by Dominika Borovansky Gaines
Not too long ago I headed up north to chaperone a trip with my daughter’s school. Because it was going to snow and then possibly rain, I chose to take my hiking boots. Usually I spend most of my day barefoot and wear only flats or minimal shoes as needed. This was the first time in a while that I would be wearing these ankle-high hiking boots.
If you know anything about minimal shoes, you know that they are constructed to allow as much natural movement of the foot as possible. They have very thin and flexible soles and the uppers are light. When I wear them I can feel the shape of the terrain where I walk and hike, and they offer no “support” to my ankles. I am a firm believer that our feet, arches, lower legs, etc. should be strong enough to support our bodies moving in our world.
The hiking boots, on the other hand, are designed with a rigid sole to protect from the terrain, have a strong heel cup to stabilize the ankle and are designed with the neck coming up over the ankle bones for yet more stability. When I wear them, my feet feel quite caged.
The first day I wore them for most of the day and by evening my feet were screaming. They felt hot and irritated because, while roomy enough, my feet are just not used to being in containers. I spent about 20 minutes rolling out my feet on a ball and stretching my calves over a roller (yes, I pack such things when I travel). Next day, the boots went back on my feet as the day was to be filled with hiking, orienteering and bouldering, but again, after a few hours I really wanted to take them off. While bouldering up- and downhill, I didn’t feel nearly as sure-footed as I often do since I couldn’t sense smaller angles of rock. But worse was the knee pain. I don’t have knee pain! Back at our camp, I took off the shoes and began walking barefoot on the granite. Aah, so much better! Took a short creek hike. Even better! I could feel temperature and texture. How wonderful!! And my knees stopped hurting.
And then it dawned on me. It was indeed the boots. All that “support” was keeping the bones of my feet from moving and my ankles from gliding (notice the stiffer legs and ankles in the hiking boots versus minimal shoes below). Since my ankles couldn’t move in their full range to accommodate the terrain, there was a lot more tension placed on my knee joints; the quads tightened to support my knee, forcing the patella back and creating friction. And then the pain started in my glutes, deep in my hip. My piriformis was working overtime. The entire muscular and fascial chain of my lateral hip was affected by the shoes I was wearing. More rolling and more stretching was needed to undo this painful pattern.
In preparing this blog, I again donned the said boots to gather more evidence. I thought it might be interesting to experience movement with each foot in a different shoe. I wore the hiking boot on my right foot only and proceeded to climb up and down some stairs. Once again, my right knee began hurting from the stair descents. This time, though, the pain in my right, deep hip was much more severe and longer lasting, and it took more than an hour to calm down. I was fortunate to have the tools I needed to release the tension.
I can’t help but think of all the people I know who suffer from similar ailments — chronic hip pain, knee pain, back pain, ankle pain, bunions — and I have to wonder, what shoes do they wear? Do they have “supportive” shoes, which actually create a cast and keep the 33 joints and hundreds of muscles and thousands of nerves of the feet immobilized and not doing their jobs? It’s something to consider. So, how about a barefoot walk in the grass?