Many of us would probably agree that women have done some amazing things while wearing high heels: Holding high-level political offices, running corporations, even deadlifting big weights, which you will see in a second. While heels undoubtedly can be visually appealing, and can simultaneously give an air of sexuality and power, what exactly is happening to the feet, ankles, shins and calves of the wearer? Let’s see what the research says, but first, deadlifts in heels:
Heels indeed are one of the greatest contradictions in footwear: part of the goal is to give the wearer the appearance of being taller and thus possessing more power, yet watching a wearer of high heels walk gives the impression of anything but. The gait is shortened, the knees are in constant flexion, and twisted ankles are common (especially on ladies night).
Twisted ankles aside, let’s look at three of the potential negative drawbacks of wearing high heels, and how it can affect your athletic performance.
1. The Foot
One of the greater drawbacks of constantly wearing high heels is its effect on the position of the feet. Researchers have foundthat wearers of high heels tend to move with shorter strides than those who were not wearing heels, with their feet in a permanently flexed position with toes pointed. Even when these same women took their heels off, the gait and foot position remained the same, implying a change in the physical characteristics of these women.
In addition to changing the characteristics of the wearer’s gait, many women report tremendous foot pain and aches when heels for any extended period, especially if time is spent standing up or walking around. Part of this is due to the design of the shoe itself. High heels slant the foot forward and down while bending the toes vertically. This transfers much of the bodyweight to the balls of the feet, further increasing the chance of soft tissue damage, including blisters, corns, plantar fasciitis, etc. Some even go so far as to reduce the bone structure on their feet in order to more comfortably fit into high heels. Does this sound familiar?
2. Tendons and Calves
Because the heel of the foot is in a constant raised position, you can expect a regular wearer to have noticeably shortened muscle fibers in the calf muscles. According to a researcher from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, “Several studies have shown that optimal muscle-tendon efficiency” while walking “occurs when the muscle stays approximately the same length while the tendon lengthens. When the tendon lengthens, it stores elastic energy and later returns it when the foot pushes off the ground. Tendons are more effective springs than muscles.” Think of running on the balls of your feet without a single heel strike, 4-8 hours a day for a couple of years and you will have some idea of the calf issues that wearers can face.
I, along with many other coaches, have seen and worked with women who had not previously engaged in physical activities and come in to learn how to squat. My wife, for example, had a team of 3 coaches work on her ankles to get them to loosen up after years of Louboutin. This happened by rolling the barbell sleeve up and down her calves and Achilles, lacrosse ball work, and the use of equi-block.
If you find that you are physically unable to get into a deep squat without either falling backwards, forwards, or having your upper body fold over, calf shortening may be to blame and should be addressed immediately. If the calf is in a constant state of flexion, the default position for your squats will involve your weight on the balls of your feet: the opposite of what we want.
Just like high heels can alter the characteristics of a woman’s feet, they can also change the characteristics of the knees, thus affecting the gait. The higher a heel on a shoe is, the greater pressure is loaded inside of the knee joint, known as medial loading. This constant battery of pressure loading on the inner knee increases the risk of a wearer development medial knee osteoarthritis, according to researchers. Do not be quick to think that a thicker or larger heel will improve the medial loading issues: a larger heel means that the ankle will externally rotate when walking to avoid hitting the other heel, which causes further ankle and hip issues.
What do we do with this information? Do we ask that women stop wearing heels completely? Not likely. However, a few things should be kept in mind: wearing heels that don’t smash the toes together will lessen the likelihood of corns and blisters appearing. If you do wear heels, extra care must be taken to make sure your calves and ankles and knees are taken care of, especially for lifting. Bearing your bodyweight on the balls of your feet is a 101 NO-NO. Wearing weightlifting shoes does not exhibit the same results as high heels, so no worry there. The heel is much lower, the toes are able to splay out, and they are typically worn for 2 hours or less with little walking involved. High rep box jumps in lifting shoes are not a great idea, however.
You can still look fabulous AND lift big, as long as you take care of yourself!