My work with skiers spanning more than 4 decades, in conjunction with what I have learned over the past three years and papers I have recently read, has led me to the inescapable conclusion that the best equipment available, including ski boots that constrain the foot with minimal interference to foot function, can never overcome the limitations of unhealthy, weak feet.
In working with elite skiers at both the World Cup and recreational levels, it quickly became apparent to me back in the ’70s that these skiers consistently had stronger, tighter feet than lesser skiers. They also had feet whose compact, tight physical characteristics allowed them to attain a good level of function in most ski boots of the day right out the box.
The photos below are of the foot of a female racer who learned to ski at a young age in her mother’s ski boots when her feet were much smaller than her mothers’. The photos were taken when the racer was 20.
When she started racing at 5, she quickly became a phenomenom. She did not outgrow her mother’s boots until she was 11. So the critical period in the development of her feet took place under minimal constraint from her ski boots. Note the ‘natural’ (see footnote 1. below) wedge shape of her foot. There is some evidence of structural damage to her small toe. This could have occured after her she was put in tightly fit (constraining) ski boots at age 12 that were at least one size too small.
Here is the same foot with an outline of a typical boot liner overlaid in red.
Like most, until recently I reasonably assumed that the feet I have today were the feet I was born with; that good skiers were born with good feet and there was nothing that could be done if one didn’t win the foot lottery at birth. I knew of nothing to indicate otherwise until I started to connect with the rapidly emerging barefoot/minimal shoe camp and the wealth of information on the foot damaging, often debillitating effects, of footwear, especially when one is subjected to foot damaging footwear at an early age. It was only then that I realized that the problems that prevented me from skiing as well as I thought I should didn’t start when I changed from low cut leather boots to the new higher, rigid, all plastic boots. My problems actually started when I was fit with my first pair of ‘orthopedically correct’, stiff-soled, supportive shoes when I was about two. The plastic ski boots only made the damage caused by these shoes, which persists even today, obvious.
An article in the August 9, 2010 edition of the UK newspaper, The Guardian, Why barefoot is best for children contains the following statement.
“Tracey Byrne, podiatrist specialising in podopaediatrics, believes that wearing shoes at too young an age can hamper a child’s walking and cerebral development. “Toddlers keep their heads up more when they are walking barefoot,” she says. “The feedback they get from the ground means there is less need to look down, which is what puts them off balance and causes them to fall down.” Walking barefoot, she continues, develops the muscles and ligaments of the foot, increases the strength of the foot’s arch, improves proprioception (our awareness of where we are in relation to the space around us) and contributes to good posture.”
When I was fit with my first pair of shoes as an enfant, the big buzz phrase was ‘orthopedically correct’. This implied that orthopedic research had identified a signifcant problem, one that required intervention in the form of supportive shoes in order to ensure that an infants’ feet developed ‘properly’ and that the orthopedic community was behind this initiative. The cover story was that infants feet were weak and incapable of supporting the weight imposed on them in learning to walk. This could cause stress on bones that could lead to permanent deformation of the structures of the feet and legs. Orthopedically correct shoes with stiff soles and sidewalls that supported the foot would ensure proper and ‘normal’ (‘normal’, not ‘natural’ see footnote 1. below) development. This implied that parents who failed to put their infants into orthopedically correct shoes were guilty of child neglect.
Unfortunately for me, my mother had dated a guy in high school who opened a shoe store near our home. He was very much into orthopedically correct shoes. After he sold my mother on the idea she purchased every pair of shoes for me, all orthopedially correct, from his store right up until I was about 5 or 6 years old. The impact on my feet and my childhood was significant.
By the time I entered elementary school, my gait was so impaired that I could not walk in a straight line. Instead, I walked with a distinct, pronounced stagger that was so obvious that my school mates made fun of me. I was clumsy and unsteady on my feet. I fell a lot. My school mates started to refer to me as ‘the gimp’. (see footnote 1. below)
As hard as I tried, I was never able to make any sports team I tried out for. By the time I reached junior high school, I had given up trying. The interesting paradox was that I could easily outpace all of my friends on a 2 wheeled pedal bicycle. I found out why when I had fitness testing in 1988. I had a VO2 max of 66 which is phenomenal. So, it wasn’t a lack of stamina or athletic ability that was the issue. It was clearly the damage caused to my feet by the orthopedically correct shoes I was put in as a child.
The Guardian article, Why barefoot is best for children, notes that a study published in 2007 in the podiatry journal, The Foot, suggests that structural and functional changes can result from the foot having to conform to the shape and constriction of a shoe and that the younger the foot, the greater the potential for damage. Since baby feet are structurally different from adult feet, research shows that footwear can, indeed, obstruct proper foot development.
Tracey Byrne: “The human foot at birth is not a miniature version of an adult foot. In fact, it contains no bones at all and consists of a mass of cartilage, which, over a period of years, ossifies to become the 28 bones that exist in the adult human foot. This process is not complete until the late teens, so it is crucial that footwear – when worn – is well chosen.”
In the same article, Mike O’Neill, a consultant podiatrist and spokesperson for the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, said that he believes that too many parents treat their children as fashion accessories and choose shoes on their attractiveness or coolness, rather than their ergonomics. Byrne agrees, but points out that it’s not just parents but manufacturers who have a responsibility. “People see particular shoe styles on sale in the shops – whether it’s a high heel for toddlers, a ‘Crawler’ (a shoe for babies not yet walking) or a cute Havaiana flip flop, with no more than an elastic band at the back … And they think ‘Well, if it’s on the shelf, it must be OK,'” she says.
“As more and more evidence comes to light regarding the importance of going barefoot and the potential dangers of bad footwear, the ‘barefoot model’ will have to become more widely adopted by shoe manufacturers,” says Byrne.
The Bottom Line
“……… the bottom line is the more we use our feet and toes, the stronger they will become. By wearing less of a shoe, we will use our toes to stabilize the foot against the ground and by activating these muscles more often, they become stronger. Simple concept, yet we’ve been missing it for over 40 years by focusing on building the perfect shoe. We already had the perfect shoe, our own foot. We just needed to wake it up and use it. By feeling the ground, our foot can tell the brain which muscles to activate and the foot responds by absorbing shock and working more naturally- the way it was intended to work. (see footnote 2. below)
“We’ve come to regard the way we dwell permanently in shoes as normal and natural [but it is] anything but,” explained John Woodward, an Alexander Technique teacher who has allegedly been barefoot for 25 years.” ((see footnote 3. below)
All of the preceding applies to ski boots.
In my next post I will explain why going barefoot as much as possible will strengthen the feet but barefoot alone is unlikely to correct the damage done, especially if it was done when feet were developing.
- Why Shoes Make “Normal” Gait Impossible: How flaws in footwear affect this complex human function By William A. Rossi, D.P.M. – http://www.unshod.org/pfbc/pfrossi2.htm
- STUDY DEMONSTRATES VIBRAM FIVEFINGERS WILL STRENGTHEN THE FOOT. http://www.drnicksrunningblog.com/study-demonstrates-vibram-fivefingers-will-strengthen-the-foot/
- Why barefoot is best for children – https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/aug/09/barefoot-best-for-children