I’m just a regular person with a regular body, and sometimes things start hurting on my body—in this case, my left ankle.
I never had any ankle issues until about 10 miles into my first really long (30+ mile) walk almost four years ago. I completed the walk, but I went through four different pairs of shoes on that trek and none of them could make my ankle feel better. My ankle issue wasn’t really because of the shoes, but because of the state of the ankle I had brought to the walk. There are no magic shoes.
Since then I’ve done 20-mile walks pretty regularly—for the first couple of years after that, about once a quarter, and the last year it’s been almost monthly. I realized that I need to take good care of my feet and ankles if I am going to ask them to carry me so far, and I know how to do that. But, like many people, me knowing what I need (and even want) to do doesn’t always translate into me doing it. Last month I felt that old ankle wonkiness creeping in after my last 20-miler, and after I did a 12-hour coastal hike last week, I found myself hobbling around a couple days after.
I don’t fear injury; I find that going through short spells of these issues keeps me mindful and aware of my choices all the time. It reminds me when I haven’t chosen to regularly tend my movement gear (my feet and legs, in this case) in the same way I would a bike or car, to keep things humming along nicely. Injuries also remind me how fortunate I am to feel and move well so much of the time and to be grateful for that.
What I do with my wonky ankle is the same thing I write to do in my books. First, I tune in to how I was moving beforehand—way beforehand, like the last year or months as well as the week and day before.
Here’s my checklist:
- More or less total movement than usual? In this case, I’ve walked many more miles in the last year than ever before.
- What types of movements? Lots of walking as mentioned, but almost no sitting cross-legged in a way that stretches that hip and ankle (I’m standing way too much), and very few, if any, corrective exercises in the last 60 days. (Summer makes me want to go outside and full body it vs. do the more mundane part-by-part care.)
- Movement terrain? The 20-miler I had done just before my ankle starting whinging was entirely flat, on an asphalt trail.
- Footwear? It’s summer so I’m mostly wearing minimal sandals with thinner soles. Given the mileage I’ve walked on hard surfaces this summer, I could have probably benefited from some additional thickness. The minute twisting motion I make in my left leg when I walk was increased by the fact I’ve worn down most of the traction of the top and bottom of the soles. And when I took a good look, I saw my three- and four-year-old sandals have been worn down in a way that pushes my body into angles I’m always trying to work my way out of.
Second on my wonky-ankle to-do list is get back to the daily set of “corrective” exercises my ankle needs and a more diverse set of whole-body moves (in this case, less standing at my workstation and more sitting, more squatting for rest, and less floor sitting in non-ankle-challenging positions).
Third on the list: replace my shoes.
Yes, even minimal shoes, like all footwear, wear down. Shoes, like our bones themselves, are like an autobiography of how we moved in them that last year (or the last four). My weight tends to press more on the outside of my leg and ankle than on the inside.* This tendency is less of an issue when I’m barefoot or hiking on varied terrain, where my left leg is moved in a lot of different ways that force the inside of my leg to move more. The more diverse the ground, the more diverse the movement of your body. But my older shoes, like an old mattress, have been shaped by this habit/pattern over time and were behaving as a self-fulfilling prophecy machine—the way I have walked in the past set the way I would walk in the future because my shoes kept moving me back into that habit of loading the outside of my heel. Those 10,000–40,000 steps every day were 10,000 tiny loads a bit more on the outside of my heel than on the inside. I couldn’t walk “straight” in these shoes any longer, even after starting back to more rigorous corrective moves. It was time to get new shoes.
It’s tough to connect the way we feel to the environment we keep. I’ve heard time and time again the logic behind this thinking: my environmental element X can’t be part of this issue. I’ve always done/had/eaten/worn/slept on X and this issue has just emerged. It must be something new. And while this could be a logical throughline, it doesn’t account for the slow accumulation of change. I’ve always worn these shoes, after all—and my ankle just now started hurting, on this one trip, this one hike, this one day. It couldn’t possibly be the shoes. Only it can be. This isn’t to say there’s an inherent problem with the shoe style per se (I will be buying all these same styles again), but environments are malleable. We’re not only shaped by our environment—we’re shaping it right back (Move Your DNA HOLLA!). Also, my issue was not only these shoes; it was also my lack of doing all the other moves I know my body needs to keep my leg and ankle-parts stable. These same shoes wouldn’t look like this if I had taken my same body and done other things with it in the past last year.
How long are shoes supposed to last?
Because I have so few pairs of shoes and fewer still that I log most of my (numerous) miles in, my wear pattern emerges more quickly in a pair than if I were to spread my movement over a greater number of shoes. But the math is clear: you either buy many pairs of shoes all at once, or you buy them in series. You can’t find shoes that don’t wear down at all—unless you’re not putting much weight on them, i.e., you’re not moving around on your (shod) feet a lot.
I love all my shoes, and I’m impressed at how many years and miles these minimal shoes have supported me through. I’m even more grateful for the years and miles of movement my body parts have supported me through, and I’m putting them first. Mama’s getting a new pair of shoes**!
*When it comes to reading shoes, you can see that you’ve worn things a certain way. What you can’t easily see is how or why you’ve worn them that way. I’ve simplified the mechanics for a layperson article, but start by working through this: Carrying more weight on the outside of the left ankle can be created by an entire torso leaning to the left, or a ribcage sliding more in that direction. It could be due to where you wear your pelvis or knees (rotation of the thigh), or in my case, it’s because my heel bone (the calcaneus) is slightly tipped outward beneath the rest of the ankle. In short, wear patterns on shoes can be seen, but cannot truly be read without also reading the rest of the body.
**Shoes featured above are, in this order: Earth Runners, Earth Runners, and Unshoes. I'm reordering both of these styles because they work well for me. Find more minimal footwear styles of all types on my Minimal Footwear List (not affiliate links, just shoes that fit the category).
UPDATE: My new shoes plus better non-walking movements paid off! Just completed a 3-day, all-day trek and the bod feels great!