A lot of people have foot pain to the point they can’t move the rest of their body, which is why foot issues are a risk factor for locomotion disabilities, poor balance, falling, and eventually loss of independence and quality of life. We cannot continue to neglect the movement of our feet.
In this episode, Katy shares an old blog post from her first long trail walk in minimalist shoes (back in 2008) as an example of how we need to pay attention to what we wear on our feet as well as what we are putting those feet on while we walk.
(time codes are approximate)
00:05:50 - The Long Walk vacation – (Jump to section)
00:12:10 - Tips for Walking with Minimal Shoes - (Jump to section)
00:14:05 - Final Thoughts - (Jump to section)
00:16:55 - More Final Thoughts - Foot exercises – (Jump to section)
LINKS AND RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THE SHOW
This is the Move Your DNA podcast, a show where movement science meets your everyday life. I’m Katy Bowman - biomechanist, author, and foot mechanics nerd. All bodies are welcome here. Let’s get moving.
Hey everyone! This episode is coming out the final week of April 2022. April, as some of you may know if you’ve been hanging around here long enough, is National Foot Health Awareness Month. Yes, you do need to get me a present! The reason foot health has its own month is the same reason heart health has its own month—February—Foot pain and foot disease are, like cardiovascular disease, excessively prevalent in this and many countries.
All right, so feet. Why are they important? Most movements we need and want to do with our body - not only for exercise but just activities of daily living - they pass through our feet. Our feet are bearing the weight of our entire body whenever we go to move. A lot of people have foot pain to the point they can’t move the rest of their body which is why foot issues are a risk factor for locomotion disabilities, poor balance and falling, loss of agency and independency, and just the quality of life. We can't continue to neglect the movement of our feet.
Now I know a lot of you listeners out there love your minimal shoes. Minimal shoes are great because they are a type of footwear that doesn’t prevent the parts in your feet from moving as much as conventional shoes can. But, BUT (that's two buts - but BUT!) getting the foot parts moving is the most important part when it comes to foot health. It's the reason we're wearing minimal shoes.
So yes you've got your minimal shoes, but how often are you exercising your feet outside of your minimal shoes? So, we rarely exercise our feet, and that even goes for many wearing minimal shoes. Minimal shoes get you more movement, and yes, in that way when you wear them, you get more foot movement. But I’m also talking about targeted exercises for dealing with the way that you’ve used your feet the first hunk of your life. And also the way that you continue to load them throughout your life. Our feet need this deeper strength. They need deeper mobility. And they need better stability.
I’ve written two books all about feet and the exercises that the feet and legs need to restore strength and mobility, mostly to give people information about the simple (I mean the super simple) ways they can actually control where they place their weight upon the foot as well as how to strengthen their feet to better withstand the load of their body weight during different activities. And that includes standing, even getting up out of a chair. Where are you putting the load on your feet? That matters. This is to reduce pain but it's also so that you can get more movement. Feet are the gateway to so much movement - or to moving more and that gateway currently has a closed gate in front of you. Dealing with your feet opens that door so you can move more of your other body parts, too. That to me is much more my intent when I spend time writing books or creating other resources about foot care through exercise.
So I started wearing minimal shoes back in 2008 or 2009. They were Vibrams, (Vibram 5 fingers - the glove-like shoes). So they are very flexible and thin. Very minimal as far as materials go. And I was just thinking about them the other day, because someone asked me about my first ever long walk. And I thought about it and I recalled it was this hike that a couple hours outside of Portland. And it wasn’t that long ago - I mean, it was about the same time I started wearing minimal shoes - so 13 or 14 years ago. But what I remembered about the walk actually, wasn’t that it was my first long walk. I hadn't stored it in my memory bank as my first long walk. It was 12 miles. It wasn't that much distance to me now, but at that time it was the longest walk I’d ever done, but the reason this walk stood out for me was because it was the longest walk I’d ever taken wearing minimal shoes on. And then I remembered I’d written a blog post about it. Because this walk was a killer. Not because of the distance but because of the trail’s substrate. This walk was on a slate-covered trail.
So, having a blog is sort of like having a diary, only one that everyone can read and comment in, telling you things like, “you’re great! keep on writing,” and then signed by someone’s actual name and also things like, “I hate everything about you, and you obviously don’t know much, and also you’re a bad person” signed someone’s anonymous account with a picture of a cat.
So here's a fun fact about me: I don’t actually have a journal or a diary. What I write, you get to see, and in this case, revisit. So I'm gonna pull out what I wrote about that walk over ten years ago.
In addition to hanging out with my sister's (what felt like) 37 kids while on vacation, I also hiked my butt off. I attempted to wear my Vibram Five Fingers or “shoe-less shoes” throughout my entire vacation, something that was going quite smoothly until my most fit friend, Karren, suggested a 12-mile hike up behind the Columbia River. I was totally in. What a great chance to take my Five Fingers into the rough!
This wasn't my first time wearing my super-minimal shoes. I had already logged hundreds of "shoe-less" urban miles on the asphalt and concrete of my city sidewalks. And that's why I was completely unprepared for the fact I had to tap out around mile four. Starting off on this slate trail (and yes, I said slate) my flexible feet felt awesome. I felt so healthy. So biomechanical. So...smug. My feet were mobile while walking, "just as they were designed to be," and I could feel every lump of dirt, pebble, and ow...SLATE...ow, jabbing into my...ow...foot with every step. I toughed it out until I realized that while I had slightly increased the flexibility of my foot over the last year by wearing more minimal shoes, my intrinsic muscles (these are the muscles between the bones of my feet) hadn't really been stretched or strengthened much due to the artificially flat and debris-free surfaces that I had spent most of my time walking on.
The mobility of the foot is extremely complex. The foot's 33 joints allow the foot say 8.6 X 10 to the 36th power unique positions. And just in case math isn't your thing, this means that there are more than a zillion-krillion movements that your feet can do. So, textbooks note and label six motions of the ankle, but it’s the parts of the feet that give them potential to move into so many different shapes.
The foot's ability to deform over the surface it's walking on, is a method of data collection for the body. The way the foot deforms to a surface creates a picture of what is underneath the foot. A foot creates an "image" in the brain as to what's underfoot that helps the rest of the joints move to balance the body's center of mass and position itself well over the surface's contours for optimal balance. When the feet are stiff and weak - and constantly in shoes, which is partly how they became that way - the body’s center of mass isn’t free to adjust itself in subtle ways. Instead, you get lumbering, lurching, and unbalanced movement.
I know all of these things in an academic kind of way, but what I hadn't really experienced was taking my new foot muscles (new because they had never been over so many rocks for such a long distance) on a long off-road hike that challenged the toughness of my feet. My feet were baby feet. These muscles had never been used before and were experiencing fatigue! You wouldn't make a newborn walk a long hike, but that's what I was doing.
After three miles I felt like crying with every step. Every step pushed into these tired and sore muscles. My solution? Was swapping shoes. Thankfully I had packed another pair. Still flexible, light, and no heel, but I could finish the hike. And these stiffer bottoms reduced the amount of movement the terrain was creating in my feet and I could walk nine more miles, no sweat. So my ankles and regularly used foot muscles were fine. It was just the little guys in between my foot bones that were tired! They had never been on a walk before.
Through the rest of my 10-day trip, I hiked miles in the Olympic Mountains and walked tons all around town. There was a huge difference in the muscles used on urban terrain (flat and hard surfaces) as compared to the natural terrain with rocks, and uneven ground. And if you can't tell if you're "in nature," just use comedian Demetri Martin's definition, "Hiking is just walking...where you can pee." Oh, and P.S. I peed a lot in the woods, just because I could. I love, love, love all those purposeful squats!
Just a note here from 2022: Doesn't this read just like a diary? I mean this is a lot of loves and a lot of too much information. Ok... back to the article.
Other notable mentions were my post-walk super-open hips and hamstrings and I didn't even do any stretching. I just let the natural movements be my program and unwind my body under the clear blue sky. And oh and I had ZERO menstrual cramps. Hello, open pelvis!
And here's another side note back in 2022: While this is probably also too much information, although it is on my blog, this is the first time I had really deeply moved my feet, as I just said, and yes, 13 years later, the effect on my menstrual cramps, as in they went and never came back after this walk, has persisted. So I could say more about that but this is all about feet. So back to 2010 or whatever.
There is a very large barefoot movement happening now, which is a wonderful thing. However, we have a habit of picking a "natural" habit and jamming it into our unnatural lives. So, long distances on cement or asphalt. And this takes the thing we want, like more natural foot movement, while also creating unnatural loads that, in many cases, can create fractures and overloaded foot bones. So, train smart. You might need more walking in natural environments, or a little more padding if you’re on hard surfaces all the time. Shoes have been protecting us from our over-rigid environments for some time and it takes time (years, even) to restore function so exercise your feet!
- Start by daily stretching and massage of the heels, mid-foot, forefoot, and toes. I have lots of ideas and resources. You can find them on my website at:
nutritiousmovement.com/our-favorite-feet-footwear-and-walking-resources which I will link to in the show notes for this episode.
- Do your foot exercises. It's not enough to go read them on my website. You actually have to do them.
- Understand that the position of the foot is maintained by the muscles of the hips. Make sure you optimize your lateral hip, hamstring, gluteal, and adductor (or inner thigh) muscle strength. Find those fuller ranges of motion. Tight hips are definitely going to be limiting your foot function.
- Get a super-flexible shoe with minimal (or better yet, no) heel.
- Before jumping into non-shoe shoes, deal with your whole body alignment and gait mechanics. Podiatrists are seeing an increase in forefoot fractures from people transitioning to minimal shoes. And a lot of times they're just not mindful of how they're carrying their whole body above their feet. So learn more about that.
- If you get non-shoe shoes, be a walker first. If you do choose to run, build up your walking mileage and do your exercises before running in them.
- Log some miles on a natural surface, with elevation changes and rocky obstacles to get even more of your walking parts moving. The urban jungle is not a natural walking surface, but the good news is we’ve got all sorts of foot coverings now to fit your specific needs no matter where you're walking.
Hiking in minimal shoes can yield amazing results. For all of you body nerds out there, this is a way to get more of your body and your brain moving!
All right, friends, thank you for strolling down my pokey memory lane with me.
Last summer I took a hiking vacation in Montana with my sister. It was amazing. And we met a new friend, Claudette. Claudette, if you're listening, this episode was for you! Because we were all talking about how to pack to hike in a new place, and I brought up shoes. Right? Like, I love shoes and feet. Shoes are the hardest for me to pack when it comes to hiking in a place that I've never been before because I like really prefer to hike, even backpacking, even go longer distances, in really minimal sandals - even for difficult terrain. But substrate really matters. So I noted, to Claudette and everyone else that we were with, that websites like All Trails could really use substrate descriptions because, without those, I’m never certain which shoes are best. And the story I just read was exactly why I would want, not a rating but a description. Trails are sometimes made with the assumption everyone will have thick and tall boots or boots covering your ankle. So to be on a slate trail so all of those little pieces poking into my covered, but essentially sort of bare feet in the sense that I can feel everything coming through the very thin sock-like coverings of a Vivo Barefoot. I hiked on one trail in New Zealand, this was just a few years ago, and they had covered it in old window glass. It was a way that they were recycling their glass. And it wasn't glass that was sharp so that would cut you. It wasn't like they threw beer bottles on the trail, it was cubed glass and it was fine for anyone in, maybe a conventional hiking shoe. In hikers. In the shoes that you're "supposed to" wear when you're out there hiking. Some substrates are really slippery and some, like the boulders in Joshua Tree, those are extremely grippy. And P.S. if you ever go out hiking in Joshua Tree, water shoes are really great for what we call geckoing up and down boulders when we hike there. So anyway, this stuff matters when it comes to gearing up appropriately. Yes minimal shoes, yes flexible feet, but remember this is - there's an ecological approach. Context matters. And in this case, the context is: What am I walking on? So SUBSTRATE DESCRIPTIONS. Minimally shod hikers could use them.
Just choose two or three and do them every day. These fit so well into standing around and doing other things, like recording a podcast, for example. I’ve been stretching my ankles and toes for the last twenty minutes which is why I’m better on audio than on video. And here’s another healthy foot move from Dynamic Aging: Can you lie on your back and grab your feet? I mean, there's a foot move that's really more about your hips and your spine. A big contributor to poor foot health: people can’t reach their feet anymore which means they can’t tend to them. They can't wash them. They can't take care of their toenails and then it leads to this whole other thing that means slip-on shoes, and not shoes that tie, so you’re in footwear that's associated with more slips and falls. But anyway ... Mobility. Without it, we’ve got issues on both the inside and the outside of the feet.
So, GET ON IT, people. Or get off of it? Get off them? Get to them? Whatever. Let’s go outside now.
Hi, my name is Michael from The Olympic Penisula in the state of Washington. This has Move Your DNA with Katy Bowman, a podcast about movement. Hopefully you find the general information in this podcast informative and helpful but it is not intended to replace medical advice and should not be used as such. Our theme music was performed by Dan MacCormick. This podcast is produced by Brock Armstrong. And the transcripts are done by Annette Yen. Find out more about Katy, her books, and her movement programs at NutritiousMovement.com.