, the more pressure is put in the center of the knee. If you have any knee issues, think about dropping the heel down, not using an elevated heel.
Heel lift can also cause plantar fasciitis. The plantar fascia is like a guide wire for a bridge along the bottom of the foot and in the back of the calf. An elevated heel disrupts the normal functioning of the Achilles, which can lead to inflammation called plantar fasciitis.
Get shoes with minimal heel lift, or at least minimize the time spent in heels. This will go a long way towards improving the health of the feet and ankles.
But be careful and make changes gradually. If an Achilles is short and you decide to jump straight into shoes with no heel lift, or go straight into barefoot running, you can stretch it out too fast and cause a rupture or injury.
Air cushion heels
Nike Air Max (via Nike.com)
Shoe companies have tried to sell us all on the idea that we need more cushion in our heels to decrease impact forces when running. In reality, we’re not supposed to be running with a initial heel strike anyway.
If you look at barefoot runners, you’ll see they don’t strike the ground with their heel first because it hurts and they can damage the heels. They land mid-foot or forefoot, where they can properly absorb force.
The more cushion we put into the shoe heel, the more it enables a dysfunctional stride.
Some research has shown that the more we put between the heel and the ground, the more the body wants to push into it, trying to get feedback. So in a way, this backfires because we end up putting more force through the heel with the air cushions instead of less.
Arch support is heavily sold by shoe companies. Even a lot of the doctors think we need arch support. But this just isn’t true. Our feet are very capable of supporting our weight without external support if they’re neurologically fit.
What’s really critical to the proper functioning of the foot arch is it’s ability to change position. In gait, we actually need to roll through some movements in the arch. While many people talk about not wanting people to pronate, in reality there’s going to be some pronation needed in each step.
As you take a step or as you’re running, the arch will naturally compress a little and get closer to the ground. It’s part of the spring-loaded structure in the foot to absorb and distribute the force.
A rigid arch support takes a lot of the spring-loaded action away from the foot. This is just another example of how we get in the way of the foot instead of working with what we have.
What about orthotics?
Ron Jones said he had two pairs of orthotics and threw them both in the trash. More often than not, orthotics are just a bolt-on attempt to deal with an end-stage issue. It’s not a root-cause fix.
Remember that a rigid orthotic will block the spring-loaded action that needs to occur through the arch of the foot. That’s part of the natural function of the foot, and it’s critical. Orthotics will get in the way of this.
Another thing about orthotics is that the shoe and the orthotic are incompatible systems. We have a shoe that’s deforming the foot, because if you’re wearing a traditional shoe, that’s what it’s doing. Then you have an orthotic trying to shove the foot back up into neutral.
What’s in the middle? The foot. There’s a huge struggle and the foot is getting caught in the middle of it all.
What about minimalist shoes?
Ron Jones continues: More and more people are jumping on board the minimalist shoe trend. What I’m finding when I talk to shoe salesmen is that a lot of people are returning these shoes. They’re taking them back because they’re not aware of the important points we’ve covered in this article.
They just think, “Hey, the barefoot running thing is cool. I’m just going to slap these shoes on and hit the trail.”
Then they get frustrated because they end up with pain or they run slower on the first day. They don’t realize it can take a long time to get used to new footwear.
There’s definitely a big break-in period when it comes to switching to minimalist footwear. If you want to rupture your Achilles tendon and possibly end your running career, take off in a minimalist shoe without any break-in period.
Another issue is that a lot of so-called minimalist shoes aren’t true minimalist shoes. They don’t actually fulfill the criteria or achieve the goals of a minimalist shoe, which is to allow the foot to function more naturally.
If you flip over to the soles of these ‘fake’ minimalist shoes, you’ll find they have some kind of motion control designed in the tread. If you look at the sides of the shoe, they’ll have some type of lateral or heel support built in, all of which impede the natural function of the foot.
When buying a minimalist shoe from a store, be careful—they’re not always good for you.
Here are two popular minimalist shoes, the Nike Free, and the Vibram Five Finger shoe.
Nike Free Training Shoe (via Nike.com)
Although there are some criticisms of the Nike Free, I’ve had great deal of success with them and use them a lot with my corporate clients.
I’ve had people over 60 years old with horrific foot pain. They’ve had a decade or two of foot pain. They started wearing Nike Frees and within a week or two, their feet felt much better. Sometimes it has completely rid them of foot pain.
The Nike Free is a different style of running shoe that is very flexible. It has a different type of sole design. It doesn’t have a lot of motion control in the sole. It’s pretty symmetrical in terms of how it’s laid out. It doesn’t have much lateral or heel support. You can take your hand over the heel cup and crush it instead of it being a rigid plastic heel support.
It makes your feet work much harder, but if you work with your feet, good things are going to happen. The less you do with your shoe, the more your feet are going to do and that’s a good thing.
The criticism people often have about the Nike Free is that it has a standard heel lift. However, to get someone to drop the heel all the way to the ground or go to one of the more radical minimalist-type shoes is a bigger step. The Nike Free is a great way to start restoring the natural function of the shoe without the risk of injury to the Achilles that other minimalist shoes with little heel lift may have.
I can put someone in a Nike Free and have good things happen to their feet without worrying about injuring them. They’re a great transition shoe and allow us to get people’s feet into better shoes and the gradually move them towards more minimal footwear with less heel lift.
Vibram Five Fingers
The Vibram Five Fingers KMD Sport (via Vibram Five Fingers)
Vibram Five Fingers are wildly popular these days. They helped kickstart the whole barefoot running craze and today’s minimalist shoe trend.
They’re great as long as you have some safety tips to go along with them.
If you know how to posture your foot before you ever move, and understand how to keep the ankle and foot neutral to each other, the Vibram Five Fingers are a great shoe.
They’re going to really work your feet, so be careful when you first get them. You might not even want to do much in them except to walk around the house for 30 minutes because your feet might be very sore afterward.
The worst thing you can do when you first get them is to put them on and go running. That’s a great way to get an Achilles tendon rupture or a very severe injury. I would suggest just walking in them a little to gradually break them in.
Another caution with the Vibrams is that they will probably damage the skin on your foot because the shoe is rubberized and your feet get sweaty and damp. If you’re training out in a field for six to eight hours, you’re going to potentially lose a lot of skin. For this reason, it’s better to go barefoot when possible if you’re going to spend a lot of time moving outdoors.
2. Walk barefoot at home
Spending more time barefeet will do wonders for your foot health
Most shoes deform feet over time. In a Western country most people are going to have some level of deformation in their feet. In fact, kids are reported by the ages of five or six to already have some kind of foot deformity in their toes or the shape of the foot.
What you’re looking for is to keep your shoes out of the way of your feet, because your shoes can actually deform your feet over time. A simple and easy way to do this is to simply walk barefoot at home.
Some of my clients have seen amazing changes just by taking off their shoes at home and letting their skin touch the ground. There are a lot of nerves in the skin along the bottoms of the feet and tips of the toes.
It’s really important to get this area to wake up a little, because when we’re in stiff and rigid traditional Western shoes,we begin to get a ‘detuned’ foot. Walking barefoot is a good way to wake up the nerves in the feet.
3. Massage your feet with a foot log
The Foot Log (via Ron Jones)
The foot log is a tool originally targeted toward people with diabetes. I call this the Holy Grail of foot fitness when it comes to a foot health tool. It’s an odd-looking device that looks like a kitchen rolling pin with a bunch of number two pencil erasers on it. It’s like a serious foam roller for feet.
Whether you have diabetes, plantar fasciitis or other foot problems, the foot log is a great tool for waking up the nerves and massaging the muscles in your feet. Use this every day for better foot health, even if it’s for a few seconds a day.
Diabetes is a big thing with foot fitness because you can get diabetic neuropathy and ulcers on the bottoms of the feet if you’re diabetic. Everything I’m talking about here can help you take some threat out of your feet and will help you have a better day. The foot log tool might be something you want to look into; it’s helped a lot of people with diabetes.
4. Look after your ankles
The ankle is a fascinating joint and is largely misunderstood by most people. We’ve been taught to make sure we have ankle support. For example, we need ankle support in a boot to be safe. Or we need ankle support to play football.
But the ankle needs to be mobile. If it’s not, the mobility ends upcoming from the next joint up, which is the knee. The knee is a hinge joint and just isn’t designed to provide the kind of mobility that the ankle naturally has and provides.
If you step in a hole, you’re supposed to be able to get movement at the ankle. If you’re running uphill or downhill, the ankle is meant to flex and extend.
However, if the ankle is stiff, the mobility comes from the knee, which can really stress it out.
Most people start taping their ankles after they suffer a sprain
A lot of people today have problems with their feet. And the worse your feet are, the more likely you are to have ankle problems.
A big cause of this is footwear, as we’ve discussed, but another important one is sedentary behavior. Our modern society spends less time moving and being active. When combined with over-engineered shoes that restrict the natural function of the foot, this causes foot problems, which in turn causes ankle problems.
When people get ankle injuries, especially those who play sports, they start taping their ankles. A lot of the football players use a half roll of athletic tape when taping their ankles before a game.
They do this thinking it will stop their ankles from getting injured, when all it does is cause more problems.
Taping immobilizes the ankle. And when this mobility is lost, it has to be gained somewhere else—usually the knee.
But what’s between the knee and the ankle? Two long bones that are susceptible to torsion or rotation.
When you immobilize the ankle, what ends up happening is the ligaments in the ankle get splintered or torn, making the ankle problem even worse.
This is my theory, and it’s subject to debate. But it explains why taping the ankle an often lead to more problems.
So what should you do? Use your ankles in full ranges of motion. Gradually decrease the heel lift in your shoe, wear more flexible shoes, spend more time barefoot. These help to restore mobility and ankle strength, all of which will go a long way in avoiding ankle and knee problems.
Working on ankle mobility is also an extremely important thing when working with seniors. If seniors don’t have good mobility in their ankles, it will throw off the falling line and vertical column integrity. This makes them more prone to falls, and is a huge issue for seniors who may suffer from slower reaction times or who don’t see as well.
When working on ankle mobility, also pay attention to ankle tilt. The ability of the ankle to tilt is critical—I like to use the Z-Health drills for this. So many people I’ve worked with, especially those who’ve had back pain, have ankles that are literally fused—not from surgery, but are just neurologically locked up.
They’ve been wearing the wrong kinds of shoes. They’re sedentary. They’re not moving their ankles well, which means there are all kinds of potential issues up higher in the kinetic chain.
Make sure your ankles have the ability not just to flex and extend, but also to tilt left and right.
Do you need ankle support?
Ditch shoes that lock up your ankles
I hunted and fished when I was growing up, and I was always told I had to have ankle support. I also grew up in the construction business where everyone wore safety boots with ankle support.
Shoes with ankle support, however, end up immobilizing the ankle and causing the problems we’ve been discussing. I’ve had many clients who work in the industrial sector who suffer from back and knee pain because of the rigid shoes they wear. When I’ve gotten them to switch to a different type of boot that allows their ankles to move more freely, they’ve often seen the pain disappear.
If you want to avoid pain, get a shoe that will allow your feet and ankles to move freely.
This article was adapted from Ron Jones’ lecture, Understanding Feet, Ankles and Shoes.
For more from Ron Jones, visit his site at Ron Jones Foot Fitness.
If you enjoyed this article on keeping feet healthy, here are some other great resources to help you create safe, balanced and effective training programs:
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Tap Into the Brains of Some of the World’s Leading Performance Experts
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