Human feet have evolved over millions of years to perform in harsh conditions, and cushioned, padded shoes have only been a recent phenomenon. It’s really no wonder a lot of people have foot, ankle, knee, and hip problems. How can you strengthen your feet for performance and injury prevention? Read on.
Read time: 8 minutes
I’ve had my share of lower body injuries.
- Severe sprains in both ankles several times.
- Tendinitis in both knees.
- Nagging hip pain that only recently went away.
- Mild plantar fasciitis, mild stress fractures in both feet, and “shin splints” in both shins.
I attribute each one of these ailments to overuse and improper bio-mechanics.
This is why I harp so much on progressing slow and always using proper form.
I also attribute the pesky injuries to not being proactive in preventing injuries to these specific areas (“pre-habbing”) and also the reliance on thickly cushioned padded shoes.
I’ve since been paying more attention to my body, and I’m really beginning to reap the benefits.
In this post, I want to hammer home that you could also benefit from proactively strengthening your feet and ankles, wearing less padded and cushy shoes at least some of the time, and steeling up your first link with the ground.
Do I have a beef with shoes? No. I wear padded shoes a lot of the time (mostly for very long runs and walks).
What I do have a problem with is relying on them too much and using them to try to PREVENT injuries.
The Rub With Most Shoes
There are several aspects of shoes today that throw off our natural balance.
- Elevated soles, from a higher set heel (dress shoes) or from lots of cushion (running shoes), put stress on the achilles tendon and lower back with every step.
- The extra lift in the heel can lead to a mindless pounding of the feet, leading to foot, ankle, knee, and hip problems because of the constant impact, pounding, and abuse.
- Padding and cushion can also lead to overstriding. Overstriding can lead to bad walking and running form with way too much impact, putting undue stress on the knees and hips.
- Another thing is that modern footwear can “coddle” the feet and result in soft and undeveloped feet and ankles prone to injury. Instead of the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones of the foot taking the impact and building up bigger and stronger, the cushioned sole absorbs most of it, leading to a truly undeveloped first link.
- I have no scientific backing to this, but I will say that I do believe that conditions like achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, shin splints, knee pain, hip pain, and even bad posture and lower back pain can be caused by relying on too much padding and cushion placing the same stress for thousands of reps on the same areas (and constant pounding) leading to overuse (and also weak muscles in these areas). Poor diet, stress and lack of rest, and lack of physical activity could also play a role.
- Another big problem? Most people spring for MORE cushion and stability at the first sign of pain and weakness, which is wrong! It’s like putting a band-aid with holes on a gushing wound… you don’t solve the root problem, which in the case of the feet is muscle, tendon, ligament, and bone weakness, and you even exacerbate it by adding more cushioning and coddling the feet even more!
- Every lower body injury I’ve had has come about while wearing thick padded shoes and not paying one lick of attention to my feet and ankles… coincidence? Maybe. I’m a one man case study, but there must be some sort of link.
Now, even if I’m totally wrong, is it going to hurt for you to try to strengthen your feet? No. Try it! It’s mostly free, it just takes some time, and it may just solve your lower body pain and problems. You have nothing to lose.
The Benefits of Strong-ass Feet
There are many benefits to strengthening your feet, let’s dive into the most important ones.
You lessen the chance of foot and ankle injuries (including overuse injuries).
Like I said previously, I used to be absolutely plagued by foot, ankle, and knee injuries, and I’m almost 90% certain it was from having weak ass feet and ankles from wearing shoes with too much bulky padding and cushion. I would constantly pound the pavement with pillowy padded shoes, play basketball in thick chunky high top shoes, and lift in running shoes. No wonder.
If you don’t take care of the root problem (foot and ankle strength, flexibility, balance), while also paying attention to each step and mindfully walking or running quietly, no shoe will ever help you avoid injury.
Humans were also meant to walk and run on multiple types of terrains and grades, and your feet kind of act as sensors, guiding movement while performing physical activity. Shoes (and concrete and pavement) take this away and give you no feel, only a dull repetitive stress.
I liken this phenomenon to wearing big padded gloves on your hands all the time. How much dexterity do you have while wearing gloves? Very little. The feet are the same, and strengthening the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones will steel up your feet and make them more indestructible!
You will have better power transfer from the ground.
This is the first tenet of athleticism, and athletes could hugely benefit from this.
Remember when I said that the feet are the first link in the chain? Well power is derived from the ground and transferred through the body like a chain.
The first link must be strong, balanced, and have some feel of the ground. Have you ever tried to run on those big trampolines? Not easy, is it? That’s because the trampoline absorbs the force you exert… which shoes also do (albeit to a much smaller extent).
There is a reason most athletes use shoes with minimal to zero cushioning, from sprinters to football players to wrestlers to boxers to MMA fighters (barefoot) to Powerlifters (ever seen a 400 lb monster deadlifting while wearing Chucks?) as the solid feel you get from the ground translates to more power output. The more stable your base is, the better!
This is also where training on unstable surfaces comes into play (stability balls, BOSU balls, etc.). By training on an unstable surface you theoretically get better at being in unstable situations. This is why these are a great tool to add if you play sports where balance is key. Don’t rely on these too much though, as training on stable surfaces is imperative for maximal strength and power output. A balanced training program is key.
Your balance will improve.
It’s a fact that the feet help you balance (and please remember the point above: proper balance and a stable base leads to increased power output). Those that practice yoga get the full benefits of this. The feet are much like sensors, relaying messages to your brain about body position and weight distribution. Shoes cut off these sensors, and can lead to awkward body positions that lead to injury. If you’ve ever taken the chance to notice and watch your feet while balancing in different positions on one foot barefoot (try it!), you’ll see that the toes kind of act as fingers and grasp the ground, providing stability. Balance starts at the feet, don’t miss out on strengthening this link!
How to Strengthen Those Dogs
We can employ several tactics to strengthen our feet, here are some of the best ways that I have found.
Walk around barefoot more often.
I’ve been actively doing this for the last 3 months and I’ve seen huge strides in foot strength. When you’re in the house, don’t wear “house shoes” or other forms of footwear, just wear socks! This helps you get used to being barefoot and will kickstart foot strength gains.
Lift in socks or minimal shoes.
Another one I’ve been hammering lately. I do all my lifting barefoot now (save for explosive Olympic lifts). Lifting barefoot is so much better than lifting in shoes. It just feels more complete. You get way more feel of the floor, helping you really generate power from the ground.
Start walking or running in minimal shoes.
This one is huge. Once you start to build a base of foot strength, it’s time to try walking and/or running with minimal cushioning. Remember to start off slow, going too fast and far too soon will cause injuries because your feet and legs are not used to the pounding stress of walking and running barefoot yet. Take it slow and use common sense here.
Above: An interesting infographic on running barefoot. As you can see, shoes change the way the foot impacts the ground.
Try Yoga, Pilates, Ballet, or a martial art.
Another big one for foot strength, balance, and performance. Almost all martial arts are done barefoot (or with minimal footwear), and they promote strength, mobility, flexibility, agility, and balance. Yoga is also done exclusively barefoot, and yoga is a great form of exercise for every other part of your body, as well.
Above: Most fighting sports and martial arts are done barefoot.
Do foot and ankle specific strengthening exercises.
I addition to the aforementioned tactics, doing specific exercises for the feet will get you even more gains.
Some drills I like to do:
Balance on one foot. Do this for time, and make it more difficult by changing your body position (stand, squat, calf raise, etc.).
barefoot calf raises. Start off with two feet, and then work your way to one foot.
Inversion and eversion (rolling in and out). Gently roll your foot inward and outward, while laying down with a band or with gentle contact on the ground.
Sand running or walking. Nothing strengthens feet like running or walking in sand. Like the trampoline example above, sand absorbs much of the force and forces you to work harder.
Tip: use a variety of surfaces from bare concrete, to sand, to grass, to a cushioned yoga mat to further build up the feet and ankles.
Warning: It may take YEARS for you to strengthen your feet up to do hard physical activity barefoot. It takes time to build up all the muscles, tendons and ligaments, and bones of the feet. Shoes have been taking all the stress for years, so take it slow and be sensible about it.
Choosing Minimal Footwear
Minimal footwear can have less cushioning and heel lift than regular shoes to even zero cushioning and no drop. This type of footwear is a great way to get in your gym workouts and get outside and walk or run with minimal cushioning while keeping your feet safe from hazards.
New Balance Men’s MT10V1 Trail Runner (affiliate link).
These shoes are incredible for feeling the ground or floor. They have a 4mm drop, which is very minimal, although you won’t get the same experience as going barefoot. These are much safer to wear outside where you could catch a nail or a rock.
Note: I’ve also heard very good things about Vibram Five Fingers, but I’ve never tried them.
Lifting shoes, wrestling shoes, or Chuck Taylor All-Stars.
If you don’t want to get weird glances at the gym for going barefoot or just wearing socks, pick up a pair of any of these shoes, which provide minimal cushioning with maximum feel.
Note: By lifting shoes I don’t mean Olympic Weightlifting shoes, which have a higher heel and are designed specifically for Olympic style lifts.
Thick, durable socks.
Regular abuse will tear up regular socks (I’ve worn holes in a lot of my socks from training), so if you decide to train in socks, get a durable pair like these (affiliate link).
Start paying attention to those feet, and reap the benefits.
Much like other parts of our body, we want to build the feet up stronger to enhance balance and prevent injury.
Should you ditch padded shoes entirely? No. But going barefoot every once and a while and giving them a little attention with strengthening drills will keep you from having weak and soft dogs that will perform better and keep you injury free!
Medical disclaimer: Talk to your doctor before starting or modifying an exercise program. Also consult a physician if you have any pre-existing lower leg conditions before strengthening the feet. I am not a doctor, and this shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Read the full medical disclaimer here.
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