I often times walk around outside barefoot. Well, at least when there is a high probability I won't step in dog shit. I also try to be barefoot as much as I can in the gym. This is a bit easier for me than maybe for most because I own my own kickass facility that allows such things (the why comes later). However this kind of behavior tends to be out of the norm and thus people give me quite a bit of grief about it.
I don't blame them.
We have all grown up with different ideas about hygiene and appropriateness. Maybe it's because of the settings in which I choose to go barefoot or maybe it's just the idea of someone being barefoot that gets to them. Either way I don't know and I don't really care.
What I do know is that going barefoot for me serves a purpose and I feel it improves my quality of life which makes it worth while and no amount of social pressure is going to change this behavior.
I also find this relatively amusing myself becomes one of the largest fads in the health and fitness scene in the last five years has been the emergence of minimalist running shoes or shoes that are suppose to mimic running barefoot. People seem to be all about the idea of simulating being barefoot with $100 shoes, but believe that the idea of walking around barefoot is strange and out of place. I can think of a couple reasons why people may think like this, but I will more than likely get around to addressing them in a bit so I'll wait till then.
I guess though the better question to answer is why the heck I would want to be barefoot anyways.
First let me give you some facts about the foot:
- Contains 26 bones.
- Contains 33 joints of which 20 actively articulate.
- Due to number of joints and articulation the foot can be deformed in 8.68 x 10^36 different ways.
- Contains over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
- Almost all muscle originating in the lower leg attach to the bones of the foot.
- Almost all ligaments of the foot attach and end in the toes.
- Connection to 4 different fascial meridians.
- Contains over 200,000 nerve endings.
All of this tells us that the foot was designed to handle an incredible amount of mechanical variability as well as receive tons of sensory input. This also tells us that the foot has the ability to be a stable and mobile base for our body which to move from. The feet are quiet literally our foundation and they affect all movement in one way or another. It tells us that the foot was designed to be in direct contact with the ground in order to provide us with a stable base and relay information about the ground beneath us to our brain so that it can make the necessary adjustments to our global movement to move correctly and maintain function.
This is the correct way to evaluate the foot, naked and in it's resting posture on the ground. This is because this is largely the environment and situation in which our feet developed. The first human foot print dates make over a million years ago while the first identified shoe was found less than 8500 years ago. This tells us that the large majority of our time on earth our feet have adapted to being unshod.
Thus it follows we should place a large emphasis on keeping the foot health and in good working condition. This is where I am coming from. I believe it behooves me to take care of my feet.
However some of you are probably thinking that being barefoot is counter intuitive to caring properly for your feet and you would be wrong, at least from my perspective. I don't blame you though because you probably have this belief because of something heard on tv, read in a magazine, or your doctor told you. The common thinking is that the foot needs to be protected by layers of cushioning and padding. Not to mention if there is pain than the next step is to provide the foot with additional stability and corrective inserts. Never once do we consider looking at what we are actually doing with our feet.
Before going any further I want to mention in the interest of full disclosure that for a long time I thought the barefoot movement was nothing more than a fad and gave it very little thought, but over time and after doing a lot of homework I have come to really believe in going barefoot as much as possible. I have seen the benefits first hand both in myself and in people I have trained. So if you yourself find yourself where I was a few years ago I would encourage you to be open minded and do your own homework and come to your own conclusion on the matter.
Now going back to where we were the question being addressed is why is going barefoot better for your feet than wearing conventional modern footwear.
We already discussed the robustness and importance of the foot that we can derive from it's structure and how this informs us of how the foot ought to function so let's look and see whether modern footwear respects the foot's structure and function.
Take for example of these pairs of shoes of mine that I have worn over the last few years excluding the previous two during which I had my barefoot enlightenment:
These are what I would consider to be typical athletic shoes. The kind many people wear to exercise in as well as leisure in. There are some major design issues that I want to point out to you that violate the foot's natural resting position. They are:
- Large heel lift.
- Curved sole that prevents entire foot from being flat on the floor.
- Pointed toe box.
- Shoe bends behind balls of the feet.
- Narrow width.
- Bulky and heavy.
- Lots of padding between ground and foot.
All these design features violate the natural resting position of the foot and in one way or another reduce the foot's ability to function normally. The large heel lift causes shortening of the Achilles tendon and thus impairs ankle range of motion. The curved sole prevents us from putting the entire foot on the ground and establishing a proper base of support. A pointed toe box leads to deformation of the toes inward and in ability to push off properly when walking or running. The flexibility in the shoe in the wrong place alters gait and foot strike. A shoe with the incorrect width reduces the plantar surface of the foot and reduces contact with the ground thus reducing the stability of the foot when in contact with the ground. Added weight places additional and unnecessary strain on tendons, ligaments, and muscles in the lower leg and ankle. The padding between the foot and ground reduce sensory input into the ground and reduce the ability of the foot to relay all relevant information to the brain about positioning and gait.
As you can see our modern footwear does a number on our feet both in structure and in function. It prevents our feet from operating in the way they have adapted to for over a million years. This alteration in structure and function leads to a lot of the podiatry problems we see in society today such as:
- Hammer toes
- Plantar fasciitis
- Fallen arches
- Bone spurs
These are also all the reasons why I allow people to get out of their shoes and work in my gym barefoot.
Don't really believe me that traditional shoes fuck up your feet? Let's look at a few feet in conventional shoes as compared to feet barefoot or in more minimalist shoes.
Or how about the most extreme of poor shoe design, high heels.
Yeah I know pretty fucked up, but all of us wear these things anyways for hours on end and with little thought to the consequence. Just imagine how this will affect your feet after years and years of wearing such footwear.
The consequence is huge and one I don't think any of us want to deal with.
However really quick let me say that wearing shoes isn't all bad. Shoes do serve a purpose, but they aren't the ones we think of like stability and support for the foot. Shoes are designed to protect our feet against mechanical injury such as something piercing the sole of the foot. So our designs for shoes should revolve around this purpose, protecting the sole of the foot and leave the stability and support part up to the actual foot which was designed much better than anything humans could come up with to provide support and stability for our body.
Getting back on point the answer to solving this is to take care of your feet and the best way to do this is by allowing the feet to be in their most natural environment and that is unshod. Being barefoot allows you feet to be in complete contact with the ground. It allows strengthening of the tissues that support the foot. It optimizes sensory input and allows your body to move optimally.
But if your like hold on Stevan how can I go barefoot isn't that gross and dirty. In my opinion it isn't. In my mind I imagine the bottom of my shoes are much more disgusting than the bottom of my feet which I was twice if not three times a day. Or maybe your thinking well I am not so worried about the cleanliness of my feet, but of the floor I am walking on. Granted you have to be logical and have some common sense about where to walk barefoot. Commercial gym? Probably not the best idea. Main Street? Think again. Home gym or carpeted office? I say you are pretty safe. Not to mention an argument could be made in favor for exposing your feet to slightly unclean environments on the basis of the hygiene hypothesis.
But regardless I highly recommend you getting in on the barefoot action in some way shape or form. If you have a difficult time getting barefoot other than at your house than I recommend getting a pair of minimalist shoes. I included two of my own pair below as examples.
They even make dress footwear that has a minimalist design. A great company that does this is VivoBareFoot.
This is something you should transition to slowly. You shouldn't drop your 24 ounce nikes and take off on a 3 mile run barefoot or in minimalist shoes. Start small with just more time moving around without shoes and then slowly increase your frequency and duration of time.
I truly believe you will see a huge difference in the way your feet feel, how you move, and how your foot looks.
Happy moving and heavy lifting
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training