Do you remember a few years ago when minimalist shoes became all the rage?
In particular I’m talking about the 5 Finger shoes where each toe has a separate compartment like gloves for your hands. People would wear these for training in the gym, while doing daily errands and even to some work places.
And an interesting thing seemed to occur when people starting wearing this type of footwear. First they noticed improved function at the joints through the lower extremities such as the foot, ankle, knee and hip. If they had back pain they maybe noticed that this was lessened or less frequently a problem.
As well due to the physical separation of the toes and the lack of a built in arch support the structure of the foot began to change. Due to the physical separation of the toes the feet developed a wider platform. This became really noticeable when at a houseboat party for my wife’s work and I had my shoes off and my toes were splayed widely compared to everyone else’s toes which looked like sardines packed in a shoe container.
The other difference you will notice with wearing minimalist shoes is the shortening of the foot. Why does the foot shorten? Well since there is no external arch support we must develop our own arches and therefore this lifts the foot through the middle. The higher arch shortens the distances from the toes to the heels and so you may notice your regular shoes fit a little looser.
But not all minimalist shoes are your best option.
With the 5 Finger variety there are a number of benefits including the independent articulation of the toes, the development of the arch, the flexibility of the sole to allow more ground contact and the lower heel position.
Consider for example a popular summer shoe such as flip flops. At first this might seem like a great substitute to 5 Finger shoes. There is minimal coverage between the feet and the ground. The foot is open and exposed. The heel is flat to the ground. And starting at $5 flip flops cost only a fraction of what 5 Fingers go for at up to a $100.
Perfect solution, right?
Recently we had Dr. Emily Splichal of the Evidence Based Fitness Academy present at the Okanagan Strength & Conditioning Conference. Dr. Splichal is a big proponent of barefoot training and took some time to show how to reap the benefits of training without shoes.
One of the reasons to train without shoes as this helps innervate the nerves of the bottom of the foot. When these nerves are stimulated there are a number of health, fitness and performance benefits including activation of the glutes.
Want to help prevent low back pain? Train your glutes.
Want to accelerate more quickly in sports? Train your glutes.
Want to have a more attractive backside? Train your glutes.
Want to train your glutes most effectively? Train barefoot.
Dr. Splichal also shared a drill to activate adductor hallucis which is a muscle on the bottom of the foot and helps move the big toe away (adducts) from the other toes and helps support the arch of the foot.
Kind of sounds like what minimalist shoes do right?
To accomplish this you have to think of pressing the big toe into the ground. Some refer to this as ‘routing’. Another drill might be to lift all five toes off the ground and then tap only the big toe to the ground. Next would be to try and lift the big toe away from the other toes.
Give it a try. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I’ll wait.
Ok, now it’s important to not confuse ‘routing’ or pressing the big toe into the ground with a hammer toe or clawing the ground with the toes. The latter actually innervates the wrong muscles and creates problems with the feet rather than lending the benefits described above.
So looking back at the example of flip flops what do you think most people are doing with their feet? Routing or clawing? Clawing, right?
And in order to keep the flip flop attached to their foot to the sandal at the big toe do you think most people are adducting (away from other toes) or abducting the big toe (towards the other toes)? They are abducting to grasp the sandal and keep it attached to their foot, aren’t they?
Now imagine someone walking in flip flops. They will be clawing and pulling the big toe to the other toes which is exactly the opposite of what you would want to see with optimal foot and ankle function.
While it may be a challenge to get athletes to ditch flip flops for a barefoot or minimalist option it could be that they are not aware how this is compromising performance and potentially increasing the risk of injury. Perhaps if they knew how this small action could the difference between good and great they may re-think their choice in footwear and ditch the flip flops.