from the "Elephant Journal"
Lately, there’s been a lot of hype about being barefoot.
Barefoot-style shoes, barefoot running…it’s cool to be barefoot. I tried it out after hearing about the Tarahumara people of Mexico, who can run for miles and miles barefoot or in sandals called huaraches.
I thought, “there has to be something to this” and so I started walking barefoot more often and then decided to take up barefoot running.
The first time I took off my shoes and took a walk, I felt amazing…it felt like the receptors on the soles of my feet were waking up. I was in contact with the ground and it created a feedback loop between the earth and my body that had me feeling…well…more grounded.
Very slowly, I eased into running barefoot, sometimes in a barefoot-style sandal inspired by the Tarahumara huaraches. Having been a distance runner for years, I was amazed to find the new kind of energy and agility barefoot running gave me. In addition, my plantar fasciitis felt a thousand times better in just a few months, which was amazing to me because I have experienced pain since I was about seven years old.
I recently interviewed Steven Sashen, barefoot enthusiast and owner of Invisible Shoes, a local company that sells thin barefoot sandals. What he told me is that in addition to being fun, going barefoot can be good for you in ways we have only yet to discover!
Removing the Binding
Steven says that the obvious benefits of going barefoot are often overlooked.
For example, wearing a shoe is a lot like wearing a cast on a broken arm. When we remove the cast, our arm is weaker.
When we remove our shoes and go barefoot, it is like removing a cast or binding. Our feet have to take on barefoot little by little to gain the strength we lost (or the strength we may have never developed) if we spent all of our lives in shoes.
As we gain back that strength we begin to use our feet the way they are designed to be used.
Re-wiring the Brain/Body
When we wear shoes, the brain sees and relates to the foot as if it’s a “paddle” or single, inflexible object, instead of as a dynamic instrument with five muscular toes. In turn, the muscles in the foot and toes stop working correctly.
In Steven’s words, “you can’t engage the muscles in your foot if the brain won’t feel them.” As we go barefoot, our brain renews the pathways to sense the foot as it actually is: the brain and the foot are able to communicate again, we gain the use of our toes and our balance increases. We are also more deeply connected to the ground and able to sense our place in space.
According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, featured in The Brain That Changes Itself, often when an elderly person falls and breaks a hip, it’s not because of a “balance problem” but because it’s hard to balance an inflexible, insensitive foot that’s been in shoes for decades.
Adjusting our Gait
Wearing shoes causes us to take up unnatural gaits—this is especially noticeable when running.
Running shoes can cause us to heel strike, which sends a jolt of force directly into and through the joints. Barefoot running can bring us back to landing first on the balls of our feet, allowing us to use the muscles, ligaments and tendons as natural shock absorbers and springs, which can lead to less impact on the ankles, knees and hips. Barefoot walking can also help us to adjust our gait to be more effective and naturally supportive of our structure.
Shoes can cause excessive pronation.
The ankle becomes weaker and bends inward when we run or walk. As the ankle becomes weaker, we are more susceptible to turning, twisting or spraining an ankle. There are no studies to back this up yet, however, as you enter the barefoot world and begin to use your feet and body in new ways, you begin to understand how a shoe could cause this problem.
Our feet are meant to bend or mold to a rock on a hiking trail and grasp the ground below us; the arch of the foot is meant to be engaged and used and the toes are meant to be able to spread.When we have shoes on, it becomes impossible for the foot to work in this way.
Hiking shoes especially are designed to prevent pronation and strengthen ankles—kind of funny, actually—another shoe meant to prevent what the first shoe caused. It actually only amplifies the problem by weakening the foot and ankle even more, through a more sophisticated binding system. Taking off shoes entirely allows us to begin building the strength we need to prevent excessive pronation.
Healing Unnatural Conditions (Injuries)
Going barefoot can heal injuries. Not only foot injuries like plantar fasciitis, which can improve as the arch of the foot is more engaged but all kinds of injuries.
Steven often hears people report that when they took off their shoes, their shoulders got better. This is because when we use our lower body in a non-efficient way, our upper body contracts and twists in an unnatural way to overcompensate. As the lower body begins to work in the way it was designed to work, the whole body system is able to begin correcting.
After a year of barefoot walking and running, I am still discovering myself anew. I continue to unlearn the old movement patterns I learned in shoes and replace them with more efficient and natural ways of moving.
What I notice most is a new sense of aliveness—I feel that my feet were always meant to be more like hands: alive, awake and full of strength, guiding me through the world. My innate movement wisdom is being reborn as I regain contact with the ground.
If you are ready to try out being barefoot, start slow. Go for a walk. Or run a little. If it starts to hurt, stop. Next time, experiment with your gait until you can run or walk for a short distance comfortably. Then, add a little more each day. It’s important not to overdo it because you could injure yourself.
And, one last important thing I have learned is that no shoe is barefoot…there are a lot of “minimalist running shoes”out there. But, a shoe is a shoe.
Going barefoot or just placing a thin layer of rubber between you and the ground (like wearing huaraches), is the authentic way to go.