The other day, one of my clients came in for her weekly session and told me she had a kink in her neck after wearing heels the night before. “‘Tis the season!” I responded.
The same client also sent me this article from the NYT – the news is spreading that it’s time to start re-evaluating what we do to our feet every time we slip ’em into a pair of shoes.
Unlike my client, the majority of city-dwelling humans have no idea the impact their footwear has on the rest of their bodies. As a ballet dancer who was raised by a ballet dancer, I remember thinking the shape of my feet was really inconvenient given the shape of the point shoes I had to wear. It was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole…or in reality, trying to fit a wide, natural foot into a skinny, pointy, pink satin coffin.
Fortunately for my tootsies, I only wore those shoes for about 3 years before I realized ballet wasn’t my bag. But a significant amount of damage was already done – my big toe had started to exhibit “Hallux Valgus”, pointing inward, and I’d also lost a significant amount of ankle dorsiflexion from all the constant reinforcement of plantarflexion/pointed toes as opposed to balancing this with heavy doses of dorsiflexion as well.
When I started practicing yoga, I couldn’t figure out why squatting was so hard for me. I’d watch my teacher give students adjustments from a squat position herself, looking as comfortable in it as a toddler playing with blocks. But whenever I tried to squat low, I’d just fall backwards.
Does that happen to you? Here’s why: your ankles don’t bend anymore. Or rather, they don’t bend past 90 degrees. You stand on them, so they know how to bend that way, but after years of wearing shoes and following outdated cues like “don’t let your knees go past your toes”, your ankles forgot that they’re meant to MOVE.
So now think about heeled shoes. Even if you’re a guy and you don’t wear high heels, any form of heeled shoe is going to mess with your foot mechanics. It’s going to rearrange the natural weight distribution between the heel and ball of the foot, not to mention diminish ankle dorsiflexion.
Picture the shape of your foot in a stiletto. The front of the ankle gets all stretched out and forgets how to engage. The back of your ankle gets shortened and immobile. Compare that to a squat position (a functional, foundational posture that we were all born with the ability to do) where the heels stay down, lengthening through the achilles, and you don’t fall backward because the front of the shin/top of the foot know how to contract.
So if you’ve been saying to yourself (like I used to) “I just can’t squat…my body isn’t designed that way,” remember that movement and lack of movement designs the body. If you really want to bring yourself into balance, consider the squat to be the remedy to wearing heels.
Many of us can’t just kick off our heels and drop into a squat. So here’s some progressions you can use in what I call the “Yoga Detour Remedy to Heeled-Shoes Extravaganza” – this is exactly what I took my client through the other day to help reset her body and get rid of that kink in her neck:
Do all of the below in bare feet!
1. Roll out the bottoms of your feet. Use a Tune-Up ball, or a tennis ball, even a rolling pin (that you will probably want to wash afterward!). Lean into whatever object your using and get your foot to squish into it rather than just glide along the surface. Visit different areas of the bottoms of your feet and give each spot the attention it deserves. Take at least 60 seconds to show some TLC to each foot.
2. Do some elevated heel raises. Find a step, platform, stair – anything that you can stand on while your heels hang off the edge. Hands can be on a wall—this isn’t about balance. Sink all the way down as far as the heels can go, finding that passive dorsiflexion position. Then engage through the feet to press onto your toes, all the way into plantar-flexion (keeping the legs straight). Lower slowly into that bottom position each time, lingering there for a moment. Try 10 reps with the feet parallel, take a break, then do 2 more sets – 1 with the feet/legs internally rotated and another with the feet externally rotated. Changing direction of pull will do all kinds of nice things for your posterior chain.
3. Practice your hip hinge, or even turn that into a weighted deadlift. The whole time you wear heels, the backs of legs stay in a shortened position – that has a ripple effect all the way up to the neck! To get the kinks out, we have to start from the bottom (feet) and work our way up through the ankles to the hips. So in the deadlift, keep the heels heavy and the legs straight enough to feel like you’re not squatting. This loads the hamstrings in a lengthened position, helping to restore balance after a night of high-heeled jumping around on a dance floor.
4. Squat. You may need to start with the heels raised on something like a dowel or a wedge, or even a weight plate. Give yourself the support needed to squat to full depth so that your ankles, knees and hips experience what it’s like to move in and out of full flexion and extension. Practice passive squats (just hanging out, campfire style) as well as active squats (dynamic! move! get the heart rate up!). There are honestly ENDLESS squat variations out there to learn and experiment with. But for now, just focus on restoring this position over time and soon you’ll notice a change in the mobility of your entire lower body.
5. Wear toe-spreaders. These are my favourites. Embrace your inner foot geek, slip these babies on whenever you’re just hanging around the house (they fit in your slippers, don’t worry), and your feet will thank you 1000x over.
The links above will take you to a few free YouTube videos. Use ’em! And if you’ve got questions leave them below in the comments.