Feet & Athleticism
About a year ago I realized that my feet have changed to look like the shape of the basketball shoes I grew up wearing.
To counter that, I’ve spent the past year wearing barefoot-inspired Xero Shoes, which have a wider toe box and no big heel cushion. They allow my feet to rest naturally rather than being cramped into an unnatural position.
In basketball, the larger the heel cushion is, the greater the size of your ankle sprain when you land on someone’s foot, so I couldn’t bring myself to go back to basketball shoes even when playing full court games.
So I’ve played full court games and made hundreds and hundreds of dunks… with no cushion or support.
I can’t advise that broadly.
What I have going for me is tens of thousands of reps for the muscles in my feet and lower legs.
Had I tried this before those tens of thousands of reps, I’d have been in serious pain. I know because I tried wearing barefoot shoes almost a decade ago and I wound up with pain through my heels, arches, and big toes.
This explains why I see comments like “barefoot shoes saved my feet!” and “barefoot shoes injured my feet!” in the very same comment section.
Likely it had to do with:
- the person’s readiness
- the person’s lifestyle: are you walking on concrete all day? Because that’s unnatural, just like modern shoes are unnatural
- the volume of pressure: is the person overweight? Is the person walking 1 mile a day? 5 miles? Running? Lifting weights?
I quickly realized that my desired shoe would have a wide toe box and SOME support but zero drop, meaning the heel isn’t lifted up higher than the toes.
I now have a prototype of that exact shoe completed and it’s gorgeous. What I need is a manufacturer — an American manufacturer, to be precise.
I’d rather make way less profit but have the shoes produced here in the USA.
So, is my athleticism limited by the fact that I spent decades in shoes deforming my feet? Is this an excuse for athletic plateau? Because I want to jump even higher, and run even faster!
Well, I can’t give you a yes or no to those questions yet.
But I can show you some facts:
This is the foot of the fastest man of all time, Usain Bolt.
You can see how his foot is forming into the shape of a modern shoe.
Modern shoes were designed for style, not how a foot is actually shaped.
Nonetheless, he is the fastest man ever.
And this next foot belongs to Lebron James, whose combined on-court speed, jump height, body size, and career longevity are likely the greatest in the history of sports.
His feet are also jacked up:
Even my personal hero growing up, Michael Jordan, had feet taking the form of the Nikes he was wearing. This was early in his career, so they likely jammed together even more:
By comparison, here’s an example of adult feet that have never worn shoes:
You can directly see how a shoe changes a foot:
The good news is that your feet don’t have to be an excuse for your training results. We can ALL train some of the bigger things that Michael Jordan, Lebron James and Usain Bolt have in common:
- LOWER LEGS! For a training example, check out this video: The Soleus Explained Simply.
For motivation, check out a young MJ’s lower leg!
Regular squats, deadlifts, leg presses, leg extensions, and leg curls are legitimate strength exercises — but your foot doesn’t move or work. I think the amount of leg exercise I’ve done that does load the feet is the biggest reason for my change in foot and lower leg health. Chronic plantar fasciitis and shin splints in my 20s have never returned despite my speed and jumping soaring to much higher levels of force. No amount of band-aids or treatments gave me lasting relief. Only training my feet and lower legs.
2. VMOs! VMO is short for vastus medialis oblique:
Vastus = large
Medialis = toward the middle of the body
Oblique = slanting
Technically, you only need to say “vastus medialis” — but it became referred to with the “oblique” due to its slanting nature.
The VMO is the first muscle that has to contract when your knee — your body’s largest joint — is under pressure. It’s also the most “fast-twitch” of your thigh muscles, meaning that relative to its size it can produce greater speeds and higher jumps.
A 2009 study said we can’t preferentially train our VMOs, but a study seven years later proved we can. The 2009 study only tested up to 90 degrees of bend — a half squat — but the 2016 study found that as you go to full bend, it becomes more and more VMO relative to the other quad muscles.
So no, you can’t “isolate” your VMOs, meaning when you work your VMOs you ARE working all four of your quad muscles. But it’s pretty awesome that we really can preferentially develop better VMOs, and the relative size of our VMOs to the rest of our quads = LESS KNEE PAIN! Plus, who the heck would want to exclusively isolate the VMOs and completely shut off the rest of the quads?
[My friend Brian Ziegler, a physiotherapist and certified ATG coach, keeps good track of all these studies! Click here to check out his article on the VMO, with all sources cited.]
We want all four of our quads to be strong, and we CAN preferentially develop our VMOs in the process.
I didn’t have ’em naturally. Now I do.
I’m not MJ. I’m not Lebron. I’m not Usain Bolt. But with a 42.5-inch max vertical, up from my high school 19-inch vertical (which was the lowest my coach had ever tested!), I’m a lot more like those guys than I was! Now in my 30s, I keep getting more bulletproof and athletic thanks in large part to weekly exercises to develop my VMOs.
For motivation, check out Lebron’s lower leg and VMO on Lebron’s jumping leg. HOLY COW!
As a bonus, check out a young Michael Jordan’s VMO, before he ever lifted weights!
Usain Bolt’s feet might not be ideal.
Could he have run even faster with natural feet?
I don’t know.
But I do know that his hamstrings had a lot to do with his speed! I know that for a fact because I had the same style of jammed-in feet like his, and I sure as heck wasn’t fast!
There’s a lot more to these athletes than just lower legs, VMOs, and hamstrings, but it’s great to know that our years of unnatural shoes don’t have to stop us from changing our bodies to be more athletic and with greater longevity.
I’ll keep training my lower legs, VMOs, and hamstrings.
And I’ll keep wearing my barefoot shoes.
If I get lucky, I’ll even have my ideal American-made shoes to deliver the desired benefits of barefoot shoes, but with some support, and with the attractive style of a sneaker.
I was feeling a bit worried about my feet.
Now I realize I don’t have to add that as a stress in my life.
If you want to do further work for your feet than the ATG basics, I’m not against that either!
I’m just the kind of person who gets excited when life gets simpler, so I hope this helps someone out there who may be confused or worried about their feet, like I was.
Yours in Solutions,
My fitness app is live on Apple and Google and is a free download so you can see what it’s like! This link redirects you to whichever you use.
I also have a couple basic and affordable products now for sale that help me train my lower legs and VMOs. You can click here to see them.