Friday, December 03, 2010

Do Toe Shoes Make Your Feet Stronger?

"It's better than Disneyland!". That's what my then-eight-year-old son said at his first sighting of the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain. It has to be noted that my kid, like me, is just a wee bit of a history geek. We had come to Segovia largely to see the aqueduct, still standing and carrying water for 2,000 years.

And what does this have to do with my feet, and running, and those strange toe shoes I keep going on about, you might ask? Like your feet, the miracle of the aqueduct is the arch. In the case of the aqueduct, many arches. Constructed without any mortar (my son went up close to the stones just to make sure), bearing the weight of all that rock and water, standing through centuries of storms, earthquakes, and human civilization, the arch is the miracle of weight distribution. If I remember my notes from the dusty old Architecture lecture hall in college, the arch distributes weight into both downward and horizontal thrust, supported by the columns below. If you put a wooden form underneath an arch, all of that weight would have to be borne straight down without being distributed sideways. Such an arch just might collapse.

Our feet are no less of a miracle, our arches are perfectly constructed to bear the weight of our bodies through all ranges of motion. Our arches are, as the title of Christopher McDougall's popular book says "Born to Run". So why do we insist on putting "supports" under them, when the very notion of supporting an arch can cause the collapse of such a perfect structure? Ask the modern running shoe industry that question. Oh wait, the barefoot runners already have, and running shoe companies are all quickly backpedaling into "barefoot-like" shoes which will be hitting the market this year.

Luckily, we can take steps to strengthen our feet without spending much money on shoes designed to mimic the barefoot experience. First of all, we can start going barefoot as often as possible. In the town where I live, most homes are shoeless by choice, frequently with a sign by the front door asking visitors to remove their shoes. This not only saves hardwood floors and carpets from dirt and wear and tear, but it saves our feet from spending more time than necessary in shoes. We can choose to walk barefoot whenever we can, giving our feet time to strengthen all of the necessary supporting structures that may have been weakened by a lifetime of imprisonment in shoes. Before attempting any barefoot running, it's important that your ligaments and muscles are accustomed to long periods of standing and walking without the support of shoes.

Barefoot strides are a great way to start gradually introducing barefoot running into your repertoire. When I started barefooting, I would run down to a local well-groomed soccer field in my running shoes. Then I would remove them and run a series of 100 - 200 meter strides up and down the field. I would start slow and build to faster and faster speeds, trying to hold good form. I could immediately tell that my feet ran completely differently without the shoes.

Eventually, I transitioned to the Vibram Five Fingers, or "toe shoes". This let me extend my barefoot runs into areas where my feet might be in danger from rocks, glass, and splinters. Gradually I was able to run longer and longer until a barefoot run of five to eight miles did not bother my feet in the least. I also started wearing them for weight lifting, other indoor exercise, and kickboxing. The perfect structure of the feet I was born with was finally able to support my weight in all of the activities that humans are meant to do.

The next time you're tempted to buy over-engineered running shoes, think about the perfect arches of the Roman aqueduct standing the test of time. Your feet are no less perfect, it's time to let them do their job!

The Ironmom Extra Mile:  Some barefoot running inspiration: and Barefoot Ted's Adventures . Barefoot Ted makes some terrific looking minimalist running sandals that I'm dying to try out. Next time I go to Seattle I want to visit the factory up there and I'll let you know what it's all about.


Suzanne Digre said...

This kind of scares me actually. I'm not a runner, but I do wear shoes 24/7. I have some problems with my feet, including a high arch. If I don't wear Dansko clogs or another very supportive shoe I have discomfort & even pain. But after reading your post, maybe I will try going barefoot a little every day. Thanks for your insightful post!
Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana

Robin said...

I have very high arches, it's actually a good thing, not a problem. I bet you will find that after awhile they won't bother you if you get them back to being used to supporting themselves, but take it easy! My arches don't hurt me at all now, ever.

The Gleasons said...

Great post. Of all the examples I try to give people about the genius of their feet, I had not yet compared "arches" to "arches". Just awesome.

A simple way to strengthen the feet we have used is jump rope. Its inexpensive and teaches really good muscle memory.

Great post and blog. Keep up the good work.