What shoes should I buy? ( a common response to the pronation question)

What shoes should I buy? ( a common response to the pronation question)

Following Kathy Dooley’s amazing post about pronation - http://www.drdooleynoted.com/pronation-as-your-favorite-nation/ - I was not surprised to see the enormous response asking about shoes that immediately followed. EVERYBODY ASKS ABOUT SHOES! I even googled “What shoe to buy” to find an image for the post and there are two whacking great pronated feet amidst them all… Seems we can’t separate the two…

It seems to me to be a normal response when pronation is discussed (or foot mechanics in general).

"What shoes should I be wearing?"

"Should I be barefoot?"

"What type of barefoot show should I be wearing?"

and normally on the back of that questions about running techniques and ideal foot strike patterns.

I think this generally highlights that people’s general awareness around foot mechanics remains to be something that relates the foot immediately to shoes and or running versus some deeply anatomical concept that is an important part of the process for setting the human body free from the shackles of it’s limitation. Rather than rant on about isolated thought processes and part based versus whole body based thinking, I thought I’d take some time to help people think about footwear and a wider consideration about it’s relationship with foot mechanics.

It’s a question I am regularly asked and the answer rarely changes… Not because I’m a stock answer kinda guy, but because there is no answer: just a thought process behind it. It’s highly unlikely that you will get to the end of this post and know what shoes to buy - in fact I’m not going to mention any brands nor am I going to respond to “what do you think of this versus this” comments.

I first would like to invite people to consider that the shoe itself is what I refer to as an external environment – whereas the body (joints, soft tissue, CNS etc) is an internal environment. It may or may not be a surprise to you that an imbalance may be present when these two environments are not in harmony. There are many external factors and many internal factors, all of which can be a consideration in the game of “finding centre”.

When it comes to shoes, the shoe (as an external environment) may directly influence the timings and motions of the foot inside the shoe, due to it’s shape for example, and therefore it requires the structure of the foot (internal environment) to be in a position to move/influence the shoe versus be moved/influenced by the shoe….

Dominate the Shoe or be dominated by the shoe!!

Whenever somebody talks about pronation, the question is related immediately to shoes and not towards more useful questions such as: “What is pronation?”; “What are the mechanics of pronation?”, “How do I promote the mechanics of pronation?”; “When does pronation take place?”; “What muscles are used in pronation?”…. People always ask about the shoe – as if the shoe will manage your pronation for you. Which it won’t!! See, the irony is that the shoe will support your foot just the way it is and can even make it worse. But I have never seen a standard shoe make a foot ‘better’ when it is later removed from the shoe. I have seen barefoot fans claim their foot posture has improved, but then I am wondering if those guys actually asked the question “What are the mechanics of pronation?” since had they been privy to such info they may look at their own foot differently.

Feet have 26 bones and 33 moving joints. Imagine all of these bones and joints having free movement in three dimensions. In each dimension, each bone and joint can travel in two opposing directions. These would be dorsiflexion / plantarflexion; eversion/ inversion & internal rotation/ external rotation or in the same plane adduction/ abduction. In neutral, each structure is neither resting in nor accessing any of these motions. When the foot pronates it lengthens and spreads on the ground, thus, all of the joints in the foot must move towards an extreme motion in each plane. It must return from this posture back to neutral and beyond in the opposite direction in order to experience supination. When a foot can evenly pronate and supinate either side of it’s resting neutral position, then the mechanics of the foot are all set to dominate the shoe you put on, all of the joints get to open and close in all three planes and each of the muscles gets to experience it’s long and short version of itself. Those feet which are pronated and struggle to supinate cannot claim this. Those feet which are supinated and struggle to pronate cannot claim this. And those feet which are stuck somewhere between the two (and I don’t mean neutral) with bones and joints doing their own disorganised thing also cannot claim this. In 17 years of working with feet, I have never seen a good ‘pair’ of feet. We don’t look after them, few seem to understand them, there is rarely any symmetry between them (left being the same as right), the mechanics usually represent part of what they can do and very few can actually supinate…. Mainly due to our inability to pronate (despite being pronated in general!).

Putting a shoe on your feet is not going to fix this “problem” … Foot posture quickly leads to a habitual way of walking with each step becoming repetitive in nature and the same as the one preceding it and following it. It becomes predictable and encourages fixed and consistent patterns in the body above too.

My stock response to the shoe question: So, are you influenced by your shoes or are you able to dominate the shoe you put on your feet? Think about it… When you put a shoe on do you feel it quickly go from heel strike to foot flat on the ground? Do you find that you stand with pronated feet and continue to do so when you put a shoe on? Have you ever thought about it? Maybe you haven’t realized that in barefoot your foot has generated a consistent pattern of movement, which it happily undertakes with every step you take. Each step you take is a repetitive habit. You repeat it daily, a sufficient amount of times to convince the brain that this footstep serves the way your body is currently set up. It’s relationship with your whole body is set in stone. The repetitive habit of the foot is mirrored by a repetitive movement of your body as a whole. If both feet are not moving the same through each footstep then your body will move differently with the left leg on the ground to when the right leg is on the ground – which ultimately could become a problem. The foot is designed to be BOTH a mobile adaptor and a rigid lever moving easily from one state to the other for optimal motion through your walking cycle. This is all well and good except that a society which gernally walks on flat surfaces has less requirement to move in such a way since as it conforms to the flat shape and due to the consistency of the external environment has no stimulus to change to experience other new more beneficial postures. To no longer be challenged easily creates comfort zones and repetitive habits and programs which we run as we go through our day to day lives. Nothing is going to change this habit without the presence of awareness and a challenge to the habitual structure.

Shoes don’t do that… shoes do not challenge the way your feet move. They support the way your feet move. They are made of fabric with rubber or foam or vibram soles (ok, so I said I wouldn’t mention brands but vibram are not a particular shoe – they are a sole that for years could be found on walking and all terrain boots). The shaped soles have the potential to influence our feet except that generally they don’t. Why? Because the soles of shoes are built with the exact ‘faults’ built into the shoe as we witness in feet that over-pronate. The bottom line is that shoes do not mimic the mechanics of walking. They attempt to support the mechanics of pronation and ironically cause pronation even more. Some shoes are anti-pronation shoes but what is the point of building an arch into a shoe or using a stiffer foam to minimise foot pronation if the sole of the shoe is already holding a varus angle in the forefoot? This will simply encourage the inward roll of the foot while the stiffener plate attempts to minimize it… that is not a sound approach. Shoes are built on old school thinking about what foot pronation is and not built on what the foot actually does when moving through life.

Your goal is to get the mechanics of your feet working optimally: to get the bones, joints and muscles doing what they do best; opening, closing, lengthening and shortening in order to help you move from a mobile adaptor (pronated foot) to that rigid lever (supinated) position as you propel yourself forwards. If your foot is unable to do this, due to structural limitations (there usually are some) or perhaps never having experienced a truly pronated or supinated foot for instance…then your foot will be dominated by any shoe you put on… When your foot is finally able to freely move through the whole spectrum of foot motion in three dimensions, then you can finally dominate the shoe you are wearing. Your internal environment can match or overcome any external influences on your global system. When you get to this point you can simply choose shoes that are comfortable, neutral and the colour you actually like ☺

What about barefoot shoes? Barefoot shoes you would think are most likely the easiest shoes to dominate, right? Not necessarily (PS I love a barefoot shoe as much as anyone)…. I have seen barefoot shoes that have done just the opposite. I regularly see and work with feet who’s structures match the shape of the barefoot shoe they choose to wear. Thus they are either influenced by the shoe or they chose that shoe as it matches their foot shape (which is doubtful). I have also noticed some barefoot shoes which have been built with the COM in the wrong position (they still look pretty though). COM management is an interesting phenomenon in closed chain movement. If the external COM (shoe) and the internal COM (foot) are not lined up, then one will move towards the other. Since the shoe can’t move the foot must move towards it. If the COM of a shoe is medial to the COM of the foot then that foot will roll medial to align the two and affect things up the chain. All of this will dominate your foot or at least fight against it’s flow.

The reason I bring all of this up is that it simply is not in our mindset when shoe buying. We think about size, colour, performance and sometimes injury (when we want to minimize it’s impact on our running). Most people’s first priority is not a mobile pair of feet; it’s running, mobility drills, crossfit, pilates, yoga, a six pack, losing weight, minimizing pain… so which shoes you need for all of that becomes an important question… what’s perhaps worth considering is the good old English phrase “you cannot polish a turd”… Most feet are turds and the shoes you put them into are the polish. Shoes will not introduce optimum foot mechanics into your system: they will not teach your foot (body) how to pronate, they will not teach your foot (body) how to supinate. They won’t even introduce you to a useful experience of neutral.

Give your feet an experience of all ranges of motion in a closed chain environment, get all the joints moving (opening and closing) and all the muscles lengthening and shortening, there are important mechanics to consider but you can do lot before you need that depth of material. Then choose shoes that are comfortable and get the job done…

I guess Kathy would say, it’s your call ☺…

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About Gary Ward

Gary is driven by the belief that anything is possible. Where some practitioners write you off, Gary has an open door; behind which he intends to create a safe environment where your body can learn to heal itself through the experience of whole and integrated movement

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