Humans are bipedal animals and as such, our feet are the very foundation of our whole body and are without doubt our greatest asset, as they allow us the critical function of moving through our environment independently. Almost all natural human movements (walking, running, squatting, lifting, climbing etc) require a functioning pair of feet. The higher functioning the feet, the greater performance in all of these types of movements. Feet also serve as our primary sensory connection with the ground, relaying huge amounts of information about the surfaces and textures we are moving across to help us respond intelligently to our environment.
Natural Feet vs. Normal Feet
'Natural' feet are the type of feet you would see on a tribesman who has never spent any time in shoes and has spent his life surviving in a natural environment. Natural feet are incredibly resilient with strong muscles and flexible joints, along with a tough outer layer of skin that serves to protect and relay information from the ground. They have maintained their natural arch and their toes are splayed, allowing optimal balance and shock absorption for walking, running, jumping and climbing.
'Normal' feet, on the other hand, are the type of feet you would see on any typical citizen of a first-world, Westernised nation, who has grown up almost constantly wearing shoes and sitting in chairs, and has never needed to survive in a natural environment. 'Normal' feet are weak, stiff and often painful due to the extreme deconditioning that our modern environments and lifestyles promote. They will often have cramped toes, flattened arches and all manner of unfortunate conditions such as bunions, in-grown toe nails, Athlete's Foot (and other fungal infections), plantar fasciitis, blisters, hammer toe, heel spurs and Morton's Neuroma just to name a few.
In most of Western culture it is now not only commonplace to wear shoes at all times (besides at home for some people), it is actually seen as weird, dirty or in some way unhealthy to NOT wear shoes. Humans have invented shoes for all occasions - running shoes, work shoes, gym shoes, dress shoes, dancing shoes, sporting shoes and the list goes on.
The problem with the majority of these shoes is that they were primarily designed with fashion in mind rather than function. These modern shoes all share similar properties - a narrow toe box, a positive heel (especially in womens 'high heels'), a rigid body, a toe spring and some degree of cushioning (especially in running or 'athletic' shoes). While they may be aesthetically pleasing, habitual use of these shoes will inevitably alter the structure and function of the feet that are inside them.
The narrow toe box will cramp the toes, the positive heel will reduce calf and ankle mobility, the rigid body and the toe spring will create stiffness in the mid-foot and toe joints and the cushioning will drastically reduce the sensory and mechanical input from the environment that our feet actually need in order to thrive.
Orthotics are shoe inserts (or shoe 'footbeds') that can be generic or custom-made with the aim of altering biomechanics and reducing impact forces through the feet during activities such as walking and running.
Orthotics can be helpful in some cases however they should be viewed similarly to a crutch, brace or sling - that is, a tool that can help to immobilise a body part in the short-term to encourage healing or desensitisation, with the ultimate goal being active rehabilitation, restoration of strength and mobility and the eventual elimination of the orthotic.
Unfortunately these days orthotics tend to be widely over-prescribed as a life-long necessity for people suffering the negative effects of the modern environment and 'normal shoes'. When used in this way, they essentially become a palliative approach to the problem - that is managing the pain and symptoms without addressing the root cause of a condition.
The constant support and immobility enforced upon the feet from orthotic use can also weaken the muscles and stiffen the joints, further perpetuating the original issue.
Of course there will be a small percentage of cases with specific genetic, degenerative or traumatic conditions that may require long-term use of orthotics, and in these cases they can be an amazingly helpful tool, however they should ideally still be used in conjunction with active therapy and rehabilitation where possible.
What's the alternative?
While most people will benefit greatly from spending more time barefoot, there are times and places where wearing shoes is actually really helpful - either to protect your feet from the environment (cold/hot/sharp etc.) or to protect you from social ostracisation. For these contexts, opting for 'human' shoes is your best option.
We define 'human' shoes as shoes that allow the human foot to function as it usually would while barefoot. That means the shoes have a wide toe box, are flexible (can fold/twist/bend), have a neutral drop (no heel) and have minimal cushioning. These properties minimise the negative effects and maximise the benefits of shoe-wearing.
Keep in mind however that your feet may need some transition time to prepare for 'human' shoes and barefoot living, especially if you have lived your entire life in 'normal' shoes and have any pre-existing conditions. It is important to listen to your body and take it slow, gradually progressing the amount of time spent in 'human' shoes and/or bare feet.
The products and resources below can also greatly help and it may be necessary to work with a professional to help you on this journey. A directory of TFC Foot Nerds will be made available in 2019 so you can connect with your local professional who understands these concepts.
What are they?
Toe spreaders are a simple, inexpensive tool that can help offset and reverse the effects of narrow, cramped footwear on the alignment of your toes.
Why use them?
Cramped toes from habitual use of conventional footwear can severely affect the health and performance of your feet and therefore your entire body. Optimal toe alignment promotes better balance, strength and flexibility of the feet and toes, while helping to prevent and correct common conditions such as bunions, corns, ingrown toenails, plantar fasciitis and Morton's Neuroma.
How to use them?
Toe spreaders can be worn any time you are barefoot around the house and can be especially useful at the end of a day spent in footwear (work/sport/gym etc). It is best to start with 20-30 minutes of use and gradually build up the time spent wearing them, noting how your feet and toes respond each session. Eventually your feet should tolerate multiple hours of use and they can even be kept on while sleeping.
Click here to get your own pair of TFC Toe Spreaders!
What is it?
The FRK is the combination of a pair of toe spreaders and a lacrosse ball.
Why the Mobility Ball?
As mentioned above, habitual use of shoes and a sedentary lifestyle in our modern environment results in feet that have weak and tight muscles along with stiff and sore joints. A major contributor to this is the lack of deep pressure into the feet that they would usually receive from the natural environment (rocks, stones, roots, logs, etc.). The mobility ball is a simple way to provide this vital stimulation to the feet in a controlled way, massaging and mobilising the muscles and joints, relieving pain/tension while preparing for barefoot training and living.
How to use it?
The mobility ball can be quite uncomfortable and even painful when you first start using it. Start with just 2-3 minutes of light pressure per foot per day and note how your feet respond. Gradually build up the intensity and duration of your sessions, until you can comfortably place your entire body weight through one leg onto the ball. An example routine is shown in the video below).
Click here to get your own TFC Foot Restoration Kit!
While the toe spreaders and lacrosse balls are great passive tools that can have significant benefits by themselves, best results will come when they are combined with a variety of other movements and active exercises. Some examples are given below - these will help to progressively improve strength, mobility and resilience of your feet and toes.
This library of exercises will be continually updated and expanded - if you know of any good exercises that are not already up here, please send us through a video or link so that we can share the love!
Human Toe Spreader
Interlace the fingers of one hand through the toes of the foot on the opposite side. Gently rotate your hand in both directions for 30-60 seconds, then swap sides. This can be quite uncomfortable at first but will get easier with regular practice and use of toe spreaders.
Actively scrunch your toes together and then spread your toes as far apart as possible without touching them, using only the muscles in your feet. Repeat 15-20 times on both feet.
Actively lift your big toes off the ground while leaving the other toes firmly planted on the ground. Then swap so that your small toes are up and your big toes are down. Repeat 20-30 times, starting slowly and gradually increasing speed as your coordination improves.
The ultimate goal of TFC is to help people reclaim strong, functional and pain-free feet - that means feet that can walk, run, jump, climb and traverse through urban and natural environments, without the need for large amounts of support and cushioning from shoes and orthotics. One of the best ways to achieve this is simply spending more time barefoot, especially in natural terrains like parks, creeks, forests, mountains and beaches. You should view the above exercises and tools as strategies to facilitate a more enjoyable experience in these settings, rather than as a substitute for them. No amount of exercises or mobilisations can replace the overwhelming benefits of just moving in nature with bare feet. Below are some ideas of what to seek out on your barefoot journey:
- Different surfaces and textures - grass, sand, dirt, rocks, logs, roots, mud etc.
- Different angles - hills, mountains, dunes, boulders
- Different activities - walking, running, jumping, crawling, climbing, squatting, lifting, throwing, dancing, playing
- Different challenges - balance, endurance, strength, speed, power, agility
The more combinations of all these variables you can create, the more strong, healthy and resilient you will become. The time and effort you invest in this process will pay dividends in many wonderful ways throughout your entire life. Start small, progress gradually and make it fun!