High heels cause problems in the long run. Here are my methods of helping many women get back to normal after wearing heels for years.
When women who wear high heels to work go to the gym, they often switch to regular tennis shoes, which changes how they walk.
I then go about training them in the usual manner (not knowing that they are usually 3 inches taller throughout their day) and some goofy stuff starts popping up.
The most common are:
- Pain and cramping in the arch of the foot
- Cramping in the calves
The pain can come about from asking them to do any jogging or running. It especially manifests when they do any calf raises.
At that point, I usually ask, “Do you wear heels?” Client: “Always!”
What Problems Are Created With High Heels
The problem is that your foot was designed to be flat on the ground when you walk.
Think about it – as you point your toes down, your calf muscles get shorter. If you wear heels and are in that position for hours every day, your calf muscles tend to want to stay there. Now just putting your foot flat on the ground is a stretch.
But the calves aren’t the only thing affected, there are a bunch of small muscles in your arch, there is connective tissue that gets stretched in some places and bunched up in others. And I haven’t even begun to even address anything above the knee.
There have been studies on the effects of wearing heels and its effect on the Achilles tendon.
The risks of tendinitis, shortening of the Achilles tendon, as well as a general lack of flexibility are significantly increased in a person who wears heels most of the day.
But I didn’t need a study to tell you that.
Any personal fitness trainer worth his salt can see these things happening right in front of him. I have even had a woman (chronic heel wearer) on a leg press machine and the muscles in her arches started cramping up.
I wanted to bring up the Achilles tendon in particular here because that is not something you want to injure, shorten or stiffen. It is a key player in your ability to walk. Tendons don’t have as much blood flow as muscles so they are slower to heal.
Please treat this little guy with some respect.
How To Fix Your Feet After Wearing Heels for Years
Let’s say that you have a woman who’s been wearing four-inch heels for over a decade. The damage has been done. She decided to work out with you (a fitness trainer) and she now realizes that something needs to change. How do you help her?
A gradient decrease in heel height. If she were going to the gym or not, I always recommend to decrease the height of the heel by about 1/2” at a time. Most of the time you’ll find that she has heels of all sizes. Tell her to get rid of the really high ones and start making her daily ones a bit smaller.
This needs to be done slowly and on a gradient. She should determine that speed based on how she feels. Do not try to take someone from a 4” daily heel to flats in 2 months or less. If the person (as in this example) has been wearing heels for over a decade, that is not near enough time to let everything comfortably stretch out.
Stretches. These should be very, very easy at first. Remember, just being in regular athletic shoes is probably stretching those muscles. Any stretching that you do should be very light and stopped before any pain is felt.
Foam roller. Roll out your calves on the foam roller. Target the calf muscle and soleus. The foam roller is great because it not only digs into the muscles and loosens them up, but it breaks up stuck connective tissue.
Roll the bottom of your feet with a tennis ball. This is something I do on a regular basis just because it feels good – especially after a long day of standing. There are all sorts of small muscles in your feet. Your foot supports your entire body weight. Be nice to it.
You could also get massages on your lower legs. This can do nothing but help. Increasing blood flow and making the tissues more pliable are always going to lead to better functioning and health.
How Does Wearing Heels Affect the Rest of Your Body?
When your calves get so tight, that tension also continues up through your hamstrings, gluteal muscles and back. This whole line here is referred to as the posterior chain.
As part of any program to get someone back to normal after wearing heels, you should address tightness in these areas with both stretching and foam rolling. Deep tissue massages help greatly if the person has a pain tolerance. It should be fine though, since women typically have a higher pain tolerance than men (think childbirth).
The main point I’m making here is that while the bulk of the damage from wearing heels happened mostly below the knee, there is some residual damage to address on the rest of the posterior chain.
Make sure her hips are flexible. Make sure her hamstrings are flexible. Make sure her back is flexible.
Any “stuck” areas should be worked into on a slight gradient day in and day out.
How To Incorporate It Into Any Exercise Program
This part is simple. You find that they can do without pain. If standing up on a treadmill or elliptical machine is too much, then have them sit on a bike or a rowing machine. You can still get plenty of cardiovascular exercise done that way.
Then you go about training normal functional exercises with an emphasis on range of motion. And once the client is good and warm, take 15-20 minutes and stretch and foam roll.
Flexibility gains are best reached through daily attacks. You can’t “do stretching” once a week and expect to make good progress. It has to be every day. So work it out with your client that you’re going to be stretching intensely this first month, then we’ll back it off to 10 minutes per day.
As always, you’ve got to look at the person in front of you and see what is going on. Are they in pain? Are they making progress?
If you’re training yourself through this, just focus on measurable gains. Pictures do wonders. Find other ways to objectively measure your progress – like being able to touch your toes.
I’m not in any way condemning anyone – male or female – for wearing heels.
I am saying that wearing heels does cause a few problems and I’ve laid out how to get someone’s feet back to normal after years of wearing heels.
Fitness trainers look at people differently. I see a woman who walks into the gym in high heels as a potential candidate for my “lower leg rehabilitation program” as I laid out in this article.
There are people who’ve been sitting at a desk for 10 years and I’ll need to put them on my “Office worker rehabilitation program.” They usually have tight hip flexors, weak core muscles and weak backs. Due to the sedentary lifestyle, I may need to get them fully checked by a medical doctor.
So this is just one of many different programs that we fitness trainers have up our sleeves to help our clients. We have different techniques and tricks based on our experience and we don’t all agree with each other.
But we all agree that, no matter what it is you are running into, that something can be done about it.