Your Feet (and Shoes) Matter

Happy New Year, y’all! I am SUPER late to that bandwagon. But! One of my ‘resolutions’ this year is to publish two well-planned posts a month (and here’s the first – 5 days before the end of the month – typical.) So keep an eye out for a post later this week on managing expectations when goal setting (clearly a topic close to my heart, ha.)

On to the point. I’ve been having some trouble with my feet the past few weeks – they’ve been achy after long mornings training clients and I’ve noticed that my arches aren’t staying strong during heavy lifts. This isn’t super surprising, as I’ve been neglecting them in two ways: I haven’t been stretching or foam rolling the bottoms of my feet as I normally would, AND my shoes are all 6+ months old.

I know. A woman who hasn’t bought shoes in 6 months? I should be placed in an institution. Truthfully, I just didn’t think of it. Though when I finally realized I bought three new pairs – two for (most of) my strength workouts and a third specifically for my powerlifting workouts.

Okay, so what shoes should I wear for my workout?

Powerlifting (or Olympic lifting, or Crossfitting depending on your workout of choice,) shoes have a heel raise that allows for a greater range of motion at the ankle while squatting and also make benching more comfortable for shorties like me. These shoes are fantastic when used for training front/back squats and the Olympic lifts. However, you wouldn’t want to use lifters (as they’re commonly called,) if you’re either brand new to lifting OR are using them to band-aid an existing incompetency. So if you can’t squat properly without the lifters, the lifters are not for you – yet.

For the rest of your strength workouts – deadlifts, DB/KB work, etc. (minus squats and Oly’s, and truthfully, you could still do those in other shoes,) you’ll want a sturdy pair of zero-drop sneakers without a ton of cushioning. Okay, WTF is zero drop, you ask? It refers to the difference in height between the heel and midfoot of a shoe – essentially, how flat it is. One caveat – there are some running shoes out there (like Hoka’s) that have a TON of cushioning but still maintain a zero drop. Those are not the shoes to lift in, friends.

In general, if you’re looking to strength train efficiently, steer clear of any shoes made for running.  Personally, I like Inov8 trainers and the Reebok Crossfit line. If you have ankle stability issues, high-top sneakers like Chuck Taylors are perfect. If you wear your sneakers frequently (3-5 days per week), you’ll want to change them out about every 6-9 months or when you’re able to see unevenness in the soles when the shoes are on a flat surface, as this is a sign they’ve worn out.

Why are flat, sturdy shoes important? Why can’t I wear my running shoes to strength train? 

There are a few reasons, though one of the clearest correlations in relationship to the big lifts – squatting, deadlifting, Olympic lifts, etc., has to do with the connection of your heels to your butt.

At the bottom of your heels, you have specific mechanoreceptors (specialized nerve endings,) that connect to your glutes. When these specialized nerves are compressed (like when you press your heels into the ground to walk or stand,) they send a signal to your glutes that says “Hey – stand up straight!” (also known as hip extension.)

This is actually one of the key steps in how we learn to walk as babies – without these wonderful nerves, we wouldn’t get past crawling. In Russian kettlebell training (Strong First is a proponent of this technique,) it’s recommended before a big or difficult lift to stomp the heels into the ground – giving those nerves a big jolt, quickly activating the glutes.

One problem with many modern day shoes is that the cushioning on the bottom of the shoe actually dulls this nervous connection between your heels and your butt. Minimalist, zero-drop shoes tend to be better than traditional running shoes in this regard, as it is easier for your heel to feel contact with the ground.

What about training barefoot?

Y’all. I am a HUGE proponent of barefoot training. I make a lot of my clients train barefoot, and I often do the same myself (though that might be years of dance training conditioning me to hate shoes.)

In my experience, it helps a lot of clients with their ability to activate their glutes during those big triple extension exercises (squat, deadlifts and single leg variations,) and helps them connect their bodies to the space around them – a skill known as proprioception. The tissue on the bottom of your foot has a very high concentration of proprioceptive nerve endings (the mechanoreceptors I mentioned earlier included,) which are often dulled by being stuffed inside shoes all day. As well, the ability of your toes to be mobile can greatly affect balance and force production through lifts (again, the muscle and connective tissue of your toes can get jammed up inside your shoes all day.)

If you’re interested in exploring more about barefoot training, I encourage you to check out Dr. Emily Splichal’s blog and book, Barefoot Strong. She is one of the leading experts in the field of barefoot training, and her blog is superbly written (link below!)

Now what?

Go forth and experiment! I encourage you to try out different brands of minimalist/zero drop training shoes (or even try barefoot training,) and see which you like better. Keep in mind that a general adaption period will be necessary – if you’ve never trained under minimalist/barefoot conditions, you’ll need to decrease the amount of time you spend training under them at first. Your feet will need time to adapt, just as your body needs time to adapt to a resistance training regimen. The research, though minimal, (no pun intended!) on the barefoot/minimalist trend tends to show that it can be beneficial to train in this manner as long as a proper adaptation period is observed. (Read – don’t wear your minimalist lifting sneakers to walk all the way across the island of Manhattan, please.)

Wishing you happy feet!

Sam

 

 

 

References:

“How Do I Know When It Is Time To Replace My Athletic Shoes?” How Do I Know When It Is Time To Replace My Athletic Shoes. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

NSCA. “YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN THIS.” Hot Topic: Minimalist Footwear in Strength and Conditioning. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Further Reading:

Barefoot Strong Blog – http://barefootstrongblog.com/

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