The feet never get any love. Nobody likes feet. Some people see a bare foot in the room, and they run! No other structure in the body seems to inspire such powerful, albeit negative, sentiment. But, given the foot’s importance, the script should be flipped! The feet should be praised, worshipped, even placed on a pedestal. In this article, we are going to explore why.
The Ultimate Effect of Shoes on Posture & Neurology
The body maintains three interdependent receptor systems that are responsible for gathering information to help us better navigate our environment. These receptor systems are the proprioceptors (within the joints to give feedback about body position); interoceptors (relating information about our internal environment, organs for example); and exteroceptors (relating to us information about our external environment). The soles of the feet are stock-full of these exteroceptors.
As human beings when we explore the world in which we live our feet are the only part of us in constant contact with our external environment. This being the case, it is no surprise that the sole of the foot has more exteroceptors than almost any other body part. As mentioned above, as we place our foot onto the ground these exteroceptors are used by the brain to gather information about several things: our postural position; the need to make adjustments as it relates to absorbing/utilizing ground reaction forces; the need to create more stability, etc. This information enables the brain to make immediate changes to levels of stiffness and tension in muscles all the way up the kinetic chain.
These adjustments to tonicity are made in order to protect our joints and connective tissue from harm or perceived potential threats. We must always think, whether in sport or in the weight room, that it is the skeleton and its connective tissues that we are primarily loading. The skeleton is the important player in movement. The brain uses muscle to move, protect, and to maintain the positional or postural integrity of the skeleton, it is not the other way around. Therefore, whether biomechanically sound or not, the firing patterns executed in administration of this ongoing task eventually become engrained in the central nervous system, and can begin to govern the way we move.
Long Term Effects of Using Shoes as a Crutch
This genius system of checks and balances could, among other things, help us to be much more aware of our position relative to the gravity line (posture/joint alignment), essentially eliminating many postural problems. However, with the wearing of shoes and the amount of time we spend with the feet on hard surfaces (concrete, shoe soles, orthotics, etc.) our brain receives less and less information from the important receptors of the foot, and they become “dulled” and essentially “inexperienced.” As the saying goes, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Eventually, the feet lose their ability to “see” where we are, causing lag in our movement and affecting the brain’s ability to make the correct neurological adjustments at the correct time (eg. On-field performance; a quick, necessary positional correction during a split squat pattern, etc).
In the above situation, when trainees go barefoot (especially when outside or when performing SMR) they find the soles of the feet to be particularly tender. The exteroceptors, never having opportunity to sense things, are suddenly overloaded with a million intimate pieces of information that they are no longer accustomed to receiving. They find themselves unable to recognize or identify the new sensations, and the confusion and abrupt overstimulation is perceived as threatening. Naturally, the brain records this perceived threat as “pain.” It is no different than wearing shades or being in the dark for an entire day (wearing shoes), and then suddenly removing them or stepping outside and exposing the retina to full-on sunlight. At first, the eyes are uncomfortable and it takes time for them to get their bearings.
Pain makes us unsure of movement, and so it may take some time for your trainees or athletes to acclimatize to the sensations of being barefoot while wandering about. But I have seen with many trainees that once they have been exposed to their new “world,” for a long enough time, they will afterward often look forward to training barefoot. In my experience, this is because of the noticeable increase in the stability and neural drive that they receive in their lower body training. I had noticed this happening with some individuals, but at the time did not understand enough about the foot’s physiological structure to describe this phenomenon with the aforementioned detail. Still, I am oversimplifying things when talking about going barefoot. There may be other functional or structural/anthropometric issues that make it unwise to throw an individual shoeless into the lion’s den (a lower body exercise), but for the vast majority of trainees, they need more of it. Much more.
Of course, being in bare feet more often is only the first step to revitalizing what may be the missing link in our training programs. It will not solve postural problems and realign you for better movement overnight. There’s more.
The Effects of Shoes on Gait
Not only can shoes inhibit our ability to maintain a healthy line of communication between our body and the brain as mentioned above, but they can also mess with the performance of one of our most primal and essential functions: gait. This happens when shoes contribute to a lesser of mobility of the big toe (first Metatarsal Phalange/MTP).