Barefoot, you mean… really no shoes ?

posted in: Barefoot serie, Blog | 10
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This post is an introduction to a series of multiple posts about barefoot running. I’m a runner probably like you and I’ve been walking barefoot for years while I’m running barefoot for now 8 months. I’d like to share in these posts a glimpse of my own journey and help new barefoot runners to make the transition safely. Barefoot walking made a big difference for me: it fixed my 20 years flat feet problem in just few months. I’m no doctor or expert, just went through this transition with the help of some friends and resources on the internet. I’m sure it can help you too, I’ll try to explain it in my leman words…

A bit of context

We all started our life barefoot, as a newborn crawling to one doing its first steps standing up. At that time, most of us – not to say all of us – had no shoes. We were barefoot – meaning our feet were bare – feet with nothing else than themselves around. We – humans – invented shoes to protect our feet from the harshness of the ground we were standing on. The shoes we used for millennia were basically just a sole to protect our feet sole or a cloth to protect us from the cold outside. We are the only specie to have done that: all other animals are simply bare feet. And that’s ok. The challenge we face nowadays is that shoes are overdoing it: they support too much our feet, they constraint too much our feet and as a result they weaken our feet supporting muscles. And we accept that because we had no knowledge, no choice and because of something called marketing.

The human foot

The human foot is quite an impressive part of our body. It has to support the entire weight of our body and yet provide extreme flexibility at the same time. Our foot is composed of 26 bones, 33 joints.  There are also over hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments. Each of our feet have 3 joints: the ankle, the subtalar joint and the interphalangeal articulation. I’m no expert here but that looks to me like a very precisely crafted “machinery”.

Walking barefoot

When you walk barefoot, you basically do couple of things:
  1. You activate all the sensors in your feet. Feet are the most sensory-rich part of your body. That’s why for example you will feel every single stuff happening under your feet from a grain of sand to a big rock. That goes “straight” to your brain. It can be overwhelming at the beginning I have to say.
  2. You use many muscles in your feet (the most obvious arteries near your toes, your arches and those in your lower leg (calf, …). For most of us we’ve been walking with shoes for a long time and they provide a lot of “support” i particular under the arches. That leads many people to have weak arches and weak muscles in your feet and supporting muscles.
  3. You put strain on your feet soles (and skins of your toes)
  4. You exercise your eye sight to scan what’s coming ahead of your feet (usually a consequence of point #1)
As a consequence of this, when you start walking barefoot and running barefoot, you need to take it slowly to manage the transition: learning how to feel and not be overwhelmed by the sensory experience, filter the touch feeling in your feet of what’s painful versus what’s not or is manageable. Like any exercise we are not used to do, our muscles are weak and need to be prepared to be able to support the workload you will put them through. The same goes for your feet soles, you will need to condition them to get them thicker so that you can handle tougher and irregular surfaces.
That takes time and walking first is a great way to prepare your body to later on running barefoot. Do not underestimate this, I’m not talking about doing 2-3 days of walk, you need to do more than this and do some distance (couple of kilometres), alternate easy and more difficult surfaces, …

Building up momentum toward barefoot running

Running barefoot is really the next step. Make sure you are comfortable walking couple of kilometres on non easy surfaces without having blisters before going to running barefoot. Remember how you learned running as a child: you started standing, balancing and walking first.
Now that you are mastering the art of walking barefoot, it is time to prepare your body for barefoot running. I would recommend that you still do some exercises to build up your muscles and flexibility in the feet, particularly your toes. People don’t think much of their toes I think, but they are an essential part of your feet anatomy and key for proper balancing when running barefoot. But you have not used them for long having them constrained in your shoes. Time to release them !
Couple of exercises to strengthen your feet muscles and workout your toes mobility:
  1. Big toe mobility
  2. Smaller toes mobility
  3. Spreading your toes
  4. The rocks or marbles game

Think of your feet and supporting muscles as an entire part of your core muscles. Build their strength, keep maintaining them for a better walking and running experience. And that is wether you are walking or running… barefoot or not. All your exercises for core should be done barefoot.

Big toe mobility

Essentially you need to be able to do like seen on the picture but with without moving the other smaller toes. You can put your foot rested on the floor then try to move only your big toe upward. Do not move the other small toes if possible.  The exercise can also be done with your foot in the air. If you can’t move your big toe at first, it’s quite normal I think and you can help yourself with your hand as seen on the picture. Once you are accustomed to it and have more mobility in your toes, you should be able to do it without the help of your hand.

Smaller toes mobility

This exercise aims at helping mobility in your smaller toes and improve your control over them independently from the big toe. Most of the people can move them but as a whole, there is always movement of the big toe along with the smaller ones. Improving mobility in the smaller toes will develop your control over them and build up muscles in your lower leg that are controlling them.

Spreading your toes

Spreading your toes will help develop mobility and ease of movement. That doesn’t mean you have to start walking like this… Spread as much as you can the toes and keep that position. Usually it works well when you are keeping to try the toes (all) more upward. In my personal case, my right foot has slightly more spreading than the left one. When I started, the left could barely spread compared to the right one. Repeat the exercises to build strength. I you look at your lower leg muscles, you can see that some muscles are activated when you do this.

Alternatively, another exercise is to have your feet on the hill or in the air, keep your big toe up, spread your small toes and bring them down while still being spread (imagine under each small toe you have a piano key and you are trying to hit each key with one toe). Do this then bring back to rest position. Repeat multiple times. This helps build up mobility in your smaller toes.

The rocks or marbles game
The marble game is the next step in using the mobility you built with your small toes and big toe. You need to have marbles or small rocks (not too big though) and you need to catch them with your big toe. Move them into a bucket. That looks easy ? That’s not and you will struggle at the beginning. Keep continuing and that will become easy. You can do this watching TV !
There are other exercises that are more key to barefoot running and feet strengthening. We will describe them in future posts but first here is the list for those interested:
Building muscles in your feet and calves:
  1. The ballerina exercise
  2. Working out those arches
  3. The swipers
  4. Calves strengthening
  5. Walking on your toes
  6. One leg stand (more advanced)
  7. Rope skipping (more advanced)
Extending your flexibility:
  1. Ankle mobility: left and right side stretching
  2. Ankle mobility: left and right side walking
  3. Walking on your hills
These are very good exercises that are recommended for anyone, whether you want to walk/run barefoot or not. As a matter of fact, everything we do is pretty much standing on our feet. Hence strong and flexible feet are essential for ones’ good health.

One last question… but in this modern world is it safe ?

You’ll need to make your own mind here but I do think that yes it is safe. The reason is that right now most of people wearing shoes have simply no awareness of what they are walking on except big obstacles (big stones or other stuff). Go walking wearing shoes and think of something else. Do you focus on where you are going to put your feet ? Likely not…
You’re probably never looking where you put your feet and unconsciously only rely on your peripheral vision to look at the ground. In layman words, you don’t see “clearly” using your peripheral vision. It’s good at detecting changes in colours, fast moments, … to alert your brain. So if you have a big obstacle ahead, it will pop a warning flag in your brain and your natural reaction will be to focus your central vision on it then to avoid it. The issue is that when you wear shoes and with a thick sole, there is not much threat on the ground when you walk unless you are in extreme ground (in which case you will be very alert). When you walk barefoot, the smallest thing you walk on triggers a sensory reaction and you “feel” it (pain at first). As a result, you are changing the way you behave and become very alert to your surroundings and where you put your feet. That means you will keep looking and scanning what’s coming under your feet in order to avoid painful experiences. It’s as simple as that. Sensory awareness triggers surrounding awareness.
So yes, it is actually safe because you watch carefully where you are going to walk ! And yes there are stones, sharp objects, glass on the road or walkways but that’s ok. If you watch carefully, you see it and therefore avoid it. That’s safe. Walking barefoot is probably not safe only if you are constantly day-dreaming !

Final thoughts

You will hear passionate debates about being barefoot, having a minimalist approach, wearing shoes, having thick cushioning or simply about things like drop to toes. Let me be clear on one thing: there is no one size fit all here and barefoot is not a religion… It’s more of a lifestyle you can adopt fully or partially or simply not at all if it does not fit you !

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