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Soulful Sundays: Barefooting

“Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. Let their spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it...” -Wilferd Peterson


Happy Easter Sunday! The past several posts have been a bit on the heavy side. For this week's Soulful Sunday we are going to keep it light...on our feet (Get it?). Today, I want to open a playful discussion about the lesser-known merits of going around without shoes, known simply as "barefooting." If you are wearing shoes right now I encourage you to kick them off and see how you feel as you let your feet expand alongside your mind.


Let's begin with a little bit of appreciation for the human foot. Consisting of 26 bones, the human foot has evolved over millions of years to support upright motion. The first evidence of a bipedal hominid dates to over 4.4 million years ago with the appearance of Ardipithecus ramidus in the fossil record. Since then there have been no backward steps. Hominids had cracked the code on the age-old mystery of how to get around and carry things at the same time. This was no small accomplishment.


Additionally, bipedalism made us into some of the most efficient long-distance walkers ever. We may not have been fast, but man could we go the distance. Hominid hunters were notorious for jogging/walking prey species to the point of exhaustion and then killing them swiftly. Our long-range capabilities also paved the way for the colonization of pretty much every inch of the Earth except Antarctica. We were made to get around.


The human foot (and its hominid prototypes) contains some key features that explain its phenomenal capabilities. Most prominently was the loss of the opposable thumb digit on the foot. Instead, the first meta-tarsal (that's a fancy word for foot bone) became the rudder for the whole foot. The big toe (called the hallux by foot nerds) is responsible for the majority of your balance when locomoting. The big toe is so important that it was a common practice in the Soviet Gulags to cut off the hallux on prisoners who were prone to escaping. As a consequence, they required months or even years to relearn how to walk. Very cruel, I agree.


Complementing the big toe is a complex elastic structure called the plantar fascia. You have probably heard of it in reference to plantar fasciitis, one of the most annoying maladies of the foot. The plantar fascia helps to form the three arches of the foot and provides support for the foot's bones. Those 26 bones all articulate independent of one another, allowing them to adjust for minute changes in force and balance as we walk, run, jump, and skateboard. There are 29 different muscles supporting the functioning of the foot and ankle, all of which facilitate the wide range of motion and structural stability that is necessary for lugging us around. Furthermore, there are millions of nerve endings in the feet that make them psuedo-sensory organs for sensing the ground, and the soles of our feet have special skin that makes them both tough and texturized.


Our feet are some of the most highly evolved structures in our bodies. They are part of what makes us human. So why do we put them inside of shoes? The first answer is a basic matter of protection. Humans have probably always used hides to wrap their feet when dealing with friction and cold and hot temperatures, but these coverings would not have taken away from the foot's natural mechanics. Shoes remained relatively simple for centuries, ranging from sewn slippers to sandals, and it wasn't until the 15th century that more elaborate designs emerged. Fueled primarily by the aristocracy who were focused more on fashion than function, shoes began to take on their more modern shape of thicker soles, higher heels, narrower toe boxes, and upward-pointing toes. These fashions slowly trickled downward, but these new styles remained too expensive for most people. It wouldn't be until the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s that modern shoes would become household items.


So what happens when you take the human foot and cram it into a too-narrow, rigid, and slanted box? You may get the social status, extra height, and gluteal contraction that comes with modern footwear, but you also get a myriad of health problems for the foot, lower extremities, and spine. Take the aforementioned plantar fasciitis for example. Due to the elevated heel in most modern shoes, the Achilles tendon is held constantly in a shortened state, making one's calves tight and increasing the tension placed on the tendon attachment at the heel. When the heel is no longer elevated, say when you first wake up in the morning, that extra tightness can put extra strain on the plantar fascia on the bottom of the foot and lead to inflammation over time. It also does not help that the fascia (a.k.a. connective tissue) and muscles in the foot and ankle have become weak from the extra support provided by shoes.


Foot weakness is an insidious condition because the weaker your feet become, the more support you need to function and avoid pain. Or so the orthopedic surgeons and shoe salesmen want you to believe. In actuality, the best prescription for foot-related conditions is to systematically strengthen the feet. This increases the foundational support for the entire body, thus its benefits extend well beyond the feet. Knee, hip, low back, neck, and even shoulder pain can all be helped by strengthening the feet and ankles.


Furthermore, there is a certain psychological component to spending more time without shoes. We all know the calming feeling of placing our bare feet in the soft grass. Well, there may be a scientific explanation for why this feels good. "Earthing" is the practice of discharging negative ions stored in our body back to the ground. Simply put, we accumulate charge (just like static electricity) by simply moving about, and balancing that charge out is hugely important for keeping our tissues healthy. Shoes act as insulators that prevent this balancing. If you are intrigued and want to find out more, I would suggest going to Grounded.com.


How does one begin going about barefooting? Most people find it easiest to begin this practice in the isolation of their homes which is a good place to start, but the practice must expand to realize the kinds of results that we are talking about. Essentially, consider barefooting as your norm, and use shoes only when necessary. There are many excellent choices of "barefoot" or "minimal" footwear out there, and they all have similar themes--wide toe boxes, thin soles, and zero-drop between heel and toes. And while all of these are great alternatives to the classic sneaker, I would strongly advise you to spend progressively more time barefoot, preferably outside. Nothing really beats it.


One important caveat before you go full hog on the barefoot boat is that this needs to be a multi-year process. Yes, I said multi-year. Connective tissue takes up to a year to adapt to changes in load and bones take even longer. I hate hearing the stories of people who switched rapidly to minimalist footwear, injured themselves, and blamed the shoes instead of their approach. As a general rule of thumb, if you have been doing no barefoot conditioning at all, is to spend less than 5 minutes a day working on your foot-specific strength. Do this for a whole month before you increase the intensity to 10 minutes a day for the next month, and 20 minutes for the month after. Do you get my point? There is no benefit to rushing into this if your feet have become conditioned to shoes. On the other hand, if you already do some kind of barefooting, you can increase your volume to tolerance, which is different for everyone.


As a case study, I will use myself. I began walking around exclusively in Vibram 5 Fingers in 2013, first only walking distances of less than a mile. By the end of the first year, I was able to run in excess of 10 miles in the Vibrams. Now, I don't require shoes at all when walking, hiking, or running. This level of function requires daily upkeep of walking about 30 minutes on pavement or trails, but I view this time much more as a gift than a drudgery. I am also exclusively barefoot at work and at home.


There you have it. A whole post about happy feet. I hope this inspires some of you to increase your barefoot time. If you have any specific questions about this post or how to get started we would be most excited to help you out. Just email us or give us a call.





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