Did you know your toes are designed to have as much mobility as your hands? (Minus the opposable thumb, of course!) and there are people out there with amazing dexterity in their feet. Most people have very little mobility.
One of the reasons the toes (and feet) get so stiff is from wearing shoes that act like casts for your feet. The sole of most shoes is pretty rigid – you might get some flex around the ball of the foot but for the most part they keep your foot in the same position always sensing the same flat surface. Some even have a metal shank in the sole. Tapered shoe boxes are also very popular – but most people don’t have feet shaped like that, so the toes can hardly move when they are being worn.
Most people would agree that the Chinese tradition of foot binding is extreme but the deformation that comes from narrow toe boxes and stiff unyielding shoes is not natural. It is common – and therefore seems ‘normal’, but it is not.
The photo to the right shows a hallux valgus (bunion) that can occur from habitually wearing shoes with toe boxes too small for the forefoot and toes. The big toe joint is basically dislocated. And the practice of foot binding required the dislocation and breaking of the toes so they could fold under the ball of the foot.
Your foot should look more like the photo below. That’s my foot. I am fortunate that my feet are in pretty good shape because I was a skater, I took ballet and was on pointe, so they could have been a mess.
I was just thinking that one of the best things about wearing handmade leather shoes with highly flexible soles is the ease with which I can move my toes – anywhere, any time of the day. In this photo I am demonstrating the range of movement on my cobblestone mat with the ball of my foot draped over a large stone.
These shoes are by Soft Star, (Ballerines) but really, you should get the same amount of foot flexibility/movement with any minimal shoe, which doesn’t only mean that there is no heel (or zero rise). It also means the sole is flexible so that you can get as close to going barefoot without actually going barefoot.
I usually stand on my cobblestone mat without shoes of course. It gives a wonderful massage, different pressure and sensation on the foot, because even though my shoes are flexible, the ground I walk on the majority of time isn’t. I spend the bulk of the time walking on pavement and a level floor…these are casts for your feet too!
Why It Matters
It matters because problems with your knees, hips and lower back often begin in the feet. You may address the problem in those areas, but without considering how the way you stand, the shoes you wear, or how you exercise your feet – or whether you exercise them at all, is part of the bigger picture.
Most people are aware that moving their body in different ways is beneficial. We get stiff and sore (our muscles actually atrophy) from lack of movement. But we tend to not think shoes are preventing the full range of movement that the feet are designed for. Any range of range of motion that isn’t used, is lost: but not permanently.
For more on this, read Katy Bowman (Katy Says) interview with a Podiatrist. It is about children’s feet but the same principles apply. Then, check out Movement Revolution’s blog Becoming a Toe Ninja as the next step in getting more mobility in your feet.
But, be Sensible!
If you’ve worn rigid soled shoes with a narrow toe box and a heel (even a small one) all your life, make your transition slowly.
1. Begin by lowering the height of your heel a bit and get used to that.
2. Don’t trade in your shoes for flip flops (or any other shoe that requires toe grip to keep them on your feet, because you are just trading in one problem for another.
3. Be aware that your walking gait pattern will probably change so be mindful of doing hard hiking, pounding on city pavement or running while wearing minimal shoes until you build up more mobility (and strength) in your feet.