Ah, springtime – the birds are chirping, the grass is green, and the runners are coming out of their hibernation in droves to hit the newly warmed pavement. With many of the runners (and anti-runners) this time of year, we tend to see an uptick in foot and ankle problems at our clinic. Is it simply because they are not acclimated to the new exercise demand? Not always. Take a look at your shoes… Those expensive little foot prisons. If you are a runner who is dealing with even minor foot/ankle problems, the solution may be right in front of you.
Have you ever broken a bone and been relegated to a cast? Do you remember what that limb looked like after the cast was removed? If you were anything like me, it looked like someone had replaced my arm with that of a small child’s. This is called atrophy. When you immobilize a joint, the supporting musculature weakens and shrinks due to disuse. This process happens VERY quickly and takes quite a while to bounce back from. That being said – when was the last time you slipped on a fresh pair of Adidas and thought to yourself, “look how much room I have to spread my toes!”? The anatomy and biomechanics of the human foot evolved over thousands and thousands of years to a perfect biological shock absorber and force transducer for the bipedal mammal (two legs – that’s us). Of all the animal species, the Homo sapien (still us) is the most efficient and capable endurance machine. We were designed to be persistence hunters. Long before iPhones and Teslas, we used to physically run down larger prey until they literally collapsed or died of exhaustion. Sometime this process took hours, even days. We are born to run. Side note: If this concept piques your interest, you should go read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. Do you think that early civilizations had nice poofy Hokas to lace up before they set off to topple a wooly mammoth? Now, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, there was no hard surfaces or asphalt around back then. “Grass is soft, concrete is hard, now give me my shoes back”.
There are more cases of Plantar Fasciitis, Achilles Tendinopathy and chronically tight calves than ever before. How is that possible if we have all the world’s shoe nerds working at Nike to add NASA-grade materials to our footwear? The answer is that, collectively, our feet have become weak. The shoes we wear every day act like casts for our feet. This immobilization over time produces atrophy – specifically atrophy of the intrinsic stabilizers of the foot/ankle complex. These muscles are responsible for maintaining the 3 major arches of the foot as well as every little micro-correction your foot makes when it crashes to the ground while running. Here’s a fun anatomy fact: Almost 25% of the muscles in your body live south of your knees. When was the last time you thought about training them?
MINIMALIST FOOTWEAR: Now, I’m not advocating that you strip off your road-worn trainers and hit the streets of Indianapolis with no shoes on. I’m not even advocating that you make the switch to Vibram FiveFingers or Vivobarefoot shoes for your next race. I’m simply suggesting that certain types of minimalist footwear are better suited to accommodate the natural biomechanical expression of the human foot. So, why go minimalist? Your toes are meant to splay, to grip the ground. Your heel is not meant to be the first point of contact with the ground when you run. Even more so, you may find that running without the confinement produced by most modern running shoes shortens your stride, forcing you to land on the balls of your feet. This may seem counterintuitive from a performance perspective; however the result of this major biomechanical overhaul is a greater mechanical advantage and allows a much more efficient transfer of force from the ground through your feet all the way through your knees, hips and spine. Plain and simple – less wear and tear, less wasted energy and less likelihood of injury.
WHERE TO START: At home, in the yard, walks around the neighborhood (if there’s nothing dangerous on the ground), try walking around without shoes as much as possible. Re-orient yourself to the feeling of balancing on uneven and unstable surfaces. Those feet have been used to being crammed into shoes for most of your life, it’s going to take some getting used to before you’re ready to hit the pavement with some minimalist shoes. Expect a little soreness from those tender toes. After a few weeks, you’re likely ready to test drive some minimalist shoes. These are defined as footwear with no elevated heel, very thin soles and a wide toe box to accommodate the natural splaying and gripping capability of the toes. My personal favorite are Vivobarefoot’s Primus Lite, which I wear to the gym and the clinic every day (waiting on a sponsorship!). New Balance’s Minimusline as well as other brands like Vibram FiveFingersand INOV-8are known for their minimalist designs and might make for a good beginner’s choice.
HITTING THE ROAD: Tread lightly (no pun intended) – Jumping into the minimal waters is something you want to do VERY GRADUALLY. Don’t expect to go straight into using these for all your runs initially. Walk around in them for a few weeks, try them out in the gym but most importantly, allow your body to acclimate to the subtle differences in movement before you take off running. Otherwise, you put yourself at risk for getting injured. When starting your running, go low and slow. Initially, 1 workout per week with your new kicks and the rest with your old trainers. Increase frequency and duration of wear as your body allows. Expect some soreness. You are using muscles that have been asleep at the wheel for a long, long time. With time and training, this will feel way better than your old footwear!
A WORD ON SORENESS: The arches and soles of your feet need time to adapt to this type of exercise demand. A simple lacrosse or tennis ball can do those sore muscles wonders. Place the ball on the floor and roll the arches of your feet over it for several minutes if you are feeling pretty wiped out after a run.
Most importantly, have fun! Most people find that running like this is not only nicer on the body, but it also reconnects you with your inner child. Explore, play, jump, balance and explore your newfound freedom and mastery of movement. The feet are your first-line neurological connection with the ground. Make them stronger and treat them well. You may be surprised where they take you.
Content provided by Dr. Tyler Crooks