I’d like to talk about being barefoot.
I don’t think people spend enough time moving around without their shoes on. Think about it. How much time do you spend out of bed without shoes on? I’d bet it’s less than a couple of hours a day, and some of that is probably spent sitting down. So how long do you actually walk around without shoes on in a given day?
Over the last few years, barefoot exercise has started to gain some attention. The invention of de-constructed shoes such as the Nike Free, and then further development with shoes like the Vibram FiveFinger, New Balance Minimus, and most recently, the Addidas adiPure has started to catch on with the public. However I don’t think most understand why being barefoot might be advantageous. It seems like more of a “fad” than anything else.
I believe that most people could benefit greatly from spending more time on their feet and out of their footwear. But before we get there, we need to talk about traditional shoes, how they are constructed, and the implications they impose on our bodies.
Almost all traditional shoes, whether athletic shoes, running shoes, dress shoes, work boots, etc. have a raised heel. This might be from as little as .5”, all the way up to a 3” stiletto. The reasons for the elevated heel are many, including to enhance the height of the wearer, to decrease the stress on the heel while walking, traditional style, and even to accentuate a person’s figure. Regardless of the reasons for an increased heel, the result is compensated movement.
First, lifting your heel causes certain biomechanical changes to take place within your body. The height of the heel will dictate the extent to which these occur, but any heel raise will cause an anterior weight shift which must be compensated for. Typical compensations include a shortening of the calf muscles and achillies tendon, as well as an anterior tilting of the pelvis. This in turn shortens and tightens the hip flexors and elongates and weakens the hamstrings. To go along with these changes, a more pronounced curvature of the spine will ensue, from the tailbone right up to the cranium. Each one of these changes has myriad negative consequences to posture and movement.
Secondly, when discussing the raised heel in athletic and running shoes, the reasoning behind it is usually something to the effect of providing shock absorption and adding cushioning to reduce impact and decrease injuries. However it has been well documented that adding a heel with the intended purpose to decrease the forces transferred to the body actually does the opposite and perhaps more harm than good to the wearer.
The cushioned heel changes the way you move, causing you to land more on your heel than on your forefoot. This in turn increases the shock from impact with the ground. This shock may not be felt due to the increased heel padding, but the force still travels up your leg, impacting the ankle, knee, hip and low back. The more cushioned the heel, the more it alters your gait, which allows you to produce more force, which then gets incorrectly distributed up your body, and it just snowballs. Incidentally, since the invention of the modern running shoe, with each “technological advancement” injury rates have increased in recreational runners.
I believe that part of the problem is that you have little proprioceptive feedback from your feet when wearing traditional shoes. It’s easy to land incorrectly on your heel while walking or running, because the heel is padded, so you don’t immediately feel anything. However if you try to go for a jog barefoot, you will quickly learn not to “heel strike” as you land because it will immediately give you feedback in the form of sharp pain.
The third effect is that shoes inherently change the way we interact with the ground because they do not move the same way our feet do. We have 26 bones, 33 joints, over 100 muscles and somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000 nerve endings in our feet. No matter how expensive or fancy your shoes are, they just can’t keep up with that kind of complexity.
Next is the concept known as the “Joint by Joint Approach”. This concept dictates that from the ground up, your body is built with joints in alternating need of more mobility or more stability. The ankle is supposed to move around a lot…it’s supposed to have mobility. The knee should basically just move forward and back…it’s supposed to have more stability. The hip joint is designed for a high level of mobility, while the lumbar spine should remain relatively stable. Thoracic spine should be mobile, scapular-thoracic junction needs mobility, etc. etc. It has been demonstrated that this pattern follows even further, basically from the toes all the way to the fingertips.
What this means is that if a joint which should have a high degree of mobility (ex: hip) does not, the following joint will try to make up for that deficit. The problem is that the following joint (the lumbar spine in this example) is not really designed for a high degree of mobility. It should remain relatively stable. When it is forced to move more to compensate for the lack of mobility in the hip, pain and injury occur.
This is completely true of the foot. If all of those joints in the foot cannot do what they were designed to do because they are wrapped up in an inflexible shoe designed to restrict the foot instead of allowing its natural motion, the chain reaction will literally extend from the ground all the way to the head and possibly even down the arms. Unfortunately, wearing regular shoes all the time only furthers the problem, as the feet have no choice but to adapt, and end up weak and stiff.
I believe that many common issues such as low back pain, neck pain, weak glutes and deep core stabilizers are exasperated, if not highly due to the fact that in our modern society we basically always have shoes on from the time we are infants until the time we die. Think about how clumsy and awkward you can feel if you wear thick winter mittens. If you had to wear these mittens 16 hours a day, every day, eventually the strength and mobility of your hands would decrease. If you don’t use it, you lose it. This is the same thing that happens with our feet. However the end result of losing function in the feet could be even worse since our feet are our literal connection with the ground. When we move around our feet are obviously the very first thing to interact with the earth. The consequence of changing how our feet do business has very real repercussions.
There are other things to think about as well. From the performance perspective, if the feet can’t do what they are supposed to do, that will affect everything up the chain, and ultimately decrease overall performance. Not only that, but I think that losing proper function in the feet can cause an increase in injuries. It is not uncommon to see an athlete with knee pain have poor mobility in the ankle and foot. Improving that mobility can often reduce the problems.
Another thing to think about is that regular shoes are almost always built with synthetic materials. This interrupts the natural flow of electrical energy from the earth’s surface to our bodies and vice versa. We basically cannot discharge the static electricity which we build up everyday just moving around because we have rubber soled shoes. This build up of static electricity has negative implications when we look at things like inflammation, recovery, and overall health.
So what is the point of all this ranting? I think most of us need to spend more time barefoot. I think that lots of typical daily complaints by normal people, such as knee and back pain, general fatigue, even stress could be helped if we spent more time moving around without our shoes on. I think that athletes can benefit greatly from improving the strength and mobility, as well as the proprioception of the feet. I think that injury rates would go down or at injuries would at least be less severe overall if we trained barefoot more often.
Does this mean that you should ditch your shoes and go run your first marathon? No. Don’t be an idiot. Use some common sense and start out with your dynamic warm up barefoot. Or walk around the house without shoes on. Take it step by step and try it out. I can tell you from my own experience, I feel so much better when I wear my Vibrams all day long vs. when I wear a regular shoe. My knees, hips, back, even energy levels. But I’ve also spent a lot of time over the last few years being barefoot so I have adapted and can handle all day without shoes.