Free Your Feet: Barefooting It

May 4, 2011

“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.”  –Leonardo da Vinci

“The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.” –Buddha

Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine the feeling of being barefoot in the grass.  What sensations come to mind?  What smells?  What feelings or emotions does it recall?  If you’re like me, you immediately associate that barefoot feeling with a certain freedom: sunshine, open fields, the carefree attitude of childhood.  For anyone who misses those feelings, I’ve got good news: barefooting isn’t just for kids.  Anyone can do it; you’re never too old to be barefoot.  And bonus: it’s better for your joints, as well.

You may have heard of barefooting; it’s been in the news quite a lot lately.  The New York Times has done several articles on barefoot runners, there have been books written on the subject (such as Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run), and the Vibram FiveFingers barefoot shoe has been flying off the shelves.  Here’s what you need to know to get started:

Barefooting is better for your joints and feet.  Upon hearing the recommendation to run barefoot, the first thing many people think is “doesn’t that hurt your feet/knees?” or “what about arch support?”  The simple fact is that human beings, and, specifically, their feet, are designed to log miles and miles each day – and to do it barefoot.  How do you think our hunter-gatherer ancestors did all their hunting and gathering?  Research shows that barefoot runners absorb less impact into their joints than runners wearing “traditional” running shoes.  Barefoot running encourages a forefoot strike (hitting the ground first with the ball of your foot), allowing the arch to dissipate the force as it’s designed to.  In contrast, running shoes promote a heel strike (where the heel hits first, with the leg straight and locked), which sends all the force of impact straight up the leg to the knee and hip.  An illustration of footstrike can be found here.

Barefooting strengthens the feet and can reverse chronic foot problems.  If you have flat feet or weak arches, barefooting can be a natural and permanent (not to mention less expensive) way of correcting the problem.  Shoes take over a lot of the work that the muscles in your feet are supposed to do.  By ditching the shoes, you will engage all of those muscles and start to rebuild them.

Barefooting increases flexibility.  Shoes have what is called a “heel rise,” meaning that their is cushion in the heel that raises the heel above the toes.  This heel rise shortens the hamstrings, decreasing their flexibility.  Additionally, shoes limit ankle mobility by wrapping around the ankle joint.  Barefooting, on the other hand, allows your foot to move through a full range of motion, increasing flexibility, and giving further protection against injury and chronic pain.

Barefooting can help you to run faster.  By properly engaging the biomechanics of your foot, you use your energy more efficiently.  The increased muscle engagement builds stronger legs and feet.  The forefoot strike also causes you to lean farther forward, which increases speed, as all forward motion (walking, running, etc.) is essentially a controlled fall.

Barefooting is fun.  It rekindles that childlike enthusiasm for activity, connects you tangibly to the world around you, and can help you live in the moment.  For the naysayers out there, barefooting has actually been shown to create more complex neurological connections to sensors in the foot, giving you more information about the ground beneath you.  Barefooting offers a richer experience of the world and the way you move through it.  Bottom line: more fun = more walking = slower pace = more engagement with the world. 

Getting started with barefooting is easy, but should be approached gradually.  If you have been walking around in conventional shoes for a long time, making the transition to barefooting can be difficult.  It’s the equivalent of using a walker everyday, and then trying to run a footrace.  Approach barefooting gradually, starting with 30-60 minutes a day and gradually increasing your barefoot time.  This will give your foot muscles time to grow and adapt to the new stresses being put on them.  Get some Vibram FiveFingers.  These shoes will provide some protection against the elements without giving you heel rise or restricting any of the joints in your foot.  More information on getting started with barefooting can be found  here or here.

The Self-Making Man is all about personal experience and experimentation – so get out there, give it a try, and see how good being barefoot can feel!


Feedback: How often do you go barefoot?  How do you feel about the growing barefoot movement – a silly idea or long overdue?


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