If you’ve spent any amount of time here at Fit For Real Life, you know that having strong, pain-free feet is an outcome I champion. I met Jessi Stensland in 2011, just a few years out of her professional triathlon and off-road racing careers, and we’ve forged a friendship through a mutual love of natural movement, travel, and building strong feet. Jessi is so passionate about your feet functioning better that she’s made it her mission to improve feet around the world. FEET FREEX is where you’ll usually find her fulfilling that mission, but today she’s sharing her knowledge about one often overlooked, but very important aspect of foot health…over to Jessi to tell you all about it!
How I grew a new shoe
My cousin said it best when I told him about my recent revelations about my feet, including how easy it is for me to walk on almost any surface due to the thicker fatty padding they have grown.
“So…..you’re saying you grew yourself a shoe.”
Well yes, it seems I did. It’s awesome! It’s possible. And it is highly relevant that you do.
Fatty padding can be found wherever your bare foot strikes the ground. In a high-functioning, well-used foot, the padding would be present as a circular patch on the bottom of the end of each of the toes, as well as continuously along the ball of the foot, the lateral aspect of the foot and at the heel. It would be uniform in thickness throughout.
And to clarify, because people assume it a lot. The fatty padding is NOT a callus. A callus is defined as: a thickened and hardened part of the skin or soft tissue, especially in an area that has been subjected to friction (often when rubbing against the inside of footwear.)
Instead my foot’s fatty padding is soft and supple.
In this image you can see where his feet hit the ground and where he has built up fatty padding. Notice the difference from the left foot to right.
His left foot is a bit larger, darker and more uniformly padded. My guess is that he’s right hand dominant and therefore counters many daily movements with his left foot, making it his dominant, stronger foot.
Also see how there is a slightly lighter patch just above each of his heels as you follow it up along the lateral aspect of the sole of the foot. The soles of many shoes have an unnatural arch shape where a natural foot would be flat along that edge.
This deforms the foot pushing it upward.
Because of this, it doesn’t hit the ground as hard at that spot so not as much fatty padding is developed there.
Padding Anatomy 101
The fatty padding is composed of many microchambers that contain fatty tissue. These chambers are formed by walls of elastin (mainly collagen) that are flexible and pliable. They stretch and rebound to help absorb and dissipate the forces and pressures that occur during movement.
The padding protects the foot’s bones, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and nerves. It provides protection by absorbing the impact, shear forces, and pressures that the foot endures during movements whether standing, walking, jumping running, climbing trees, lifting weights and more.
These days, my fatty padding is thicker than it’s ever been. I spend less time in footwear and walk on more natural surfaces than I ever have. And my feet feel fantastic. I have been jumping higher and run faster (relative to my training loads) than ever, in part, thanks to my wider, naturally cushioned base of support to absorb ground reaction forces and propel off of.
Do a Self-Assessment
Have a look at the bottom of your feet. Variations in the fatty padding are good to observe to get an idea of one’s foot movement quality. A few examples:
For example, in feet in which hallux valgus is present (big toe pushed in toward the foot’s midline,) you’ll often find little to no fatty padding under the 1st metatarsal joint, simply because the joint becomes compromised and the body doesn’t rely upon it as often any more.
It is a telltale sign that you are missing out on a very powerful fulcrum critical to natural locomotion.
In these feet you will find the fatty padding more prominently starting at the 2nd metatarsal and continuing across the foot.
There may be a particular patch of thicker fat pad here and there. This too is significant.
It means that area is hitting the ground harder and/or more often than the others. It might need to back off or the other less-thick areas might need to catch up!
Weak feet with fallen arches will often present with a fat pad at the heel that has developed off to one side or the other as the body has compensated in its foot strike pattern.
Start re-building your foot tripod to help return your arches to their glory.
Function over Fear
As I go barefoot often, I’ve been asked about the fear of stepping on something that might hurt me. I have yet to have had an experience from the city to the forest, that has been a problem and my foot’s fatty padding has a lot to do with that.
A few factors:
Awareness. I look where I’m going and don’t step where I don’t want to step.
Reactability. I react quicker to things my foot doesn’t like so the potential ‘perpetrator’ doesn’t have time to invade my space.
Protection. The rare times when something does get through the skin, it doesn’t get very far. My fatty padding is thick and it protects me.
Increasing one’s fatty padding is possible and pivotal, as it will increase the time, difficulty and distance the foot can handle walking on natural terrain, which provides the variability the foot so desperately needs.
The foot has 33 joints, 32 muscles and many more tendons and ligaments. Like any other body part, each loves to go through and work at its full range of motion.
When the foot is able to fully work, it is stronger and wider, allowing it to provide the stable and reactive base of support your body requires to move well from.
Shoes and flat surfaces just don’t allow for that maximal level of movement quality.
Aim for a minimum of twenty minutes a day of using your free feet. You train your hands, shoulders, core, hips and the rest of your body; don’t forget that your feet have mobile joints and prime movers and they want to be put to work too.
Get feet free! Visit www.feetfreex.com for more fun foot facts and motivation to free your feet!
by Jessi Stensland | FEET FREEX
Jessi is a multisport athlete and movement specialist currently focused on the feet. She has been described as a force of nature and deemed “the foot prophet” by those who’ve heard her speak. In October 2015 she launched FEET FREEX, a global movement and resource inspiring natural foot function and footwear designs that for allow it. To learn more and join the tribe visit www.feetfreex.com!