Going Barefoot: the new buzzword in running + walking. Should we be ditching our shoes in favour of a more ‘natural’ way of moving? Won’t it hurt? What does it mean? Is it a fad? How do you do it? Join me as I learn…
What’s ‘Natural’ Anyway?
The human foot is an incredibly complex system. Dozens of bones, ligaments + muscles make up an amazing machine of joints + levers that allow us to adapt to natural ways of moving: walking + running. We know from watching our babies grow to toddlers that these skills are learnt gradually + in order – we have to learn to walk before we can run. (And by the way, if you ever want to see how to walk or squat PERFECTLY – watch your toddler in bare feet!).
But years of enclosing + supporting our feet in shoes, + manipulating our gait through the ‘motion control’ + cushioning technology built into those shoes, our bodies have forgotten how to walk + run naturally. Particularly when we run, we typically use a ‘heel-toe’ running gait which means our (generally heavily cushioned) heel strikes first, taking the impact, followed by pushing off our toe.
It might be ‘normal’ but that doesn’t mean it’s ‘natural’. It’s just what we’re used to.
You can read a much more detailed explanation of barefoot running + how it relates to our natural sense of proprioception (the body’s ability to be aware of its position in space + time), read more from Lee Saxby at VIVOBAREFOOT.
But let me attempt to summarise:
To walk + run naturally, our feet need to be able to feel the ground beneath them + to move in the most efficient way, absorbing force + moving us forward (or up + down in running). This requires the foot to work differently when walking or running.
The natural + optimal gait for walking is ‘heel-toe’
The natural + optimal gait for running is ‘toe-heel’*
The latter – the way we run – is where we have to re-train our bodies to move properly. Because our ‘unnatural’ running shoes + our ‘unnatural’ running style force our feet into a ‘heel-toe’ action or gait. It’s not just the way our foot falls that’s important… posture + rhythym also need adjustment, but the key message here is that running shoes make us run in an unnatural way + a way that frequently causes injury, mal-alignment, + pain.
But Don’t Running Shoes Protect Us From Impact + Joint Damage?
That’s certainly what we’ve always thought isn’t it? The science of running shoes has always been centered around ‘shock absorption’, ‘control’ + ‘support’. So… why are runners always injured? Runners knee, shin splints, plantar fascitis… injury is the bane of apparently around 80% of runners’ lives at some point in their running career. It either stops them running altogether or the pain is ‘managed’ long term, with anti inflammatories, orthotics + ever more ‘supportive’ shoes. Hmmm. So if the shoes science isn’t preventing running injury + pain, something’s not quite adding up.
Coming back to the optimum gait for running – toes first , then heel. So learning to run barefoot isn’t just about taking our shoes off. It’s about re-learning how to run properly.
Humans didn’t just evolve with amazing complex feet, they also evolved with rather clever brains. Brains that communicated ‘ouch’ when our ancestors stepped on sharp stones or discarded mammoth teeth, + prompted a solution: shoes. Our ancestors wrapped skins or furs around their feet to keep them warm + protect them from the environment. They could feel the ground, but they were more comfortable.
Of course in our modern world we cant go barefoot all the time. Let’s get real here, it’s not always practical. Or, well, appropriate… It might be natural to walk barefoot, but our modern environment is anything but. We need shoes much of the time to protect us from our environment. We need puncture-resistant soles that protect the skin on our feet + we often need some insulation to keep them warm. But that’s really all we need them for.
What Are Barefoot Shoes?
Barefoot shoes are shoes which allow your feet to work + move as if they were bare, but whilst providing protection. They have thin (enabling your feet to feel the ground) but puncture resistant soles + a wide toe box so your toes have room to splay + move, for example the extensive + rather stylish range at VIVOBAREFOOT amongst others.
It’s Good For Your Pelvic Floor Too
If you’re a regular reader at Mutu System you’ll know I couldn’t go a whole blog post without mentioning your under-carriage + this is where my ears have really pricked up with this newfound knowledge of mine (Thanks Katy Bowman*).
When you walk properly (read ‘naturally’), the muscles of your backside, core + pelvic floor work properly too. Correct walking posture means you don’t tuck your tail bone, lean forward from the hip or thrust your pelvis forward either. It means you walk tall, with your body in a straight line + looking at the horizon, not the ground in front of you. As a result your glutes actually work as you walk + run, your core is effectively supporting your centre of gravity as you move + your pelvic floor muscles are at full length + doing their job of holding everything in.
So as well as no more shin splints or dodgy knees, I get a perkier butt + a toned pelvic floor too? Don’t know about you my Lovelies, but I’m in.
How To Start ‘Going Barefoot’
Lets’ learn to walk Ladies. And please note I’m saying ‘walk’ first. If you just throw away your shoes or get yourself some ‘barefoot shoes’ + pound your way through your usual 5K running route, you will hurt yourself. Your feet, in fact your entire body, need to learn to do this gradually. First we’re going to make friends with our feet. Follow the walking guidelines below + go barefoot as much as you can. Wiggle your toes, spread your toes, try to lift your toes one at a time. Your toes have been cooped up for a long time, they need to taste freedom + natural movement a little before we run without shoes.
Lee Saxby, the barefoot running Guru at VIVOBAREFOOT, gives us the following guidelines:
- Your weight should move from heel to big toe, but think of it more as a smooth heel stroke than a jolting heel strike.
- Keep your strides shorter than normal – this will help keep your body in its optimum alignment for efficient locomotion.
- Try not to look down; in fact, keep your gaze somewhere above the horizon and ‘lead’ with your chest.
- Keep your stride relaxed, balanced and symmetrical.
You don’t have to buy ‘barefoot shoes’ yet if you don’t want to. Go literally barefoot when practicable, or just practice in your normal shoes (with as little as possible, ideally zero, heel). Your brain is re-learning how to walk confidently + in a relaxed way across a variety of surfaces: glass, sharp stones, fire… I’m KIDDING. But try soft + hard ground, uneven + smooth, flat + hills. Just think about your feet when you walk. Get to know them a little better. Have a little quality time.
Lee Saxby tells us the next stage is to *Squat Properly* One of my VERY favourite topics so I’m looking forward to our next lesson.
Are you a barefoot runner? Thinking about it? What shoes do you love? I’d love to hear your experiences!
Disclosure: VIVOBAREFOOT are giving me a pair of their shoes to learn about barefoot walking + running + to review. How nice is THAT? And apparently they’re sending me the GOLD Legacy Ladies. *Get me* in my retro gold sneakers
So you need to know they gave me the shoes, but you also need to know that my reviews of the entire process, + the shoes, will be ENTIRELY impartial + based on my own study + experience. If my feet hurt or I don’t get it, I’ll tell you!