The structure-function paradox: Thoughts from a barefoot-curious reader

One perk I’ve enjoyed since starting this blog has been connecting with like-minded readers … runners, barefooters and scientists. Occasionally readers will reach out with their personal stories or questions (which I love!) The other day I received an email from a reader curious about the importance of toe and metatarsal alignment for foot health. His insights into foot biomechanics, enthusiasm for optimizing his own barefoot experience, and curiosity for the best path to do so – were striking. As he raised some interesting questions that are relevant for anyone considering transitioning to a barefoot lifestyle, I’m sharing his message, along with my response, below (note that I’ve removed his name for privacy and have trimmed the email for brevity).

I’d like to say thank you so much for documenting your experience, it is an invaluable source of information. I have great investment in this movement for myself (patellar tendonitis, fallen arches), and my family (bunion sufferers). I’m going to cut right to the chase. You seem very knowledgeable about the biomechanics of the foot, and I feel there is a significant sliver in the venn— diagram between our two philosophies. What about our toes alignment with our metatarsal shafts?

This is an idea that I see very rarely addressed among barefoot runners. I’m not sure how much of this information you’re familiar with, probably all of it but just in case I’m going to breeze through it. The shod VS the unshod life, a developed condition. I feel like this is so often ignored. In my rehabilitation from conventional footwear, I’ve been made aware of the deformation that has taken place in my bones and tendons that has bent my big toe inward, bent my small toes outward, and given me hammertoe. Why do I see so few barefoot runners addressing this? I work everyday to stretch and re-align my great toe into its natural place, a continuation of the metatarsal shaft, so that it can once again be in its place of maximum support.

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I even invested in a product that re-alignes my toes back to the way they were, so as to, over time, affect the bone and tendon structure, pushing them back into alignment. But seeing your story, how you came through without the use of these, and how your toe alignment between 2011 and 2012 didn’t seem to change much. In your recent pictures it’s hard to discern the alignment of your toes, have you seen a difference since 2012?

Does this idea hold water to you at all or do you consider something else entirely more important than alignment. I would love to know, I’ve been trying to make sense of going completely barefoot, but with my great toe alignment (about the same as yours in 2012) it just doesn’t make sense to me, I feel like I’d be putting weight on a delicate system that no longer is in the proper alignment to do its job properly. Am I completely off the mark? Any thoughts would be extremely appreciated.

I love this last picture, and it is the most profound and affirming to me, a (mostly) un-contacted tribe within the amazon. Their toes are my every day goal. I know little biomechanics, but this has philosophy has resonated with me. Am I wasting my time with this? Is this new information to you? What made you feel your path was best?

AmazonTribe

MY RESPONSE:

Thanks for your email. I love hearing from others with a shared interest in natural, barefoot living. Indeed, I’m aware of the deformations shoes make on our feet, and that toe separators can help reverse this (I actually have some myself).

I think the answer to most of your questions lies in your goal. If your main aim is simply to realign your bone structure, then sure, work on this just the way you are. For me, better toe/metatarsal alignment has been an incidental consequence of pursuing my other goals – overall healthier, stronger feet that allow me to move the way my body is meant to. So there are two, albeit related, issues here: structure and function. You seem very focused on changing your foot structure, but for what purpose? If it’s so that your foot (and body) will also move better, the best way to achieve that is simply to use your feet the way they’re meant to be used. By going barefoot as much as possible you will quickly build muscle, tendon and bone strength and as a consequence, your foot shape will also change.

I gave up shoes four years ago and have indeed noticed major changes since then. The toe splay hasn’t been dramatic, but my arches have become strong and high and my feet and ankles have gone from soft and dainty looking, to thick, toned and defined. This sounds odd, but my feet have become my favorite physical asset – I’m proud of their transformation into powerful, beautiful structures. At this point, I could care less how my toes splay, since my feet are functioning magnificently, allowing me to walk and run for miles on end, pain-free and carefree!

You’re concerned that you could injure yourself by going barefoot if your bone alignment isn’t perfect. This is a slight possibility, but easily avoided by simply listening to your body. I would be concerned less about proper alignment than general foot weakness. The risks of walking or running barefoot excessively before you’re ready come from inadequate strength, and the only way to strengthen your feet is to use them! Sure, going out and sprinting a 5k for your first barefoot run will injure you. Instead, go for a short walk until your feet start to fatigue. Then call it a day. Or run around the block for 2 minutes. Give yourself enough rest to allow your feet to recover and rebuild before you try again. Over time, you’ll be able to walk further, run longer and start noticing remarkable changes in how your feet feel, look and function. When I gave up shoes in 2011 I couldn’t walk barefoot more than a few minutes before my feet hurt. I walked barefoot for a couple years to build up base strength, then began running barefoot – literally starting by running one block. I now regularly run 40-45 miles a week barefoot.

I seem to have written a novel, but this is an important and interesting topic for me! My last tidbit of advice is to not over-think it … just enjoy the improved sensory experience and awareness your feet give you and savor the growth, however gradual it may be. Happy barefooting!

What are your thoughts on the relative importance of foot structure and function, and how they influence one another?

I love hearing my readers’ experiences and questions, so please don’t hesitate to reach out!

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