The motor program for walking is one of our oldest, most basic, and easily one of the most important. Learning to walk requires incremental gains in stability, coordination and balance. Failure to follow the step-by-step (no pun intended) process can lead to poor coordination, muscle imbalances and cognitive problems such as learning disabilities. However, proper functioning of this particular motor program is just as important for adults as it is for children.
Proper walking requires a number of things to work correctly, both on the musculo-skeletal level and at the neurological level. Done correctly, it facilities coordiation, flexibility and balance. Done incorrectly, it impairs the same. A normal stride should include a number of things: a rolling from the center of the heel through to the tip of the big toe, oppositional movement of the arms and legs, and proper spine and pelvic movement. Feedback from muscles and ligaments throughout the body, especially in the feet, facilitate the neuromuscular patterns that make it all happen. In many, one or more of these pieces is missing.
Specific patterns of facilitation and inhibition of muscles must happen at specific phases of the gait cycle (walking) for everything to run smoothly. Impairment of these patterns can lead to poor coordination, poor balance, muscle tension, reduced range of motion and even injury. If you think about how many repetitions of these movements one makes over the course of a day, it’s easy to see how deeply engrained these imbalances can become. Lack of flexibility, especially around the big toe can cause major alterations in these patterns, leading to symptoms in remote areas such as knees, hips, back, shoulders and even the neck. (Hint) Look to see if you tend to wear out the outside of your shoes more than the inside. This is a sign that you may have this particular restriction, often referred to as functional hallux limitus.
All of these patters are correctable if they’re altered, but keeping them working correctly isn’t just a matter of practice; shoes make a difference. As I mentioned earlier, receptors in the feet play a vital role in proper gait patterns. Heavily cushioned and artificially supportive shoes rob your nervous system of much of this vital feedback, leading to an altered pattern. Additionally, shoes that provide a great deal of support don’t require your body to provide that same support and one ends up destabilizing their feet and ankles. In an ironic twist, at least one sports medicine study shoes that injury rates actually increase the more expensive and “hi-tech” shoes become. The answer is to get back to basics.
Minimalism is the name of the game when it comes to shoes. In reality, barefoot is best for us. It’s how we’re built. However, in today’s concrete jungles, that’s just not realistic. A little protection is necessary. Athletic shoes featuring very little support structures and minimal cushioning are becoming all the rage these days for just this reason, especially for running. Shoes such as Nike Frees and Vibram 5-Fingers are increasing in popularity. Many experts suggest getting at least 15 minutes per day of barefoot walking in, mainly for it’s therapeutic effect, less so for it’s fitness benefits. For some, barefoot just isn’t doable, either because of the terrain or because it hurts due to their deconditioned feet and ankles. The shoes mentioned above are excellent in these cases. Many choose to wear shoes like this all day… also and excellent idea. However, it’s something one must work into. To transition overnight to such an unsupported gait will inevitably lead to soreness or injury. Take it slow. Start with smaller bouts of wear and slowly increase over time until you can tolerate wearing these shoes all day. The Nike’s have a bit more padding than shoes such as the Vibrams and as such, offer a more gradual transition. Most don’t suffer any ill effects from the transition.
Pay attention to your stride, get the right shoes and walk your way to a healthy body.