Barefoot Walking: A Vacation For Your Feet – Part 1
By now, most of you have seen Vibram FiveFingers Shoes and heard the term “barefoot” thrown around in enthusiastic minimalist shoe communities.
But, aside from the odd looking, web-toed shoes, what is the deal with all of these newly found “Joe Jacksons” and why does it matter?
Quick Back Story
Before I answer the above question and get all science-y on ya, let’s talk super-condensed barefoot history.
The barefoot movement started getting a ton of notice in ’09 (also the year I graduated from U of M – Go Blue!) with Christopher McDougall’s best seller Born to Run, which by the way, is actually a really great read, even if you don’t buy yourself a pair of Vibrams afterward (they’re promoted throughout the book along with a few other barefoot style shoes).
Although it honestly wasn’t really on my radar until about a year after that, barefoot-ing is not a new phenomenon.
In fact, it’s been around since, well, since people had feet (super scientific, I know, but you wouldn’t believe how many people forget we weren’t born wearing PF flyers)!
Born to Run does a really nice job covering this subject indepthly, particularly in reference to the Tarahumara Indians (native to northwestern Mexico), who are known for their culture of (very) long-distance running in barely-there huarache sandals, virtually free of most injury/pain related complaints normal to modern day runners in societies using modern day foot gear.
Ok. Taking a breath. That was a long sentence. I know. Moving on.
They, of course, aren’t the only culture known for both barefoot-ing it and benefiting from impeccable physiological health. Athletes participating in the ancient Olympic games went at it barefoot (and naked!) as well (according to this article on the historical and religious aspects of going barefoot). There are plenty of other examples, but that’s an entirely separate article in and of itself.
It’s Not Just For Hippies…
Strolling around sans footwear isn’t just for the hippies, the indigenous peoples, and the ancient Olympian athletes of the world. No siree (or ma’am)! Let me kick off the explanation as to why with this expertly phrased quote from Biomechanist, Katy Bowman:
“Did you know that one quarter of the bones in your body are from the ankle down? The same is true for one quarter of your muscles. What does all this mean? It means that your feet are designed to be very dexterous. They have the potential to be just as dexterous as your hands, as a matter of fact, but very rarely do we challenge ourselves to utilize this potential.” Katy Bowman, Alignment Matters (follow her on Twitter)
Dexterous (what a great word), meaning: adept, capable, nimble, skillful, practiced…agile even. Is that how you would describe your feet? If so, excellent! And high-five to you! If not, keep reading and you’ll get an idea of why it’s so important to work on your foot dexterity.
If Your Feet Are Un-Dexterous, This is Why
You see, when we neglect to use the one quarter of the muscles and bones in our entire body, as Katy noted above, it doesn’t just mean that you end up with clunky, inept size tens flopping around at the ends of your lower legs. It means that not using them turns off the “Hey! Wake up! I’m down here” messages to large sections of your brain (via your nervous system). When that happens the tissues down there (or one quarter of the muscles and bones in your entire body) don’t get activated, which very often leads to or can be the root cause of PAIN. Infact, many different types of pain: foot-pain, knee-pain, hip-back-shoulder-neck-pain, bunions, plantar fasciitis, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis…a whole host of what are known as ailments of affluent society. Suprisingly, it’s not just happening in senior populations, but also in athletes, recreational exercisers, young professionals and even elementary school kids.
That entire chain of reactions described above can begin with something as simple as what you choose to wear on your feet.
Now of course, to be fair, not all shoes are the culprits here. In the next few sections, when I talk about shoes being over-protective and causing issues, I’m talking about shoes with these specific traits:
- A heel
- A thick sole
- A disconnection around the ankle (i.e. flip flops)
- A toe squeeze (or a small toe-box)
- Stiff and rigid
Oddly enough, a large percentage of the shoes on the market fit the above description and therefore, function kind of like wearing a suit of body armor on your feet.
Picture how completely awkward (and hilarious) it is to watch a knight (think Game of Thrones here) mount his horse as he preps for a jousting match. That is exactly what your feet often feel like inside of a shoe. They do such a good job of protecting your feet that they actually limit your range of foot motion (at 33 joints) and around your ankles. This causes your foot muscles to weaken, which equals things like fallen arches, hyper sensitivity to our environment and it’s varied natural terrain, and over-all whacked-out foot function.
It’s the “use it or lose it” concept all the way.
Drop Your Heel
On top of all of that, wearing shoes with a heel (in shoe speak this is called a “heel-to-toe drop”, a “heel-drop” or just a “drop”) systematically shortens your heel chord and calf muscles, kicking your center of mass forward so that it’s closer to being over your toes, than over your heels (which is where it needs to be).
Unfortunately, I’m not just talking about stilettos when I say this, I mean ANY kind of heel-drop that puts your heel on a different plane than your toes. When you center of mass gets kicked forward, the structures in your body that are meant to bear the brunt of your mass, like your heals and your pelvis, no longer do (thank you to Physical Therapist Kelly Starrett for a great explanation of this). Lots of muscles all throughout your body, for instance your quads, get over-worked, while others get under-worked. So your body tries to make up for these over-all imbalances by compensating in all sorts of awkward ways in order to perform different movements throughout the day (and night) and to give the illusion that you have good posture according to cultural constraints. Really, it’s kind of like playing a game of jenga. The more pieces you remove from the frameworks equation, the less stable the structure becomes all around.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. And if it is this way, it’s totally correctable because a lot of these imbalances can be restored when you change around your foot wear and practice connecting your feet to natural surfaces (along with supplementing with a few other corrective exercises).
Barefoot walking (or nearly barefoot walking) is fantastic because it brings your heel back on the ground (which kicks your center of mass back over your heals), frees your tootsies from being tightly bound, spreads out your toes, and strengthens your foot muscles all around.
Three more fun facts about barefoot-ing:
1 – The sole of your foot will develop a rough, outer layer as a result of interacting with natural surfaces like pebbles, roots, grass, packed dirt…which is perfect for foot bruise, tear, cut, and puncture prevention (Alignment Matters)
2 – The shape of the ground beneath you is interpreted by the nerves in your feet based on how your foot bones bend (More fun facts from Alignment Matters…can you tell I really like this book yet?!).
3 – According to new scientific studies on the topic of “earthing” or “grounding”, reconnecting with the Earth’s electrons via going barefoot “…has been found to promote intriguing physiological changes and subjective reports of well-being…including better sleep and reduced pain…” (thanks’ Katy Bowman for turning me on to this and check out the original article from the Journal of Environmental and Public Health here).
How to Go Barefoot
Now, if you want to get in on the barefoot movement, you have to ease your way in and train your way up. Otherwise it’s like off-roading with a Volkswagon Beetle on Jeep Wrangler terrain. Bad idea.
There is a best way to go about doing this, and it’s not to simply kick off your shoes and run on gravel. You’ve been walking about the way you have for quite a while (if you’re reading this, possibly upwards of 20 years), so remember to be patient and adjust slowly, very slowly.
The First Thing You Should Do
Begin with this stretch (which stretches mainly your foot muscles, heal cord, calf, and hamstrings):
The Next Thing You Should Do
Check your shoe closet to see which shoes fit these foot friendly shoe-picking-out guidelines and wear them 80% of the time:
- Free Toes (aka a wide toe box so toes don’t get squished…did you know squished toes can lead to or exhaserbate narsty things like bunions, hammer toes, and plantar fasciitis?!)
- Light As a Feather (we don’t want clunky moon shoes weighing us down with every step…think ballet-slipper-easque, although those wouldn’t necessarily be my first recommendation)
- Freedom Within the Form (not a lot of structure so your foot is forced to wake-up and activate it’s tissues to help you grip and balance on the surface underneath properly)
- Gumby-Like (you want this shoe to be nice and flexible all around)
- Flat (COMPLETELY flat i.e. zero heal-drop)
- Connect All the Way Around (there’s some sort of strap or back to the shoe holding you in i.e. not flip flops)
If You Find You Have Zero Shoes That Fit The Above Guidelines
Think about picking up a pair that does as soon as you get a chance.
Here Are Three Pairs I Recommend:
Altra Provisioness 1.5 (they have lots of great choices and all of their shoes are zero heal-drop)
Earth Runner’s Circadian X (all of their sandals are super barefoot friendly)
Tom’s Classic Slip Ons (lots of colors and patterns to choose from)
As you can see, you don’t have to bare it all to get the benefits of going barefoot, but if you do want to try it, I recommend finding a soft patch of grass (maybe in your backyard?) and carefully walking around on it for five minutes a day. You can work your way up to longer spans of grass-patch time based on how your feet feel and as you gain confidence.
Stick around for Part 2 coming next week where I’ll go a bit more in depth and share more barefoot-beneficial stretches!
Now, let’s hear from you! Are you baring your feet? If so, how?