Everything is connected. You are a complex, whole structure. So what happens in your feet affects the rest of your body. Your feet are literally your foundation, and so it makes a lot of sense as to why changing the conditions of your feet would affect your ankles, knees, hips and spine.
But feet aren’t given that much attention in modern fitness/ movement programmes. How many PTs do you know who will give you foot strengthening exercises as well as squats and kettlebell exercises?
Around 3 years ago I started wearing barefoot shoes. This was an incredibly helpful step in getting over low back pain. Since then I’ve become a bit of a foot nerd and done a lot of research into feet and how they affect your body and back pain. Here is why barefoot shoes could end your low back pain and how to transition to barefoot shoes.
Fascia in your feet affects your lower back
What is fascia? It is connective tissue that runs throughout your body, connecting everything in your body to everything else. Fascia runs around individual muscles but also in between muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments. It also runs through muscles.
Tom Myers is the modern fascia specialist. He created a system for looking at the body through lines of fascia, called Anatomy Trains.
In this system there is a line of fascia called the Superficial Back Line. In this line fascia in your lower back (thoracolumbar fascia) is connected down to the muscles and fascia in your feet (plantar fascia).
I have done some training with the movement specialists Art Of Motion, who have come up with movements to correlate with Tom Myers’ fascial lines. One course we did foot release exercises and my lower back instantly felt less stiff, more free, and less painful. It was like magic. We had done literally no work moving our spines and yet I felt profoundly different there.
So in short, releasing your feet can help release your lower back.
Modern shoes put you on a downward slope
Most modern shoes have a small heel. Even trainers and men’s shoes! If you look at any shoes in your wardrobe it is likely that the toes sit lower than the heels. This essentially puts you on a mini hill all day long.
The diagram below shows that even a small heel makes your ankles come into ‘plantarflexion’ (or a slight pointing down position).
This ankle position means that your calf muscles are in a slightly shortened position. The position of your ankles then requires your knees to come into slight flexion or bent position, which would make your hamstrings come into a slightly shortened position.
Then, because of the position of your thighbones, your pelvis moves into a slight anterior tilt, bringing your hips into a slight flexion. This means your hip flexors will sit in a shortened position. Your lower back will be more arched.
Tight calves, tight hamstrings, tight hip flexors, stiff lower back…. Do any of these things apply to you and your body? Seems like there might be a pattern huh?
Years ago, after suddenly having a return of lower back pain, I went to see my favourite osteopath. He took one look at me and said “have you been wearing high heels more often than usual?” I was gobsmacked. That summer I had been to a lot of weddings. My osteopath could instantly tell how my body had adapted to being in the position of wearing heels more often than I was used to.
High heels (or any kind of heel) put your pelvis in a tilted forwards position. This increases the curve in your lower back, possibly creating shortness in those muscles and tissues.
So could switching to barefoot shoes end your lower back pain?
It did for me personally so I think yes! Looking at it objectively, this could be because: 1) The tissues in your feet directly relate to tissues in your lower back. Releasing tissues in one area can affect things in the other area. 2) Having your feet constantly on a slight slope due to heeled footwear really affects your posture and the resting length of muscles and structures.
If you’re interested in trying barefoot shoes here is how I transitioned in three simple steps.
How to transition to barefoot shoes in 3 simple steps
- Spend more time barefoot
Before I transitioned to wearing barefoot shoes I started trying to increase the amount of time that I spent barefoot first. I increased the amount of time I spent not wearing shoes each day, starting off with 30 minutes each day and slowly increasing to a few hours.
This might sound obvious, but how often do you walk around your house barefoot? Possibly more now we’re all at home more than ever before. But maybe you have a habit of putting shoes or slippers on even when you’re in the house. I’m fascinated to hear how some of my clients wear shoes even when they’re in their house.
Try spending 30 minutes per day for a week going barefoot and see how you feel. Then slowly increase the amount of time barefoot each week.
- Mobilise and strengthen your feet
Before wearing barefoot shoes I also spent a lot of time mobilising and strengthening my feet.
My favourite exercise to mobilise feet is using a spikey massage ball to roll out your foot. If you don’t have a massage ball you can use a bouncy ball, tennis ball, or even a tin of beans. Round things are better because you can really use it to help your foot make 3D shapes.
Start by rolling the ball backwards and forwards along the sole of your foot, from your big toe to your heel, then from your middle toes down to your heel, then from your pinky toe down to your heel. Use as much pressure as feels comfortable – you don’t need to pummel your feet, just gently mobilise them. If you have a ball that’s fairly soft you can start to move the ball from side to side, or even stepping on it to help make your foot make different shapes.
There are lots of other exercises that will help you build strength and mobility in your feet which we will be covering in our functional feet workshop in November.
- Take it slowly, be patient
My transition to barefoot shoes took me around a year to do fully. Before purchasing Vivobarefoot shoes, I wore shoes with a thicker sole but minimal drop (i.e. no heel). Some days my feet would feel tired, or like they’d had a bit of a workout. Some days I would go back to ‘normal’ shoes, or take a day off my barefoot transition plan.
I still do not run wearing barefoot shoes, unless I’m in a field or somewhere with really soft terrain. You often hear of people injuring themselves transitioning to barefoot shoes coupled with transitioning to barefoot running. Walk before you can run. Be patient.
Transitioning to barefoot shoes was such a life changing journey for me, not only helping me to heal my low back pain and gain strength in weak areas but I also gained a new sense! Your feet are sensors and they give you as much information about the world as your hands do, if you let them. Feeling my feet on different textures and surfaces helped me feel more calm, and connected to the world in general. I’m now a massive barefoot advocate and am constantly trying to persuade everyone I know to make the switch.
So if you have low back pain that’s still niggling or feeling stiff, try going barefoot and see what happens to your body.
Coming soon – Functional Feet Workshop on Saturday 21st November (online). Limited spaces, click here to register your interest. Early bird tickets go on sale 31st October.