For those with flat feet, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, or some other ailment of the feet, most store clerks or doctors would prescribe a shoe with good arch support. However, the majority of people wearing shoes with artificial arch support are not doing their feet a service.
Traditional footwear contains a cushioned arch and stacked heel that can weaken the foot muscles over time, leading to injuries, foot deformities, and inefficient movement.
Comparatively, the arch in minimalist shoes is supported not by the shoe, but rather by the muscles in the foot.
Over time, the muscles in our feet learn to become dependent on the arches in conventional shoes and therefore become weak and unable to function to their abilities. The arch plays an important role in our movement, balance, and risk of injury.
What is the Role of the Arch in our Feet?
The arch runs along the middle of the bottom of the foot and is connected by the heel and the ball of the foot.
The arch provides two main functions:
- To support our body weight while we are standing
- To act like springs that propel our body forward or upward during activities like running, jumping, and walking
Arches also help us grip during activities like climbing trees or over rocks, though we don’t often do those activities barefoot.
Each time we land, the arch absorbs the shock of the foot hitting the ground. As the arch compresses, the ligaments and tendons store the energy and use it to push the body forward into the next step.
People fall into one of three categories of arches:
- Flat or low arch
The majority of people have medium arches, whereas the remainder fall into the other two categories.
The shape of one’s arch can change over time. Babies are born with flat feet and our arch develops as we age, often accelerated by the use of traditional footwear.
Other reasons the shape of an arch can change are due to pregnancy, improper footwear, obesity, diabetes, and age.
Why Cushioned Shoes Weaken the Arch in the Foot
As explained above, the role of the arch is to act as a spring and absorber for every landing and take off when we walk or run. It also keeps us upright when we stand.
A foot supported by an artificial arch learns to rely on the support from the shoe opposed to the muscles in the foot. Over time, the muscles become weakened and they lose elasticity, balance, and lead to injuries.
In shoeless societies, studies have shown that the foot arch is higher, the toes spread better, and the foot is more flexible. Natural-shaped shoes help mitigate some of these issues caused by traditional footwear.
The switch to barefoot shoes can take some time and it may feel uncomfortable at first, until your foot muscles become strong enough to support the arches.
However, once you ease into wearing minimalist shoes, your feet will relearn how to support the arches and build back the muscle loss from wearing traditional shoes.
How Added Cushioning Affects Running
Traditional running shoes with specific arch support can reduce that springlike propulsion by up to 17%. What this means is that you lose efficiency with each step because your body is not propelling forward as far as it can.
The reason for this is because the cushioning in traditional footwear actually restricts arch compression because it is not able to flex and contact to its full extent.
In fact, a study at McGill University found that the more padding we have, the more forceful we hit the ground. They concluded this was due to the fact that the athlete felt a sense of imbalance on account of the foot being physically farther away from the ground in supported shoes.
The increased force from the added cushioning can also travel up to your knee and hip, causing pain. This is because your feet cannot feel how hard you are hitting the ground, thanks to all that padding.
The Impact of Heel Strike vs Forefoot Landing
Traditional cushioned shoes change the mechanics of the way we land. Most conventional shoes have a slightly elevated heel, which results in a drop, or the difference between the height of the heel and the toe.
This drop is designed to force the foot into a forefoot landing, however, it doesn’t actually quite work out that way. The padding in the heel disturbs your balances and results in an unintended consequence of a heel strike.
The ideal place to land is on the forefoot, which absorbs the shock of the footfall and helps you land more safely.
Further, the same shoes narrow in the toe box, which are known to lead to other foot problems like bunions and hammer toes, but they also tend to curl up at the tip of the toe, which limits the foot’s flexibility.
The more miles you put into traditional running shoes, the more your body practices running in a form in which it wasn’t designed to run, potentially leading to injuries and foot deformities.