Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
10 Aug

Even If the Shoe Fits… Forget It.

When was the last time you left your house without shoes? Hard to say? When was the last time you ran without shoes? Summer, circa 12 years old? If you are to listen to the growing number of barefoot runners out there you are truly missing out.

This little piggie...

Ricardipus Flickr Photo (CC)

It turns out we were all born barefoot. No, really. As hard as it is to believe, no one came strolling into this world pre-packaged with a pair of loafers or Nike’s latest cross-trainers. That alone is a good enough argument for not wearing shoes, right? Yeah, yeah, so goes the same argument for public nudity. But there really is something to the notion that going barefoot (not bare-naked) is good for you.

As a devout Primal Health philosophy follower you can count me in as a believer. I mean, what could be more primal than running around barefoot? I don’t know about you, but the idea of darting around sans shoes immediately brings two images to mind. The first being a barbarous, crazed-looking Neanderthal with a spear in one hand and a half eaten rabbit in the other – ready to pounce at any given moment. Pleasant, I know.

On the other hand it calls to mind visions of happy children relishing the feeling of recently cut grass on their naked and nimble toes as they parade about an expanse of green lawn.

drp Flickr Photo (CC)

To your average tennie-wearing John Doe these words paint two seemingly diametrically opposed pictures. But viewed through the lenses of the barefoot enthusiast they both embody the essence of going shoeless. That is, the visceral, animal-like use of feet the way they were originally ‘intended,’ while at the same time fully appreciating the extra-sensory and tactile experience you can only get without sneakers.

The Primal Health philosophy supports the notion that the fewer man-made foot crutches the better. Think about it. We have these amazing feet with intricate structures designed to keep us upright and moving gracefully. What they weren’t designed to do is operate bound up in artificial materials. Our ancestors existed without foot protection for eons. Without shoes to keep their feet protected from this harsh world they developed tough skin and strong ligaments. They fared just fine without the latest high-tops. But in an effort to guard against any potential harm modern man has employed buckles, straps, laces, Velcro, soles and toe boxes. According to some we may have gone too far. We now have shoes that look disturbingly more like a device you would expect to see employed during the Inquisition than foot protection.

Don’t get me wrong. No one is suggesting that you head on into the office Monday morning with your ugly feet leading the way. Shoes are great. I have more pairs than I would like to admit. But there may be such a thing as too much shoe.

So what is the allure of running shoeless?

Here are just a few of the arguments:

– The elevated, softened heel support found in most shoes impedes our natural gait and can result in a shortened Achilles tendon and calf muscle.

– Running without shoes takes upwards of 4% less energy than running with shoes. It makes sense really. Some effort must go into lugging the extra weight around.

– Running shoes are designed to make you land on your heel as you step forward. Can you imagine running heel to toe without shoes? You wouldn’t do it. It would be much too traumatic. So why are we forced to do it with shoes? Landing on your heel results in undue shock and potential injury to your knees and back. The natural and most effective way to run, as exemplified by top marathon runners, is to land on the ball of your foot – keeping your steps light and smooth, and allowing your arch to act like the natural spring it is.

– It is cheaper! You no longer have to fork over your hard earned cash to shoe manufacturers.

– Running shoeless helps to improve your running technique which can result in increased speed. Just ask barefoot Abebe Bikila who won the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome.

– No more athlete’s foot or foot odor! Both are associated with sweaty and poorly ventilated shoes.

– Going shoeless helps develop strength in muscles found in your feet, hips and legs that aren’t used when wearing shoes. This in turn can increase coordination, agility and balance.

– It feels good. Literally being in touch with nature at all times makes you more aware of your surroundings and can be very therapeutic.

Can’t imagine running barefoot? Yes, I know you love your Dr. Scholl’s inserts, padded cushions, arch supports, insoles and orthotics, but part of the reason you feel like you need them is because you have been using them for so long.

Our feet are soft and weak. There are no calluses to be found. Our feet have been locked up between layers of fabric and rubber ever since they saw the light of day. They have been babied and pampered to their own demise.

Just like the rest of your body, feet need tough love too.

But don’t go cold turkey. It’s not just your skin that is soft and sensitive. Your tendons and muscles will also need some conditioning. You’ve got to ease into it. Head for grassy fields or sandy beaches and begin by walking. Or do what we do and wear shoes that are barely there.

We here at Mark’s Daily Apple are all barefoot exercising fools. When we aren’t going outright barefoot we go as near barefoot as possible. You may have heard about Mark’s love for hiking in his barely there Vibram Fivefingers. And Sara trains in her favorite Stella McCartney athletic shoes. Luckily, there are near barefoot options for those looking for a bit of protection, but who also want the biomechanical benefits of going au natural.

Sara’s Narellas

You don’t have to take it from us. The barefoot revolution has been touted by numerous newspapers (1, 2, 3), magazines, and bloggers worldwide. It has even received the attention of Nike and well-paid world-class athletes.

Although it is becoming more popular every day running barefoot is still a contentious issue. What do you think, Apples?

For further research and to find out whether going barefoot is for you check out these additional resources:

Barefoot Ted’s Adventures

Sportscience Journal Article

Yahoo! Barefoot Running Group

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Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Interesting post, it made me think back to my youth when I used to spend most of my day barefoot.

    Since we lived near the ocean I spent a lot of time going back and forth to the beach and would walk or run there barefoot crossing parking lots with sharp hot stone and walk down to the water crossing sand so hot others would run like crazy.

    Theses days just standing out on the hot cement burns my feet.

    But I do spend all my time home barefoot LOL

    Kiefer wrote on May 14th, 2009
  2. One word of caution on the Vibram Five Fingers. If you’ve got long monkey toes, or if you 2nd toe is longer then your big toe, you will have a very hard time finding a pair that is comfortable. Until Vibram starts making shoes with longer toes some of us just can’t wear em.

    But going barefoot is great, I have been doing it for quite some time and my feet are much more healthy. Make sure to by a “Ped-egg” or something similar to cut down on the callous formation and rub some coconut oil on your feet every day to keep the skin healthy.

    Jeremy wrote on August 31st, 2009
  3. Back in 1970 I was living in Hawaii and starting a lifetime of running. I tried running for less than a week without shoes and found myself in a world of pain…and this only about two miles a day. I was six foot tall 155 lbs and fit, and this barefoot thing nearly ruined me. I’ve spent my life running in the best shoes money can buy, and always keep several pairs that I rotate through and replace long before most people would consider them worn out. I think running shoeless or nearly shoeless is going to be great for the foot doctors. The rest of you may get by with this for a while, but sooner or later you’re going to have serious issues. Been there, done it and I say FORGET IT

    Paul wrote on October 12th, 2009
    • So you’re saying that you spent a lifetime atrophying all the muscles in your feet and ankles, then went straight to barefoot RUNNING (not walking), only gave yourself a week to adjust without rest or time off, and you’re wondering why you were in pain? Huh, who woulda thunk?

      Uncephalized wrote on June 10th, 2010
  4. barefoot running is geting more popular, but its actually tough on concrete.. i know some say the smooth surface makes it the easiest but after numerous runs I still can’t see why they would say that, grass and dirt is by far easier.. wearing vibrams are even better, this vibram five fingers site talks alot more about it.

    Have you tried the nike frees, great shoes as well but nothing like barefoot, don’t know why they make that claim to be barefoot style shoes. this review has pretty good info on how they compare with vibram fivefingers directly:

    Great review, I’ll keep checking your site for updated info!

    heathjones wrote on October 21st, 2009
  5. Wow…I loved this article. I grew up going barefoot whenever I wasn’t at school or church (my husband thinks I’m a hick). In my adult life I began wearing all kinds of fashionable high heeled shoes and sports shoes, and now my feet are weird looking. Where they used to be tough enough to walk on gravel, I now hop a little when I find a pebble. What a freeing experience last year when I removed my shoes at the summit of a small mountain and hiked to the bottom with my boots tied together and slung over my shoulder. I nearly danced over the rocks and loved the springs I walked through and the cool patches of grass. An amazing experience that I’ve not forgotten and look forward to next hike.

    Recently I ran the last part of a jog without my shoes, and I noticed a difference in the muscles I was using, but I think I could get used to in short order.

    I’m a no-shoes girl, hick or not.

    Southernhopsing wrote on October 27th, 2009
  6. Mark,

    Sorry to bother you, but looks like you got a spammer in your midst: “heathjones” two comments up — I see these same links to barefootrunningshoes plastered everywhere anyone talks about VFFs.

    Just thought you might want to know!


    justin wrote on December 10th, 2009
  7. Here is a very interesting link to natural human gait analysis.

    Samantha Moore wrote on April 1st, 2010
  8. It’s just he social side of having no shoes on that gets me. I’ll have to get over it though.

    Richard, Personal Development Author wrote on April 29th, 2010
  9. FYI: Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel just aired a piece on shoelessness:

    Matt wrote on June 4th, 2010
  10. When I took up kick boxing I had to train barefoot for the first time since I was a kid. Within 3 months I threw out my expensive orthodics!

    All the jumping, jogging, twisting and turning barefoot made my feet stronger and my ankles line up better.

    nathan wrote on June 10th, 2010
  11. Mark: I just read your Insider email for today about not wearing shoes in public. The social faux pas for no shoes seems about as strong as for breastfeeding babies in public. The sexualized breast must be only good for a turn on and nothing more (smirk). If I wasn’t brave enough to expose the nipple in public (over the past 7 years) for the sake of my baby, I don’t think I can be ready for bare foot in the supermarket. But, I go barefoot as often as I can, and you have inspired me. I am also trying to remember to do some time without glasses on my face to get some unfiltered UV into my eyes each day. I wonder if you could advocate for the babies and the breast in your musings. Breastfeeding moms discuss this all the time (see Mothering magazine at Borders or your local library). But, it’s the rest of society that should be reached with the idea that even such a thing as being comfortable with the breast in public (for the babies, at least) would be the first step in encouraging world peace. Babies who are peaceful, contented and well nourished can optimally develop with an unfractured sense of self–in the first seven years, the world should be a good place.

    Rachel, Michigan wrote on June 15th, 2010
    • Try water-socks, some call them cheap river shoes, $20 and with the very soft sole you preserve a bare-foot gait without having to toughen up your epidermis with scar-tissue (glass, etc)

      wd wrote on July 18th, 2010
    • Actually, it’s not the social stigma….it’s the insurance.

      I’ve been going primarily barefoot for over 40 years and at least people don’t burn you with cigarettes on the dance floor because they think you’re weird but I have stopped pushing my agenda by going barefoot in busineses.

      You see, they don’t know if you’re a responsible person or not. They don’t have a clue if you would own up to your personal responsibility if you cut your foot on a piece of glass in their restaurant or stubbed your toe on a metal edge of the doorway.

      It’s out of respect for the possible loss of their livelihood that I now wear shoes in other people’s property I don’t know.

      I’m responsible but there are a lot of cock of the walks out there who would take advantage after seeing me.

      Renee KImball wrote on February 3rd, 2011
  12. Interesting research on heel-first vs. ball-first walking and running:

    If I understand correctly, one should walk heel-first, but run ball-first… I don’t mean in what’s most energy effective (even though that seems to be the case), but purely for minimizing damage to the feet for later life.

    It seems that ball-first too much also isn’t very good (as most athletes do it in excess it seems).

    iScientific wrote on September 26th, 2010
    • I’ve been barefoot (not constantly of course but always in the house) and mostly outside for over 40 years. I started this journey with a two year stint of NO shoes ever even with small amounts of snow on the ground. My only shoe for the past 8 (I think) years has been MEN’S Vibrams, (arch too high and foot way too wide in all the wrong places for any other shoe). Think Hobbit feet.

      If you are barefoot, it is best to ALWAYS step near flat foot with a slight bit of the front ball coming down first. If you try to come down heel first (even walking), it’s not a matter of if, but when you will severely damage your heel on a stone or stick. You are committing your full weight to an area of your foot the size of a quarter.

      Stepping flat allows your foot and leg to “immediately adjust” if you are on top of something sharp or irregular. Your foot will adjust around it. If you come down heel first, there’s no possibility of adjustment before damage.

      Renee Daphne wrote on March 22nd, 2015
  13. I tried the Vibrams about 3 years ago, but my feet were too wide for them and they’re in my sneaker graveyard. Other than that, in a world of broken glass, bottle caps and bacterial resistance it’s just impractical for the roads, for the beach, yes. Raceing flats probably offer the best compromise. Enjoy the site Mark!

    Tom wrote on October 3rd, 2010
  14. Personally I’m not a fan, but maybe I should give them another go once summer comes around

    Jeff wrote on November 11th, 2010
  15. Winter boots?

    I am new to the barefoot lifestyle/barefoot running. Going barefoot cured my plantar fasciitis, which I got when I jumped into running and didn’t realize I was doing it wrong. Now I live barefoot or in softstars mocs when I need protection. HOWEVER, now winter has come to Pittsburgh, and I can’t find a warm, dry boot that doesn’t have a heel! I tried Uggs, but it doesn’t feel and move like barefoot, either. Thinking of trying EARTH shoe brand boots, but I don’t know if that “negative heel” thing is any better than the built-up heels of other brands.
    If anyone can tell me what you do for a winter boot that feels as close to barefoot as possible, I would greatly appreciate it! Thank you!

    Jennifur wrote on February 3rd, 2011
    • Vibrams is coming out with a winter line – check out their website.

      Renee KImball wrote on February 3rd, 2011
  16. How I see it is you’re either barefoot or you’re not. I have not had a pair of shoes touch my feet in over 6 months, minus one school concert I chose to do so, although even before I made the conscious choice to not wear shoes, one would rarely see me shod.

    I have hiked on snow and ice, I have walked across parking lots full of glass, and I have taken my bare feet in many “unsafe” environments. I have to say that I have injured my feet the worst in my own backyard, because I wasn’t looking where I was going. It was then I found out that walking around thorn bushes can be quite painful, especially if the thorns have an additional irritant.

    As far as glass goes, unless it’s sticking straight up and one doesn’t slide or drag their foot over it, it isn’t a problem. And it is rare to have it sticking straight up (ever flip a coin and have it land on its side?). The beauty about being barefoot is being able to get quicker feedback about my environment. If I feel that something is sharp, I’m able to quickly adjust my step to take the weight and pressure off that area. If I were in flips, or other thin-soled shoe, I would have my much of my full weight down before I would notice there was something sharp and be able to step off. I have stepped on a few nails this way, actually.

    I did buy a pair of vibrams over 18 months ago… that are collecting dust and haven’t been worn for a year. I have taken them with me to hike a few times (in case I couldn’t handle the ice and snow), but they only stayed in the bottom of my pack.

    Ericka wrote on February 13th, 2011
  17. The last time I ran barefoot? Last fall, and I’ll be doing it again this spring. I’ve been going barefoot as often as possible since the day I was born (I’m also told I was quite the nudist in my younger years 😉 )

    Alex Good wrote on February 28th, 2011
  18. This is an awesome article. I think that everyone should at LEAST try running barefoot.

    I advise all of my clients to at least imagine running barefoot when running…. this is critical to proper running form.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Clinton wrote on February 28th, 2011

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