Guest post by John Poulton – Founder of Splay Athletics.
Strong, healthy feet are the necessary foundation for a lifetime of pain-free movement. As parents, we have the opportunity to ensure that our children’s feet are allowed to grow and develop as nature intended. The problem is that most modern shoes are working against us. They are designed with features that can weaken, and even deform our children’s feet. In this article we will discuss three of these features and what you can do to Save Your Child’s Feet!
1. Narrow Toe Boxes
Why They Exist
Narrow toe boxes can be seen as beneficial in sports/activities that require significant lateral movement. The narrow toe box forces the toes to squeeze together, reducing the degree to which the feet can move inside the shoe—making the shoe feel less ‘sloppy’.
Why They are Harmful
When the toes are squeezed together into narrow toe boxes, it causes a misalignment of the bones and muscles in the foot, and compromises the integrity of the arch of the foot. When feet are continually subjected to narrow toe boxes, the arch can collapse, leading to flat feet. Over time, our feet adapt and take on the shape of our shoes.
As the toes are forced together, the surface area that our feet cover is also reduced. This can significantly hinder our ability to properly balance.
Narrow toe boxes can lead to several foot-health problems, including: flat feet, crossover toes, bunions, ingrown toenails, foot pain, unnatural gait patterns, poor balance, and an increased risk of falling/injury.
2. Thick, Rigid Soles
Why They Exist
Thick, rigid soles are meant to provide protection from sharp objects and increase
the longevity of shoes.
Why They Are Harmful
The 200,000 nerve endings on the soles of each of our feet are meant to supply constant sensory feedback to the brain about the environment in which we are walking. This allows the body to adapt walking/running patterns to different surfaces in order to minimize the impact on the joints of the body. Thick, rigid soles cut off this sensory feedback. This leads to dulled senses, and allows people to use the same walking/running patterns on all surfaces regardless of the impact on the body’s joints.
Each of our feet contains 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments. Thick, rigid soles keep the feet from moving as they are supposed to, allowing the muscles of the feet to atrophy, and leading to weak feet.
Thick, rigid soles can dull sensory feedback, increase wear & tear on the knees and hips, weaken (injury-prone) feet, and lead to an unnatural gait pattern.
3. Raised Heels
Why They Exist
Heeled footwear dates back to the 10th century when the Persian cavalry wore boots with heels to ensure their feet stayed in the stirrups. In the 1700s, French male nobility began wearing high heels strictly for fashion. Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike, and famed University or Oregon track coach added a raised heel to early Nike trainers hoping to reduce strain on the Achilles tendon while running.
Why They Are Harmful
Most people spend the majority of the day wearing shoes with a raised heel. This allows the Achilles tendon to shorten and increases the risk of Achilles injury. The raised heel tilts the body forward, forcing the knees, hips, back, and neck to compensate in order to keep the body upright. This wreaks havoc on the body’s natural structural alignment and posture.
When running, a raised heel makes it easier for the heel to strike the ground first. This increases wear and tear on the knees and hips as they must to absorb the shock of each stride. When people who have adapted to heeled running shoes (i.e., with shortened Achilles tendon and a heel striking gait) try to run barefoot, they significantly increase their chances for injury. The raised heel also increases the risk and severity of a rolled ankle.
Raised heels can lead to shortened Achilles tendons, increased risk of Achilles injury, hammer toes, unnatural posture, unnatural running gait (heel striking), increased risk/severity of rolled ankle.
Solution: Go Barefoot or Wear Anatomic Footwear
Infants & Toddlers (0 to 36 months old)
At birth, the bones in a baby’s feet have not yet developed and are just cartilage. Over the first few years of life, the cartilage ossifies (or turns to bone)—this process can take up to five years. For this reason, infant and toddler feet are extremely susceptible to being molded by shoes that constrict natural growth. During this stage, even some socks can apply enough force to cause lasting structural changes to the feet.
Ideally, infants should not wear shoes for the first two years of life. If you feel the need to put your baby in shoes, it is important to ensure those shoes are made of soft, thin materials, and that the shoes are wide at the toe box, with thin, flat soles. Babies should be barefoot—or as close to it as possible—when learning to walk. Does your toddler trip a lot? Check the shoes.
Kids (3 to 16 years old)
Children’s feet continue to develop until the age of about 16. As children move beyond the toddler stage, social pressures begin to influence footwear choices. Sport shoes have become particularly popular as everyday shoes and are often worn all day long. The vast majority of sport shoes have narrow toe boxes, thick soles, and a raised heel to supposedly improve athletic performance. When worn all day long—and not just to sporting events—a child’s foot will begin to conform to the shape of these shoes.
The shoe your child wears most of the time (their default shoes) should be anatomical. This means that it should not interfere with the natural shape of movement of the foot. If special shoes (i.e., non-anatomical) are required for certain sports/activities, then those shoes should be put on just before the activity, and the removed immediately thereafter. Sport shoes, high-fashion shoes, and all other non-anatomical shoes should be treated like junk food: They may be ok in moderation…but should not be allowed to become the norm. Also, it is important to let kids go barefoot as much as possible/appropriate.