NEW YORK—No matter who walks (or limps) into her office at Midtown Podiatry with a foot injury, Dr. Emily Splichal offers the same prescription: barefoot therapy.
“When I send patients to physical therapy, on [the prescription] I’m saying, ‘Must be barefoot.’ It’s the foundation of every patient’s rehab,” Splichal said.
For patients who don’t require physical therapy, Splichal has them brush their teeth while barefoot and balancing on one leg.
“When people think about barefoot, they think about running,” she said. “But I don’t want them to—I want them to think about training, rehab, performance.”
That’s because Splichal found the benefits of barefoot is far-reaching, and far more than a trend in running—which has its detractors as people jumped on the bandwagon a couple years ago, got injured, and prematurely wrote off barefoot as a whole.
Now many of them come to her, not only to learn how to run barefoot with minimal injury, but to heal previous damage.
Barefoot in Training
Splichal grew up in North Dakota, where snow covers the ground nine months of the year—not a barefoot-friendly climate.
But having spent 12 years as a personal trainer and obtaining a masters in human movement, she is now a proponent of the benefits and joys of barefoot training. Her barefoot crusade has led to appearances on The Oprah Show, The Today Show, The Doctors, Dr. Steve Show, and Good Day New York.
“I do kettlebells barefoot, I lift barefoot, I teach barefoot classes around the gyms in New York,” Splichal said.
“I feel stronger, better aligned, more connected after I work out barefoot,” she said. “I’ve studied the science behind it, I have a lot of patients do it, and I see that it actually works—not only on myself.”
She’s been teaching for five years, and commonly hears from barefooters that they experience less pain in their joints, that their lower extremities get stronger, and they feel a greater sense of well being.
When she’s not treating patients, Splichal visits physical therapy offices in the city to teach barefoot science and encourage therapists to train patients barefoot.
“Where we’re going to see an increase in barefoot movement is in athletes, and coaches starting to see their athletes’ injuries go down [and] performance go up,” she said.
“I’m seeing more barefoot in rehab too. The rehab industry is starting to realize the important role that the of the bottom of the foot plays in movement dysfunctions.”
Bad Shoes, Wrong Movements
When patients go to a podiatrist, they usually complain of pain in various parts of the foot—heel, tendon, arch, ball—that result from injury, movement habits, or overuse. Often the problems are triggered and/or exacerbated by footwear.
Shoes change the way you move. The way you move depends on the way your body perceives the environment. When your feet have no direct contact with the ground, your brain cannot build a full picture of the terrain. So how can it direct your body to prepare fully?
Shoes that feature “advanced engineering” often cause unexpected problems. Elevated heels and shock absorbers, for instance, redirect the impact to different areas of the foot and leg.
“If your foot is not absorbing the impact and responding to the ground in the right way, and your calf isn’t flexible or contracting in the right way, the shock goes higher up in the body,” Splichal said.
The ways your body tries to compensate for these pressures can lead to pain in the knees, hips, back, and even the neck.
Barefoot For All
For all these problems, Splichal recommends strengthening the foot and ankle via a series of at-home exercises—done barefoot, of course.
The foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. A quarter of the body’s bones are in the feet.
With so many parts doing such an crucial job every day, it’s important to make sure each part is pulling its weight.
Barefoot strengthening exercises recalls to the brain muscles that have gotten out of touch due to decades of footwear. Ironically, they allow the person to experience less pain when he or she does wear shoes—even uncomfortable heels.
“They’re actually able to wear the other shoes with less pain now,” Splichal said. “Because the barefoot or minimalist training is strengthening all the muscles in the bottom of the foot so that when you do go into a different environment, those muscles are stronger.”
The exercises, which require little if any equipment, are easy to learn. The key is to go slow and let the body get used to the new way of moving. After all, you’re essentially renewing all the neurological connections you formed as a toddler but have lost since you learned to tie your shoelaces.
“The first thing I tell patients is, start walking around the house barefoot,” Splichal said.
“A lot of people wear their shoes at home. Take all of that off and start walking around barefoot. When you get used to being in a barefoot environment, you start stimulating the skin on the bottom of the foot so now you’re waking all the nerves that are not usually not stimulated when you’re in shoes.”
“The second thing is intentionally strengthening the foot through barefoot exercises. Balance barefoot on one foot. You’re now recruiting more muscles to stabilize the body. So everything’s waking up a little bit more. That can be done at home or at the gym.”
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