A Guide to Proper Footwear Selection for Athletes

When we wreck our natural walking and running pattern with popular, inadequate shoes, we open the door to pain, injury, and other obstacles of movement.

Social proof is a powerful influencer. We’re wired to think whatever is common is normal and, therefore, can’t be all that bad. Pop-Tarts for breakfast? Why not?

Quit being such a buzzkill, Shane.

But a quick survey of history shows just how often following herd norms can lead the masses towards insane behaviors.

Herd Norms Can Lead to Insane Behaviors

In the early 1800s, Americans were known to drink whiskey from sun-up to sun-down. As Michael Pollan explains in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, corn whiskey became dirt cheap due to an overabundant corn supply—a problem we still pay for in other ways.

By 1820, Pollan writes, “The typical American was putting away half a pint of the stuff every day. That comes to more than five gallons of spirits a year for every man, woman, and child in America. The figure today is less than one.”

According to Dan Carlin’s book, The End is Always Near, well into the 20th century, American schools routinely beat students for misbehaving. They used implements like the disciplines (whips made of small chains) and flappers (a rod with a pear-shaped end that had a hole designed to raise blisters).

And, of course, if you look outside of America, you’ll find even more insane norms like traditional Chinese foot binding. Well into the 20th century, it was normal for young Chinese girls of status to have their feet broken, folded over, and tightly bound, so they were deformed for life. Yikes!

Comparable to these rituals, our modern insanities don’t sound so crazy. But it is still worth noting pernicious trends so that you can resolve to live better. Among the most bizarre and overlooked of these is our popular footwear patterns and what they are doing to us.

As a high-school strength and conditioning coordinator, I’m constantly witnessing the downstream effects of inadequate footwear.

After a lifetime plodding around in modern shoes, nearly every incoming freshman already deals with:

All of which stem from footwear choices.

It is a fascinating oversight given the extreme lengths and exorbitant funds many of these athletes’ parents invest in giving them an athletic edge.

Cheap and Available Alternatives

What most people overlook is that the best athletic advantages are cheap and available to us all:

  1. Good nutrition
  2. Good sleep habits
  3. Frequent play
  4. Exposure to many different sports
  5. Footwear that allows your feet to move the way they are meant to while playing

Our feet are our predominant contact point with the world—our primary movement to an environment feedback mechanism.

Avoid Backless Footwear

Most forms of footwear place our bodies in abnormal walking and moving conditions for prolonged periods.

  • When we distort the feedback and force the foot to move unnaturally, the entire body compensates. It eventually adopts new, less desirable postures and movement patterns, and the burden works its way up the chain.
  • Many young athletes walk around school all day in their slides—the popular slide-in flip flop where the band goes around the foot, rather than in-between the toes so that you can wear socks with them.
  • Despite my insistence that athletes arrive at workouts prepared, many athletes still show up in these slides and then change. It has become common to keep athletic shoes in a separate bag and only break them out when exercising.
  • The effects of prolonged flip-flop wearing are evident with one glance at an athlete’s feet—flat arches, feet turned out to the sides, and highly immobile toes and ankles.
  • One of my favorite weekly power exercises is the landmine kneeling hip extension to press. Athletes begin in a kneeling position with their butt on their heels and toes curled. I’m amazed how often my athletes cannot get their toes to flex at all. Their toes remain rigidly fixed in a neutral position so that the top of the toe is hammered into the ground rather than flexing back and creating a powerful coiled position. Extrapolate that effect to the playing field, and you can see how this would reduce ground-reactive power and increase injury risk.

According to mobility expert Dr. Kelly Starrett, it is best to avoid wearing flip-flops or slide-on shoes that don’t fit around the back of the heel.

Backless shoes require the big toe to clench down on every step, so the flip-flop doesn’t slide off.

This clenching shortens the big toe, which shortens the plantar fascia at the bottom of the foot, which causes the calf muscles to contract, thus causing dysfunction up the chain.

Issues also stem from walking around on an elevated heel for prolonged periods.

Our bodies tend to operate best when we respect the expectations cultivated through millions of years of human history.

Until very recently, humans walked without arch support or an elevated heel. But today, most shoes have a rigid bottom and a heel raised higher than the forefoot, which, according to Starrett, “systematically shortens the heel cords.”

Choose Your Feet Over Fashion

It is easy to dismiss concerns about wearing poor footwear.

The adverse effects are less understood than poor nutrition, the consequences aren’t immediately noticeable, and shoe fashion is essential to many kids and parents alike.

However, when we wreck the natural walking and running pattern, we open the door to a lifetime of pain, injury, and other obstacles to enjoying movement.

We’ve come to accept it as usual that active adults will spend their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s constantly battling back pain, knee pain, plantar fasciitis, and a million other maladies. That doesn’t have to be the case.

Parents, in particular, can do a lot to help their children grow up moving well.

Parenting Directives

  • While inside, keep the shoes off.
  • Let children play outside barefoot, especially in wilderness environments. Until very recently, every human in history spent the majority of their life barefoot in nature.
  • Avoid buying your children flip-flops, slides, or any shoes that don’t strap to the back of their heel.
  • Avoid high-top shoes that limit movement and remove the need for the ankle to be stable, strong, and self-supportive. In my experience, basketball athletes almost always have the most mobility issues. It could be a correlation error, but I guess that the basketball shoes are part of the problem.
  • Avoid shoes with elevated heels. Save the cowboy boots for special occasions.
  • Shoot for minimalist shoes with flat soles. Starrett recommends getting the lightest, most flexible, and flattest shoes possible. Old-school Converse and Vans are often great, but several good minimalists or barefoot shoe companies are available online.

It is harder to initiate footwear changes later in life when fashion becomes a bigger deal to people.

Coaches can help by making it a point of pride among athletes and not wearing flip-flops or shoes without backs. This is tougher in southern climates and among people who care more about fashion norms.

As with learning to eat healthily, I recommend not focusing on what is being given up but seeking to find as many good options that you like as possible.

You’ll probably have the most success if you begin without too much rigidity and try to make it a mission to find good footwear options that you like.

Focus on finding options you like, and the process becomes much more fun.

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