TO understand thatthe foot has 33 joints to enable it to adapt to any kind of terrain and not just flat ground, is to realise that perhaps it shouldn't be bound in a stiff shoe.
The foot is designed to step on variable surfaces and structures, points out Stacey Lei Krauss, president and founder of The willPower Method in the US which advocates going barefeet for holistic fitness. "The human body has tremendous potential for mobility in each foot. And keeping our feet confined to shoes has essentially stunted the foot's true functionality," she adds.
Non-movement leads to stiff joints - atrophied muscles, sticky fascia and neural disconnection. And thus is the argument for the barefoot movement, made popular by barefoot running which burst into the scene a few years ago.
"But running is only one component of overall fitness," Ms Krauss notes, although the "pop culture attraction" to barefoot running brought running enthusiasts to her, since she advises on the topic. She's been advocating barefoot functionality for 14 years, most typically through The willPower Method®.
Ms Krauss says that like any joint system in the body (consider the knee), using it in full range of motion protects us from movement dysfunction and physical issues such as arthritis. Increasing mobility at the joint also means there must be stability training as well. "We don't want hypermobile joints," she adds.
People who exercise are constantly mobilising and stabilising joints, which are muscle and connective tissue. "So here is a question for you: Why have we stopped working toward these goals with our feet? Human beings are mammals. In the beginning - we walked on our bare feet - and it was good," says Ms Krauss.
The barefoot running trend has led to minimal shoes - shoes without cushioning, motional control, stabilising features and a heel lift. "You can wear minimal shoes when you run - as they allow the feet to act as close to barefoot as possible." In Ms Krauss' opinion - she's also the lead adviser of Vibram FiveFingers® - separating the toes is also better so that they learn to spread.
The problem with traditional athletic shoes are: The small toebox (which also help make our feet look smaller and "more appealing") deforms the foot over time, leading to hammertoe conditions, bunions, neuromas; arch support allows muscles in our feet to atrophy and become dependent on the man-made interface that multi-billion dollar footwear companies have created.
The motion control feature in shoes has also allowed the foot to become dependent, so the feet become weak and stiff and unstable. "For the body to function efficiently, the intrinsic (small, stabiliser muscles) need to fire prior to extrinsic muscles (larger movers). When the foot is stabilised, the extrinsics overpower the intrinsics - leading to inefficient movement," she explains.
"The cushioning feature in shoes has dampened the foot's "proprioception" (for example: ability to understand grade of force as it strikes the ground); and the raising of the heel higher than the forefoot also leads to a shortened calf-achilles complex, and decreased natural ankle dorsi-flexion, hindering efficient movement - even just walking.
"Also, the heel lift has changed our running gait, and now people land on their heels, with a force that ranges from 1.5 to three times their body weight being transferred up the skeleton as many as 1,000 times per mile," she highlights.
Research has shown that with "proper" foot-strike - mid-foot or forefoot - the foot is able to more properly disperse ground reaction forces or impact force. "When barefoot running efficiently (by this I mean acclimated, well-practiced), the body learns to depend on its own natural suspension system - a myo-fascial complex - and proper foot function has a direct connection to the pelvic floor and core muscle complex. So proper barefoot running becomes a completely integrated action - a functional primal action."
Anyone can learn to run barefoot, she points out, and that includes people of all ages and sizes. "The critical keys are slow acclimation, practice and patience," advocates Ms Krauss.
However, the majority of runners have injuries due to over-use and overtraining. Faulty alignment and gait patterns lead to joint issues and shin splints as a result of heavy heel strike. Not to say that barefoot running doesn't produce injuries. "Seventy-five per cent of runners are heel strikes, so transitioning to barefoot running means learning a new skill. The turnover rate is typically much higher (about 180 steps per minute), and alignment is different, with shoulders over hips and hips over heel, if the foot strike pattern is different (mid-strike or forefoot strike).
"The most common problem is that the existing runner is not interested in taking it slow to begin with, plus because they perceive a lower exertion rate, the most typical injuries are extreme delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), specifically in the calves and foot bone edema."
In her training programme now offered exclusively at Momentum Studio, participants train completely barefoot, stimulating neuro-receptors in the skin, as well as proprioceptors in the joints. "And we help people to understand grade of force, and teach them to land without a sound."
willPower & grace® is a 60-minute, high-energy cross-training workout encouraging cardio as well as a full-body functional workout. "The workout focuses and educates participants on the importance of having stability at our feet (ankle joints) when exercising. The class highlights how to balance on a single leg, articulate the feet, stretch the tight muscles while strengthening the weaker ones around feet and legs area," explains Lynn Ong, the programme director from Momentum Lab. "Currently, I don't think there is much emphasis on feet fitness in any group exercise setting whether in Singapore or internationally."
She adds: "Once our feet are stronger, more flexible and more agile, whether it is running, playing tennis, or doing any form of workout, it gives the body better stability and control, hence reducing risk of getting injured."
Running barefoot: how to do it right
- Foot strike should be mid-foot or forefoot
- Land gently, with feet below hips, standing upright, not leaning at the hip
- Foot turnover should be approximately 180 strikes per minute (yes, this IS fast)
- Body should stay relaxed without clenching; all the joints and muscles "give in", working together rather than opposing one another.
- Cross train. Cross train. Cross train.
- Take good care of your feet: self massage often. Walk on variable terrain. Stretch your calves every single day.
- Runners shouldn't train barefoot and also wear "traditional" running shoes. Practice the new skill and acclimate, then slowly increase and enhance.
354 Alexandra Road #01-15 Alexis Condo
Tel: 6339 2210 | www.momentumlab.sg
Momentum Lab is the exclusive partner of The willPower Method. Classes are available to the public from April 2014. Prices range from $30 to $55 for group classes, depending on the number of sessions bought. For walk-ins, group classes are $55.