Comfort is not an Effective Metric for Functionality
The author’s understanding of foot function is modeled on our knowledge of how our Paleolithic ancestors stood and walked. The best remaining resources for this study are Aboriginal cultures who still live in a natural context as did our forefathers millennia ago. Our post-industrial environment is so different from the native environment of our ancestors that accommodations are needed. For example, we walk on concrete, which our ancestor’s feet never encountered. Something as foundational to our modern way of living as walking on flat surfaces is a recent innovation (it is rare to find a family lineage without ancestors who lived on farms as late as 1940).
A proper understanding of archetypal foot function is required to engineer situationally appropriate appliances for the feet. One solution will not meet all of the needs of any individual. Armed with good information, a range of solutions that both support and liberate the foot to express its innate capabilities will lead to enhanced well-being and a more adventurous mood. For healthy feet, and by extension healthy bodies, these solutions require optimizing foot function, which supports the feet fully employing their scope of innate expression, as opposed to buffering and isolating feet from the job they were born to do.
The best footwear is no footwear at all. Bare feet are the foundation of our species success and were de rigueur until several hundred generations ago. However, opportunities to go barefoot in our urban surroundings are scarce, and so the next best thing is to wear footwear that best supports our feet in their role of supporting our bodies as they stand and move.
GUIDELINES FOR FOOTWEAR
- Perhaps the most significant guideline is to minimize wearing shoes that press on the outside edge of the big toe which will push it’s alignment away from the vector of gait. Over time doing so will miss-align the big toe, disabling its functional role in gait. Once this happens, particularly once the big toe becomes painful, gait becomes compensatory, usually relying on Lateral Stabilization (falling forward from the outside edge of the foot).
- The foot needs to properly grip the ground. Wearing socks inside shoes makes the foot slip. This also happens when we walk around in our socks. A firm grip is essential for enabling gait dynamics and Postural Extension. A customary remedy is to fasten the foot securely inside the shoe. However, doing so removes the sensory “feed” that our bodies get from friction between the foot and the surface it is contacting. These sensations inform the tensioning mechanisms of our connective tissue and are integral to Tensegrity Biomechanics, which translates to both stability and fluidity in posture and gait.
- Feet can be extremely dynamic, morphing their shape to the surface with which they are connecting. Wearing shoes with a lot of insulation inhibits this faculty, which over time will somewhat atrophy from disuse. Footwear that allows the foot to sense the texture of the ground through the sole of the Shoe is preferable. Moccasins are a good example of this type of footwear.
THE HAZARD OF COMFORTABLE SHOES
When buying shoes often the primary metric one uses is “Are these shoes comfortable?”. Of course, one would not want to buy uncomfortable shoes. However, shoes can be quite comfortable and yet do a terrible job of supporting the foot in its job of supporting the body. The metrics listed above are much more important than whether the shoes are comfortable. It is entirely possible that the more comfortable a pair of shoes is when you first put them on, the worse they will be at the task of enabling the foot to function well. It is best that the shoe feels neutral, neither too comfortable or uncomfortable. It is worth noting that our feet are engineered for a rough life, to take a pounding, be cold and regenerating from their interactions with the earth. They will complain, but they don’t thrive on being coddled either.
Orthotics indicate a failure of footwear to support the feet in their job of supporting the body. The job of the Orthotic is to replace support that should be provided by the foot with a lift. Moving to an orthotic is essentially “throwing in the towel”, declaring that the foot cannot do its job. Orthotics have efficacy short term while feet recover from injury, but long term use tends to atrophy and degeneration of innate functionality of the feet.
If orthotics have been used for an extended period moving directly into footwear defined by the parameters above can be challenging, and the process should be assisted by foot exercises and Manual Therapy.
Footwear that conforms to the parameters listed above is generally described as Paleo Footwear. It is common that when one first starts wearing Paleo Footwear that they are found to be somewhat uncomfortable, and that the feet hurt after wearing them for a while. It can take as long as a few weeks for the feet to “wake up”, during which time the shoes should be used in moderation. This means that the shoes are enabling needed exercise for the feet, and should not be regarded as an indication to stop wearing them. There is a page here on recommended exercises for the feet:
EXERCISES FOR THE FEET
Potentially the most extreme variant of “Paleo” footwear is this prototype this writer has built:
Discussion of tactics and strategies to aid in training improved foot usage:
IMPROVING OUR FEET
An overview of foot structural and functional issues and means to optimize how we use our feet: