Minimalist shoes started becoming quite the fad around 10 years ago. Those ridiculous-looking Barefoot shoes that looked more like a Bigfoot footprint mold cast with shoe material caused quite the buzz. I have honestly never even tried a pair on because they look nothing like the shape of my feet. I heard mixed reviews on the pros and cons of such a shoe, but it would be nearly a decade before I understood just why this trend was so important to myself, and to the world.
I’ve been into shoes since I started following Michael Jordan back in the early 90’s. I was only 5 or so years old, but those commercials talking about Jordan’s shoes truly made me believe that footwear had the power to improve your athleticism. My parents couldn’t always afford the shoes I wanted, but I during my later grade school years when it looked like I might stand a chance to earn a basketball scholarship to college, they let me get the “higher quality” shoes that I wanted, which I now realize were just over-priced shoes that happened to be attributed to NBA Stars like Jordan, Allen Iverson, Scottie Pippen and Vince Carter (and Shaq, Penny, Payton, Grant Hill and a few others for all the sneakerheads out there).
This idea that footwear dictated performance still sticks with me today, but my understanding of why has dramatically transformed. Now I can actually see past the spokesperson, through the elaborate styling, and identify the design features required to provide the support, comfort, control, traction and freedom of movement needed based on the sport the shoe is designed for. Not only does this help me choose the best shoes for any purpose, but it tends to save me money as well!
For whatever reason, I thought the best all around shoes for weightlifting were running shoes. They were more casual than basketball shoes, more athletic than dressier sneakers, and if I wanted to go for a run…I was already ready. So from around my freshmen year of college until around age 31 that’s what I wore for anything that required exercise. In fact, after a recommendation from a friend, I even bought corrective running shoes that forced my feet into a neutral position by preventing them from over-pronating. I wore these for almost 10 years!
Fast forward to my career change from website design to personal training (because I “thought” I knew so much about fitness at the time) and I started to notice how many of the trainers and other athletes in the gym wore cross training shoes. I thought it was just to let everyone else know they were into Crossfit style workouts, but eventually I learned that the shorter, stiffer soles actually provided more contact with the ground, and transferred force for efficiently than thick-cushioned running shoes.
You see the more the sole of a shoe absorbs your impact, the slower force is transferred and the less stable the body actually is. Now for high impact activities like running, that shock absorption can be very beneficial and spare our joints from extraneous stress. But what happens when we walk around in running shoes, or any soft-cushioned shoe for hours a day instead of walking around barefoot, or on a shorter, stiffer sole like that of a cross-trainer? We transfer force slower, we distance ourselves from the ground, we ultimately disconnect ourselves from the ground we walk on.
The more disconnected from the ground we are, the worse we become at…well…everything we do that depends on the quality of our connection with the Earth. Our feet get weaker (fasciitis), our arches collapse (pronate), that causes the knees to internally rotate (uneven wear on the knees and ankles), rotates the femur internally (weakening the glutes, over-developing the TFL leading to IT Band problems, pelvic imbalances, back pain, postural deformities…need I go on?
It’s not an understatement to say that the health of our physical bodies relies on a firm foundation, starting from the ground up. It’s not always realistic to go barefoot, but stiff soled sandals and shoes that require your feet to do the work of absorbing the impact to soften your stride are your best bet at keeping your feet healthy and strong. We need to stop allowing shoes and orthotics to force our skeleton into position and start training our muscles to do their job of holding our skeleton where it belongs.
You can start by trying to spend progressively more time in a less supportive shoe, but don’t just wear it for the sake of wearing it, pay attention to your feet. Grab the ground with your toes, pull your forefoot towards your heel to activate and raise your arch, land softly heel to toe, and keep equal pressure across the contact points of each foot. This will be difficult at first and maybe even painful, but you’ll get better at it, and your body will thank you.
So, back to shoes. I hope this post has made you more aware of just how important your choice in footwear can be to your body. When you’re at home, avoid walking around in anything cushioned. Try to stay barefoot, or if you need to wear some socks, ultra-thin sandals, or something similarly unsupportive. When weightlifting or resistance training, try to wear actual weightlifting shoes (zero cushion) or cross-trainers (minimal cushion) so your connection to the ground is strong. As you start increasing the impact and duration of impact, it can be appropriate to add more cushion to your footwear, but spending your life in running shoes is only good for your body if you are spending your life running.