Going barefoot is a great way to strengthen your feet, but there are lots of factors to take into consideration before deciding to go barefoot!
As humans, the only part of our body that is in consistently in contact with the floor or ground beneath us, is our feet! We rely heavily on our feet to give us feedback from the ground below us. This process is called proprioception. Without even being aware of it, we are constantly assessing data about the ground below us that our feet transfers to our brain. Is the road slanted? Is the ground even? Our feet are basically telling our brain where our body is in relation to its environment. This is how we acquire our balance and stability. This is really good information to have. This type of information connects us to our surroundings and protects us from tripping while strengthening the 34 muscles of our feet and lower legs. Studies show that our lower legs and feet are much more engaged when they are able to gather information. We also have a very different gait, or pattern, of walking and running when barefoot. We tend to land more midfoot or forefoot naturally rather than striking at the heel when wearing shoes. Shoes change running or walking mechanics which can make walking or running more inefficient for the body.
Another perk of being barefoot is it naturally promotes us to move slower and pay attention to our surroundings. This is a wonderful way to bring our attention to the present moment, which is very calming for the mind and body.
Now, think about how diluted the information gets when we add two inches of foam beneath our feet! With our feet confined to a shoe, we get significantly less information from our feet and our muscles think this cushy new bed (the shoe) means its time to go to sleep! Foot muscles activity significantly decreases when we have thick cushions and pre-formed arches strapped on. The shape and style of the shoe attempts to control the motion for your foot rather than encouraging the muscles to engage. Weak feet are now forced into the shape and position of the shoe which is usually much different from the foot’s original position. Our toes, once being the widest part of our feet, our now placed into a narrow toe box that decreases their function even more.
As a society, aesthetics are often more important than function, but if we aren’t careful with our shoe considerations, we will stifle our bodies natural responses and can actually increase problems with our feet in the long run.
Hammer toes, bunions, pinched nerve, collapsed arches, metatarsalgia, and tight/pulled calves (as well as other muscle imbalances) are a few of the common injuries or changes we are seeing due to the choice of our shoes.
While I have raved about the benefits of being barefoot, that doesn’t mean shoes are bad or never the right choice. Of course, shoes offer our feet protection from rocks, glass, and other debris that could cause injury to your feet. They also offer shock absorption for our joints from the hard surfaces we now walk on. We rarely find ourselves with the freedom to walk on grass or dirt roads which has a natural give to them. Now, concrete and cement are the norms in our society which are much harder on our feet and our bodies in general. Running or even walking on these surfaces for long distances increases the wear and tear on our body significantly compared to more natural surfaces. The good news is that recently there has been an increase in the availability of shoes that promote a more neutral foot position including a wider toe box and no heel lift, but still has cushion to decrease stress on the feet, while adding extra protection. This combination allows for a more natural running experience, combining the benefits of being barefoot with the benefits that a shoe provides.
For most people, running in cushioned shoes is the right choice, because they have spent so much of their life in shoes that it can be a very slow, challenging switch (but can be done, especially for shorter distances like a 5k). Finding a cushioned shoe that has a zero drop and a wide toe box with a flexible sole is a great way to incorporate many of the positives of barefoot running into a shoe running.
If running barefoot is desirable to you, there are many simple (minimalist) shoes that have a sole without cushion that can offer some protection to your feet from extreme temperatures as well as other hazards like sharp rocks and sticks. When you transition to barefoot or minimalist running it is important starting very slow. It is often helpful to work with a professional, like a physical therapist, who can guide you through the transition to mitigate the potential for injury.
Pilates, are a great entry point into barefoot training because it is designed to be done barefoot. Pilates incorporate many movements that help you increase activation of the muscles in your lower legs and feet that improve proprioception (that funny word I talked about in the beginning of the article).
Other workouts, like HIIT, weight lifting and body weight exercises, can also be performed barefoot. It is important to be focused and present in the moment to avoid dropping a weight on your foot. In exercises where higher impact movements are being performed, it is important to note that you will have to slow down, lower the height of the impact and rethink your landing now that you are barefoot or in minimalist shoes. You can also vary the landing surface (carpet or grass, for instance) to cushion your landing some.
With some foot conditions, like plantar fasciitis and Morton’s neuroma, it can be very painful to walk barefoot, especially in the morning. In these cases, it is important to work with a professional and follow their guidelines with the type of footwear necessary to calm down the condition.
People who experience decreased sensation in their feet, like those with advanced diabetes or some experiencing complications from herniated discs should not go barefoot. If the feet are unable to communicate information from the floor, there is a very high chance for injury because the feet will not respond to a painful stimuli.
If you cannot control your environment, wearing sneakers or minimalist shoes are a good example. For example, if it is a hot day and the pavement is too hot to stand on, you could move your workout to the grass and still complete your workout barefoot. However, if you cannot move the workout because you are working out with a group, for example, than shoes are a must.
Beach, grass and turf workouts are a great place to workout barefoot because they have natural shock absorption properties built in that can soften the landing , though there are still some elements that need to be considered before beginning (temperature of ground and possibility of ants or sand spurs are two considerations).
Pilates, yoga and martial arts are all performed barefoot. Balance, stability and strength of the feet and lower legs are important to mastering these practices.
Body weight exercises are great to do barefoot because of a few reasons: you can do them anywhere which means you can take your workout to the beach, the grass, or turf; lighter (if any) weights are used which means your little toes are safe to wiggle free; and you can incorporate higher intensity, plyometrics and jumping to build your speed and power.
Minimalist shoes are great at allowing the foot to move naturally without actually being barefoot. However, just like going barefoot, you must be slow to transition into minimalist shoes to mitigate injury.
If you are interested in the benefits of being barefoot, start small! If you always wear shoes, stay barefoot indoors 1-2 hours a day. During those barefoot hours, actively try spreading your toes apart or grabbing a towel with your toes. It may be harder to do than you thought. If you would like to try going barefoot outdoors, walk in your front or backyard for 5-10 minutes. Try grabbing grass with your toes. Notice the way the grass feels on your foot. Enjoy!