Stronger Feet For Better Performance
"When the roots run deep, there is no reason to fear the wind."
When I searched for this quote, is was attributed to both an African and Chinese proverb.
Wherever it came from, the truth behind it rings clear: strong roots equals a strong foundation. A small tree with deep, thick roots that run long into the ground won't be easily toppled. A big, strong-looking tree with small and weak roots can be pushed over with the right wind.
The same goes for our bodies. The human body is an amazing machine; we are capable of great strength, mobility, speed, and power. The only thing is, we are only as as strong as our foundation.
Our foundation goes beyond the core, beyond the legs. At the very root (get it?) of where we make contact with the world, is our feet. How we walk, squat, jump, and transfer power starts in the feet. If you have weak feet, you won't perform at your best. You could also be putting yourself at risk for injury; people with weak arches might develop knee, hip, and back issues.
Why Are Our Feet Are Getting Weaker
The feet are awesome little pieces of our body. They help provide sensory feedback, and help with balance, power distribution, and coordination. So why do so many people have problems with their feet?
Some people claim that our shoes are to blame. It makes sense, as many shoes today are essentially marshmallows on our feet. They provide no benefit other than comfort, and act as a "band-aid" to foot issues. Many shoes are also marketed as "arch supporting" which, while useful for some, might be a hindrance to others.
Also, our inactive lifestyles don't help either. Because many of us don't get the right amount of movement in our daily lives, our muscles grow weak, which can cause dysfunction throughout our body.
So, how do you strengthen the feet? Do you buy some over-sized, brick of a shoe with squishy insoles? Or would you rather get to the root of the issue?
How To Strengthen Your Feet
Like I said above, there are multiple issues that can mess with foot health. One of the biggest ones is footwear.
If you look at the trend of footwear, and at the trend of foot issues, you'll notice they follow a similar pattern. It seems like foot pain and other issues starting popping up only after we started wearing constrictive cages on our feet. Now, if you go somewhere in the world where being barefoot is the norm, they seem to have less foot and toe deformities.
It would seem then, that the human foot would be better served by being barefoot. It makes sense, as we've evolved for millions of years without shoes. This seems backed up even more with shoe companies selling minimalist shoes, which are shoes that have little to no arch support, high flexibility, and low-to-ground contact.
The Shoe Dilemma
Our shoes definitely don't help with our foot problems. The modern shoe is mainly designed for aesthetic, not function. Too many shoes have a large chunk of rubber at the base of the heel, too much support, and limited flexibility.
Our shoes need to reflect the foot's natural abilities. The shoe needs to allow the foot to do it's thing, and not be obstructed. With all that said, shoes do provide protection against the elements and against foreign objects. So what should you look for in a shoe?
Honestly, it depends on the task that you intend for the shoes. Are you hiking? Running on pavement? Going to the gym? Or maybe you want some sleek yet functional minimalist shoes. Here's the main things to look for in a shoe:
Flexibility. Can you roll the shoes up, twist them, turn them, and contort them like an acrobat?
Thickness of the sole. This is the cushioning of a shoe, and acts as either a barrier or protector, depending on what you're using them for. Going for a hike in a very rocky area? you might want thicker shoes. Going to the gym? Stick with thinner shoes that will keep you glued to the floor.
Zero-drop. No matter the thickness of the sole or flexibility of the shoe, I always advocate for zero-drop shoes. Zero-drop means that there is no height difference between the heel and toe of the shoe, which is important in for avoiding heel striking when running.
Width. You need to let your toes breathe! Most shoes are scrunched up in the toe area, which keep our toes from splaying out, and might be a cause for bunions and other deformities. While wider shoes may look a bit different, they keep our feet healthy and happy.
Durability. This is more of a personal opinion, but I like my shoes to last. The one downside to minimalist shoes is that they tend to be made of thinner material, which could lead to quicker wear and tear. Find the right brands that offer the things above and the durability to last.
But before you go buy a new pair of toe shoes, take some precautions: if you've been wearing highly cushioned shoes for most of your life, going straight to a minimalist shoe might do more harm than good. It's like riding a bike with training wheels for 5 years, and then suddenly taking the training wheels off and deciding to go mountain biking.
I believe that minimalist footwear is great, and I swear by them; but it takes a little while to get used to them. I recommend slowly decreasing the amount of support you use in shoes. So if you have a highly supportive shoe, you go down to a shoe that has a little less support, and start from there.
Also, sometimes for certain foot problems, certain shoes are prescribed by podiatrists. if you have a specific foot problem, I recommend talking with a doctor first. If you just notice that your feet are always tired and weak, then maybe minimalist shoes can help.
How Exercise Can Help
Shoes alone won't develop stronger feet. Think of shoes as laying the groundwork, and exercise as actually building up the foundation. Proper exercise can strengthen the stability of the foot and ankle, which can also help with knee, hip, and back issues. The question is, which exercises should you be doing?
Honestly, any type of resistance training is going to help, but there are certain movements that I would prioritize over others. Lower body movements that require stability, coordination, and strength are key. Also, how you perform the movement is crucial. Below are some specific exercises that can help.
#1 Single Leg Exercises
Single limb movements are awesome for demanding more stability, which is what we want when it comes to the foot and the ankle. Things like lunges, single leg deadlifts, and other single or semi-single leg exercises require a lot of balance and stability. This forces your muscles to work harder, especially the muscles in the foot.
#2 Ankle Pronation and Supination Exercises
We can also do exercises that force us to directly work on pronation and supination of the foot. Pronation is when the ankle rolls inward, toward the body; supination is when it rolls outward, away from the body. Watch the bum video below for a quick primer on why it's bad to do too much, and a great exercise to help fix it.
Having stronger feet will assist you in a number of ways. Having weaker feet, on the other hand, can cause pain and dysfunction. So take care of your feet, and they'll take care of you.
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