Heel elevation is a design feature present in almost every shoe, from dress shoes to work boots to running shoes, though there is little (if any) compelling evidence to account for its inclusion in shoes and other footwear. Most people in the United States and other parts of the world begin wearing shoes when they learn to walk, some even before. Almost all shoes, including children’s shoes, possess heel elevation, or a layer of material (ranging from stiff to soft) that elevates your heel above your forefoot.
General Health Effects
Heel elevation (especially in combination with toe spring) causes an unnecessary stretching of your foot structures, forces you to walk on a downhill ramp, and puts extraordinary pressure on sensitive tissues in the ball of your foot. Prolonged positioning of your foot in this configuration causes a contraction, or shortening, of your posterior lower leg muscles, or the muscles at the back of your lower leg.
Your calf muscles—your gastrocnemius and soleus muscles—are commonly affected by heel elevation, though three other muscles located at the back of your lower leg may also be affected, including your tibialis posterior, flexor hallucis longus, and flexor digitorum longus muscles. These muscles are particularly important in helping your primary foot arch function properly, and they help your toes perform several important actions, including grasping, balancing, and guiding your body forward during the propulsive, or push-off, phase of gait.
Effect on Arch Flattening & Pronation
Your shortened lower leg muscles contribute to faulty foot function in several key ways, one of the most significant of which is improper pulling on the back of your heel, which increases the degree of arch flattening your foot experiences. Long-term lower leg muscle shortening increases your foot and ankle pronation, which may be a contributing factor in numerous foot and ankle problems. If excessive ankle pronation is as significant a factor in foot and ankle problems as many doctors believe, it makes perfect sense, then, to decrease or remove the heel elevation in shoes to curtail further shortening of your lower leg muscles and arch flattening.
Effect on the Involuntary Stretch Reflex
Another important and potentially debilitating effect of heel elevation is the way in which it disables the involuntary stretch reflex built into your posterior lower leg. This reflex can only be activated if your heel is allowed to contact (or come close to) the ground—a biomechanical circumstance that is impossible in most shoes available to consumers today. Activation of this lower leg stretch reflex should happen with every step to help your forefoot with propulsion; without it, you cannot experience normal gait and propulsion.
Effect on Natural Gait & Locomotion
This inactivation of your lower leg stretch reflex may seem unimportant because you can still walk and participate in athletic activities. But it is important when you consider that your gait will never be natural if you wear conventional footwear, and that your gait is actually hampered by something you’ve been told is helpful. Heel elevation (or lack thereof) is one of the key factors we at Natural Footgear consider when selecting shoes to stock.