Going Barefoot: the new buzzword in running and 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 and muscles make up an amazing machine of  joints and levers that allow us to adapt to natural ways of moving: walking and running. We know from watching our babies grow to toddlers that these skills are learnt gradually and 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 and supporting our feet in shoes, and manipulating our gait  through the ‘motion control’ and cushioning technology built into those shoes, our bodies have forgotten how to walk and 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 and how it relates to our natural sense of proprioception (the body’s ability to be aware of its position in space and time), read more from VIVOBAREFOOT.

But let me attempt to summarise:

To walk and run naturally, our feet need to be able to feel the ground beneath them and to move in the most efficient way, absorbing force and moving us forward (or up and down in running). This requires the foot to work differently when walking or running.

The natural and optimal gait for walking is ‘heel-toe’

The natural and 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 and 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 and rhythym also need adjustment, but the key message here is that running shoes make us run in an unnatural way and a way that frequently causes injury, mal-alignment, and pain.

But Don’t Running Shoes Protect Us From Impact and 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’ and ‘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 and ever more ‘supportive’ shoes. Hmmm. So if the shoes science isn’t preventing running injury and 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, and 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 and move as if they were bare, but whilst providing protection. They have thin (enabling your feet to feel the ground) but puncture resistant soles and a wide toe box so your toes have room to splay and move, for example the extensive and 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 ;) and 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 and 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 and looking at the horizon, not the ground in front of you. As a result your glutes actually work as you walk and run, your core is effectively supporting your centre of gravity as you move and your pelvic floor muscles are at full length and doing their job of holding everything in.

So as well as no more shin splints or dodgy knees, I get a perkier butt and 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’ and 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 and 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 and 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 and in a relaxed way across a variety of surfaces: glass, sharp stones, fire… I’m KIDDING. But try soft and hard ground, uneven and smooth, flat and hills. Just think about your feet when you walk. Get to know them a little better. Have a little quality time.

Disclosure: VIVOBAREFOOT are giving me a pair of their shoes to learn about barefoot walking and running and to review. How nice is THAT? So you need to know they gave me the shoes, but you also need to know that my reviews of the entire process, and the shoes,  will be ENTIRELY impartial and based on my own study and experience. If my feet hurt or I don’t get it, I’ll tell you