Do You Need ‘Special’ Shoes?
This is a question I hear and see a lot of. When we talk about equipment or things ‘necessary’ for working out, there’s always specific sports and exercises that obviously require a specific or special type of shoe (cleats for soccer, spikes for track etc). However, I’m almost certainly going against the grain when I say I believe that any sort of expensive or special type of shoe isn’t actually going to do all that much for your training.
The shoes that are being sold as items that protect joints and muscles of the lower leg, like the arch and ankle, could actually do more harm than good – I’ll go into a little more detail about this later. The way I encourage people to look at shoes is that their function is to protect your feet from the environment. If you’re looking to your shoes to provide anything outside of that, you’re under the impression that your feet are imperfect and need extra support, or control, or whatever else shoes can supposedly do for you. Our feet are amazing, they NEED to be dexterous and feel the ground. They are, for the most part, our only point of contact with the floor. We want that contact to be as natural and present as possible.
What’s the Issue with Relying on Special Shoes for Exercise?
Shoes are nothing more than a training tool like a weight belt or lifting straps. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with training tools, they can and should be used BUT only when necessary. People tend to use tools like these as to cover up foundational movement, strength, or mobility issues. You shouldn’t need any of these tools at all times – and if you do, you should be working to fix and strengthen whatever issues you have that are making you feel as though these are integral inclusions in your gym bag.
Our feet adapt to our environment over time. When you break a bone, you cast it, then x amount of weeks later when it comes off your limb is significantly atrophied and weaker. This is kind of similar to how shoes can affect your feet, they can and often are used as a crutch. A lot of shoes, ‘speciality’ ones especially, don’t allow the foot to handle and transfer stress and load correctly.
Why People Lift & Train with No Shoes
I’m the first one to say that you definitely look a little odd when you are walking around barefoot, or just in socks. I actually used to coach almost exclusively in socks, until my boss got mad at me and made me wear shoes…There are a lot of good reasons you may see a lot of people lifting or working out in their socks. Here are a few of the main ones in my opinion:
- The stiffness of shoes prevents natural motion from occurring at the foot and ankle by squishing the toes together. This limits the ability for your toes to spread out, which in turn doesn’t put your foot muscles in a good position to function optimally. As a result, we see A LOT of people exhibiting a “duck footed” standing and walking posture. Standing and walking like Donald Duck means more rolling in and fattening of the arch, effectively relying on the soft tissue structures like the plantar fascia to take the load. This also puts more load and twisting force through the knees and encourages you to roll off the inside of the big toe. This means that, not only are you walking and running inefficiently, but you’re also increasing the risk of developing bunions and muscle imbalances up the chain to the knees, hips, and back.
- Our feet have A LOT of sensory nerves that give our brain information about where our body is so we don’t trip and fall. It also provides details to help with balance and reaction time, which is essential for improving athleticism. Cushioned shoes inherently limit/absorb this information.
- The bottom of your foot contains one of the highest concentrations of mechanoreceptors in the body. When the foot is exposed to different textures of surfaces, like wood, carpet, tile, hardwood, rubber, etc, there is a greater stimulation of these sensors that helps ‘turn up the volume in the brain’. This heightens the activity of your central nervous system and makes your brain’s mental image of your feet more clear. This improves reaction time, speed, and rate of muscle contraction.
Shoes as Necessary Equipment
When it comes to cleats and sport specific shoes, like most accessory equipment, there is obviously a time and place. When you participate in field and court sports, we need shoes for protection and to enhance our sport specific playing potential. So soccer boots, track spikes, weightlifting shoes, etc. always have their time and place. But even runners don’t walk around or train all the time in their spikes, or at least they shouldn’t.
In terms of just how special these shoes should be ($$), that’s entirely a point of preference. When I played club soccer I had puma kings which were like $180, but when I played indoor I rocked the heck out of the Diadoras for about $50. There is something to be said for the design and usefulness of sport specific shoes and what advantages different types have for the sport they’re used for. Placement of cleats, stitching and material used, etc… I mean we all know kangaroo leather is where it’s at, right?
If we’re talking about general exercise and training, not everyone is comfortable walking around with no shoes on, which is totally normal and fine. So I’ve listed some of my biggest recommendations for when you’re shopping around for shoes. You’ll notice that all of these recs refer back to the section above when I talk about why training with no shoes is so beneficial.
- Shoes that have zero drop. The term zero drop means there is no drop in the sole of the shoe from the heel to the toe, its flat across. The less support the arch has the more the arch has to work. This is the essence of training any part of your body, you need to stress it to make it stronger. The regular use of insoles with high arches or orthotics ultimately creates a sling for your arch allowing it to rest when it really should be working, resulting in something similar to atrophy.
- No ankle support. Similar to the arch, we want little lateral ankle support. In sport, you don’t want to rely on footwear to do the ankle’s job, so training with no ankle support allows us to expand your abilities to load and explode in 360 degrees through the lower leg.
- Open toe box. The toes need to be able to spread out and grip the ground. When they are crammed together, in a pointed or tight toe box, we limit our ability to feel the ground and produce force appropriately.
When it comes down to it, shoes are not going to make you jump higher or run faster, despite what big companies may be advertising. If you need or want to buy a shoe as either necessary equipment (like spikes) or as a training tool, go for it! But just make sure you’re not relying on your shoes to do the jobs your feet should be doing, because you’ll end up with a lot more problems than solutions.
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