“Just go barefoot.”
How many times have you heard that from the dude with big calves, wide feet, and soles like supple calf skin? (Hmm, that came out weirder than I imagined.) Or maybe you’re that guy, and you’ve said it. Heck, I’ve probably said something to that effect before. It’s a casual recommendation that we long-term barefooters toss around… but maybe we shouldn’t. (Heresy!) Okay – bear with me, here. Everyone agrees that shoelessness is the foot’s natural state, and that getting to a place where you can enjoy that natural state is ideal. Natural isn’t always synonymous with good, but in the case of the human foot – a sensitive, capable, highly mobile appendage packed with innumerable nerve endings, muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and fascia that responds and reacts to the environment as you walk and/or run – natural is almost certainly desirable. The human foot is pretty amazing, and sticking it inside a restrictive shoe obscures that fact. I think we can agree on that.
But before you tell your friends to burn their shoes, consider something: the shod foot has been living in a cast most of its life. It occasionally enjoys a bit of freedom, but it’s a fleeting, temporary freedom that’s usually only granted when there’s nothing to do but lounge and sleep. When the modern foot is called into action, like at the gym, on a walk, or when going about daily business, they are usually wearing shoes that restrict muscle engagement and turn the feet into passive pieces of leather and rubber that slap along the ground. The feet are merely along for the ride; they do nothing, while the hips and ankles must shoulder the load. Ever seen an arm that’s just had a cast removed? It’s a skinny, withered shell of its former self. The muscles have atrophied, so it’s weaker. The connective tissue can’t quite handle the demands of regular use, so strains are a real possibility. It’ll even smell bad until you wash it (just like some feet), because it’s been cramped up for so long.
The perpetually shod foot is in a very similar state. All that reactive organic material (the bones, tendons, muscles, fascia) has either atrophied, tightened up, or weakened from disuse, so you need to ease into it. Eh, “ease into it” is another phrase that gets thrown around with very little substantiation or elaboration. How, exactly, does one ease into barefooting?
Let’s explore some concrete strategies.
I’d like you to purchase a lacrosse ball and use it on your plantar fascia and your calves. Huh? Allow me to explain. The fascia, that interconnected sheath of connective tissue that surrounds our muscles, gets extremely tight and ornery when the muscles aren’t used, or when they’re used incorrectly. The plantar fascia, located on our feet, supports the arch and can get notoriously tight and unresponsive after a lifetime of shoe wearing. You’ve been wearing shoes for most of your life, and your plantar fascia is likely tight. This will impede your abilities to use your feet and develop natural arch support. Walking and running barefoot loads the calf muscle far more than walking and running in shoes. In fact, one of the most common complaints I hear from new barefooters is the calf pain. They go from rarely using their calves to absorbing the impact of a footfall with them – and the soreness can be excruciating. Reducing that tightness before it gets worse can go a long way toward making the barefoot transition a smooth one.
So, how does one roll one’s plantar fascia? Extremely intuitively. Place a lacrosse ball on the floor, stand on it, and roll around. Just explore your foot with the ball. It’ll be really painful at first, but that’s how you know it’s working. Roll each foot twice a day for about five minutes. Be sure to flex your foot and move your toes around as you roll over tight spots – try to put your foot through every possible range of motion it might see in the real world. You can do it while sitting, too, while watching TV or messing around the computer (at your standing workstation). It’s simple and can be done almost anywhere. There’s no excuse not to.
Rolling the calf takes more dedication. You have to be on the floor for it to work, and you have to focus. It’s still really, really simple, though: sit on the ground with your leg outstretched and the lacrosse ball underneath your calf. Place as much weight on the ball as you can handle, and roll up and down your calf. When you hit a tight spot, flex and extend your ankle until it starts to feel less tight. Be sure to hit every aspect of your calf. Roll each calf once a day for about five minutes.
All said, this won’t take more than thirty minutes out of your day. Furthermore, you don’t have to keep this up forever. Just do it for the week leading up to your barefoot transition, and thereafter on an as-needed basis.
If you had spent your entire life barefoot, you wouldn’t need any specific foot-strengthening exercises – foot strength would have developed naturally – but you haven’t, so now you need them. I discussed similar exercises before in an old post on strengthening flat feet.
Toe spreads: Loop a rubber band around your toes, tight enough so that it pushes your toes together if you let it. Now, spread your toes out and hold that position for a few seconds. Do two sets of ten reps with each foot.
Toe squeezes: Stick pencils, fingers, or anything that can fit in between each toe and squeeze them together. Hold the squeeze for a few seconds before releasing. Do two sets of ten squeezes with each foot.
Toe points: Pick something in the room and point at it with your toe. Hold the position for five seconds, then try to point at your own face. Hold that position for five seconds. Repeat the process ten times with each foot.
Side roll: Stand up and slightly bend your knees. Roll onto the outer edges of your feet, take a few steps forward, then a few steps back to your starting spot. Roll back. Repeat for fifteen reps.
Sand walk: This obviously isn’t available to everyone, but if you have access to sand, go walk in it. As you walk (barefoot, of course), squeeze the sand with your feet. Sand grabbing is an old trick for grip building, and the same concept applies to your feet (which used to be grabby ape feet, if you go back far enough). I suppose you could also fill a bucket with sand and use that instead, if you can’t find enough sand to walk on.
As you move into frequent barefooting, your feet will naturally get stronger, but these overt exercises will help speed up the process.
It’s important to have a few ideas about barefoot walking before actually kicking off the shoes and heading out. My basic foundation for barefoot walking? Take shorter strides, land softly; avoid over striding and harsh, jarring footfalls.
If you haven’t already, read the Definitive Guide to Walking and try out the various walking styles.
While I’m a big fan of feeling things out and going with the flow, there’s something to be said for linear progression. That goes for strength training, endurance training, sprint training, and yes, barefooting. You don’t go from squatting the bar to squatting two plates, do you? Sure, you might get the weight up once or twice, and you might even finish the workout, but what about next time? Where do you go from there after the initial big jump? How do you think your connective tissue is going to feel without adequate adaptation?
When you start walking barefoot, keep it short. Don’t go to failure. Do a ten minute walk on flat ground (sidewalk, track), max, and head home. You’re sending some very strong, extremely new messages to your nervous system, feet, and legs, and you don’t want to overwhelm the physical structures before they’re ready.
The next time you walk, add ten more minutes. Maintain this progression until you’re up to an hour and it’s easy and effortless. Once adding more time doesn’t result in sore feet, calves, or legs, you’re ready for new terrain.
The beauty of walking, hiking, and running barefoot is that you get to experience the ground in an entirely new way. When you’re wearing shoes, everything feels the same. You might notice big topographical changes, but you miss the little things. You miss the blades of grass between your toes, the way gravel sort of massages your soles, the way scalding sand gives way to cool, damp sand at the beach. Going barefoot, then, can shock your system. You will be awash in sensation that cannot be ignored. You can’t just clomp around in rubber soles. You’ve now got a new sensory front to consider. Eventually, this will give you greater mobility, stability, and control over your body, but it can also throw you off and lead to missteps, or even injuries, when you’re just starting.
Be ever aware of the ground on which you walk. Look for rocks, sticks, and other sharp things. In time, you will glide across the ground effortlessly, subconsciously integrating the sensory input from your feet, but not yet. No – for now, you have to focus on focusing on your surroundings. It’s a subtle distinction; you’ll never not focus on your surroundings. It’s just that the focusing will become second nature.
You’re effectively a beginner now, so act like it. Don’t try to be a hero and tackle a three hour hike right off the bat. And when you do head out for an extended walk, take a pair of trusty shoes along with you… just in case. Whenever I hit a decently-sized hike in bare feet, I bring a pair of Vibrams along, too. You never know what’s gonna happen and it pays to be prepared.
Especially for your first few real walks, runs, or hikes in bare feet, cut it short if anything goes awry. I mean anything. Weird foot pain, stubbed toe, tight calves, bee sting – just call it a day and stop where you are. You’re still getting acclimated to barefooting, you’re excited about it, and the last thing you want is to be sidelined for weeks because you went too hard too quickly.
Swallow your pride. It might not taste so great, but it’s a valuable nutritional supplement when transitioning to barefooting.
I don’t want to scare you away from barefooting. It’s really quite wonderful, safe, and rewarding (it’s certainly safer than regularly wearing shoes, in my opinion), but only if you do it right and acknowledge that the habitually shod foot is a pampered, emaciated thing ill-prepared for real work. Besides, the strategies I’ve outlined take maybe a week to implement and integrate. If you can’t spare a measly little week for the health and strength of your feet (you know, those miraculous pieces of evolutionary artistry that have been serving hominids well for millions of years?), you probably shouldn’t be barefooting in the first place.