Admit it. At the end of a long day, don’t you love to kick off your shoes and wiggle your toes and stretch your ankles? Is there anything better than feeling the coolness of grass on the soles of your feet or the warmth of a sand beach between your toes? These are some of my favourite experiences.
What’s the issue with shoes?
The foot is an amazing part of the body. Each foot is made up of 26 bones, 33 joints, more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments, and a wonderous web of blood vessels and nerves. A complex design which, when working properly, we take for granted. We give little thought to how we keep our feet physically active and fit.
There was a time in history when we all would have been barefoot and moving only on natural landscapes. The biomechanics of the foot were regularly used, the muscles and connective tissue were constantly challenged so our feet were kept strong and flexible. We had feet with integrity!
Then came the shoe and manufactured surfaces like concrete and asphalt on which to live and move. Our feet were tucked away for protection, comfort and support. Ironically, this was the advent of foot problems; 80% of us will have a foot problem at some point in our lives.
It seems our technically designed shoes may actually give us too much support, cushioning and stability. Thought has it the muscles and neuromuscular pathways of the foot and ankle have become weak, lazy and are crying out for some loving attention.
Aside from how great it feels to free your feet, there are a number of potential benefits to barefoot training:
- balance and agility are enhanced — the neuroreceptors in your feet are engaged with your environment. They can feel the surface below you, sensing changes in eveness, stability, density and they can send this information to your brain. The richness of this sensory information helps create additional neurological pathways. This means you get smarter about balance and agility and postural alignment.
- no high heels — the cushioned heel of most runners puts your body at a postural disadvantage, especially when you are performing activities other than running such as weight lifting or functional fitness training. Keeping your heel on the ground allows for maximal hip and spinal alignment, decreasing low back pain.
- spreading out in the world — your toes are no longer contained in a toe box. They are allowed to move at the joints and use up as much space as they like
- stronger foot muscles — when the muscles in your feet can move in the way they are designed, they grow stronger. The feet, the ankles and the lower leg muscles all respond to barefoot activities, improving general foot health and reducing the risk of injury.
- barefoot feels good — what a simple way to create pleasure in your life.
Barefoot training ideas
It is easy to increase your foot health during daily living activities. You can free you feet at home. Ditch those house shoes and become more intimate with your floors. Leave those garden clogs on the rack and truly connect with the world in your yard. Be kind to your feet and they will serve you well.
Barefoot running is a possibility. You can find information onwebsites and weblogs devoted to barefoot running, such runningbarefoot.com and runbarefoot.blogspot.com. Good research on running barefoot is scant. Studies show barefoot running decreases energy needs by 4% over clad feet and a series of Canadian run studies concluded that heavily cushioned shoes were more likely to cause injury than simpler shoes. These same researchers give us food for thought in their finding, though inconclusive, that more expensive athletic shoes accounted for twice as many injuries as cheaper shoes. You can check out the summary of research here.
If barefoot running is a bit of a stretch for you, try a non-impact or low-impact activity first. Yoga, pilates and tai chi are wonderful barefoot activities. Jumping rope and kettlebell training are both well-suited to an unshod experience. Beach running provides for less impact than running on other surfaces and is an outstanding activity for low leg and ankle strengthening.
The foot is our connection to the earth. It is the point at which we are grounded and rooted, the nexus of our exchange of energy with this glorious planet. The foot is our base in life. Free your feet and you will reap the benefits.