You don’t have to be an antisocial weirdo to live barefoot. Nowadays there are loads of foot health friendly, minimalist shoes around to not let you look that way. Even if that would be the only issue – what are looks compared to nearly-guaranteed health issues down the road?
It is astonishing how many people nowadays have deformed feet or suffer foot pain. Even sports enthusiasts, runners, and Olympic athletes aren’t fully aware of this issue.1 In my opinion there is lots of potential wasted right at the fundament – not only for sports folks.
Your feet get you every day from point A to point B and seldom they complain or require stuff. They’re a reliable body part and an amazing piece of engineering created solely for us bipeds. Every modern architect knows about the stability of their shape – the bridge shape, the arch – but they aren’t just stable, feet are insanely mobile, too.
As a fun fact aside, even the first physicians such as Hippocrates treated their patients by making them go barefoot. In fact, I think these ancient views of medicine were much more holistic than the diagnose-and-prescribe-a-pill approach nowadays is. Anyways our goal for today is to look if going caveman, ditching shoes is the answer to get rid of foot pain and what benefits going barefoot else offers!
We, humans, came to exist as a race around 300.000 years ago in East Africa. The Race Homo Sapiens was born. Back then we were not the only Homo race around. H Neanderthalensis and H. Denisova saw us walking on the surface of the earth – before we probably got them extinct.2 The earliest biped was the Australopithecus, although he was closer to an ape than a modern human. His hips and feet strongly diverged from ours and made walking rather inefficient. His appearance dates back around 2.5 million years ago – that old are feet. And it took evolution a long time to perfect them, to be the reliable long-distance tools they are today.
The oldest shoes is around 5.500 years old. They came up for protection, especially against the cold. If you set this into relation to only our time as race Homo sapiens sapiens, we were barefoot for 294.500 years – which is more than 98% of our entire heredity. If you toss the other hominid species within the equation, the solution will get closer to 99.999.
Our ancestors were mostly runners. We humans are very weak compared to apes, even a Chimpanzee is stronger than a human, although half-our size, especially within their upper body. A Chimpanzee will probably outperform The Mountain in some disciplines – sorry man. That’s because of better leverage and muscle makeup. What all others suck at, expect us, is running and endurance. We humans are insanely good runners. In fact, early humans killed animals by running them to death because of overheating. Imagine running after an antelope in the middle of the day in the African Savannah for 2 hours. That’s dedication. No other animal there is hairless and upright.
Back to shoes – the first shoes were solely thin plates of leather – for protection and cold shielding. Nowadays shoes are nearly as complex as the feet themselves – stabilizers here, pronation protection there, raised ankles, and sprinkle some blinking lights on top.
Splendid – that’s for our history lesson today. Next up in out schedule is sports and exercise science. I dare you to come too late. As an aside, I got all these facts out of the first book I ever read – Dr. Daniel Lieberman’s genial Story of the Human Body*. Highly recommended!
4 Benefits of Living Barefoot for your Foot Health
Build Foot Strength naturally
After the initial phase of resetting your feet and learning how to walk naturally again, you train your feet with each step, with each squat you make, and each weight you lift up the floor. Not to say that this happens not in traditional footwear – but in minimalist shoes, your feet can splay naturally, grab the ground and feel it.
As a consequence you train your feet every day and foot mobility, as well as conditioning is nothing that needs to be all the time on your busy workout schedule. Foot are amazingly low-maintenance.
Remove the Chance of Issues up the Chain
Ever heard the saying – issues up and down the kinetic chain?
This physiobabble refers to following situation:
Imagine you got back pain. But your back is fine – the issues might lie in your hip and result in you always flexing your spine when picking stuff up while never using a deadlift pattern. This will result in overuse.
Next imagine you got flat feet. Your trusted professional states that the issues lie in your hip, not your feet. While you go ‘whooat?’ he tells you to do a few hip stability exercises and see there – your feet position might look better.
Both examples would be issues down the kinetic chain3 – down the series of your body’s joints – caused by not the hurting joint itself. These problems are quite common and that’s why the amateur mistake of looking topically is wrong.
Relating this to the feet, having strong feet helps you definitely to avoid issues up the chain. Especially knee, spine and hip problems – but also problems in your jaw could come from there. Weak feet on the other hand are like a fundament built by the cheapest company available which is highly corrupt – the mistake each government makes over and over again. Keep your fundament stable and the house shall prevail.
Buy Footwear designed for your Feet
…not the other way round. With stylish footwear which in your foot has to be shaped. Nowadays there are many brands around to choose from and minimalist shoes don’t look like clown shoes* anymore – fashion met functionality. Therefore my best piece of advice would be to make the transition to minimalist footwear soon. Read more about that transition down below.
As an aside – there are some cases when specific footwear is better. Take steel cap boots on construction sites, ski shoes for skiing, high heels for a wedding, stylish business shoes for a meeting, and many others as an example. What matters is what you wear 90% of the time. If you need to wear shoes for 2 hours of your meeting or go skiing for 4 hours that’s not an issue at all.
Grounding and Interconnectedness
Although there is a lot of bullshit around this topic the basic promise sounds compelling and evidence shows that it works. Grounding refers to the exchange of energy from surrounding molecules with you. Energy flows and when you’re walking barefoot on the ground energy can pass you and exit your body freely – you’re interconnected with the environment. I know this sounds hippy and very new-agey!
But there are studies supporting Grounding4 and that being barefoot for half an hour a day on ground, or even spending a few minutes in a forest without shows that shield you from your surroundings provide health benefits.
Recover your Feet with Foot Mobility
Making the Transition to Minimalist Shoes
Transition? What transition? That was me 5 years ago. I went straight from restricitve footwear to barefoot running and payed for that stupidity.
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It is astonishingly difficult to relearn your walking and running patterns and how drastically traditional footwear influences both. Even shoes considered flat and natural as Chucks do so noticeably. Plus all your passive structures, especially in your foot and calf need to adjust. That might take some months. I was painfree after around of 3 months of going barefoot with my all-in approach. But you can do that way smarter than old-stupid me:
Go barefoot at home all the time
Introduce minimalist shoes carefully – start with long walks on a frequent basis and extend the time from week to week. Try to be barefoot-only within 3 months.
Refrain from running barefoot until walking works out fine and your calves feel normal
I got most of the methodical style from the FootCollective. This team of Canadian physiotherapists does great work regarding foot health – check out their website and YouTube for detailed advice and many explained exercises.
The Barefoot-Restoration Routine
Soft-Tissue Release (2min per side)
Take a Blackball, golf ball, lacrosse ball, or something comparable. Roll with your foot over it in a longitudinal and latitudinal direction. You can also try to combine both and do a rotating motion.
Apply as much pressure as possible without you suffering too much for around ~2minutes per foot. Aim for a 7 out of 10 on the pain scale. It will get better eventually. Later on, this will feel heavenly.
What that does is loosening up your plantar fascia and the intrinsic foot muscles on the sole of your foot.
Foot Mobility Work
Short Foot (20r +30s hold)
The Short Foot exercise looks like that. It is an exercise to train your intrinsic foot muscles and restore the tripod-like functionality of your foot. This function is not necessary in many modern shoes because of the inbuilt arch supports and raised heels. You basically build an arch with the only big contact points with the ground being your big toe, your small toe, and your heel.
Banded Toe Point (10rx3s)
The Toe Point trains your point and therefore your overall foot extension, as well as your flexion. It should look like in this video. Grab yourself a light resistance band* and wrap it around the tip of your foot while sitting in a seated pike. From there you push your feet into the band until they are fully extended. What you do then is flex your toes. A word of warning – this will in 99% of the time end in cramping but eventually get better.
Split Squat (12rx5s)
The Split Squat trains your dorsiflexion – an often heavily restricted movement pattern of your ankle. To do so go in a stable and relatively close lunge. The focus is on your front leg. What you now do is to push your knee as far over your ankle as you can. When you hit the bottom position try to hold it for 5s on each rep. Within this fully flexed bottom position it is crucial to activate your shin muscles and really pull yourself muscularly into the position.
Hip Stability Work
One Legged Stance (~2-5 minutes per day)
Simply stand on one leg. Really feel your lateral glutes working hard and create actively a stable foot. Later on, you can move around while standing on one leg and try to go into different shapes. Get creative and play. Cool ones are single-legged Romanian Deadlifts or Stuart McGill’s Hip Airplane exercise.
The best Foot Mobility Exercises
Aside from the above named 3 exercises and the stability drills, I found these 3 drills very helpful in building foot strength, as well as foot mobility.
This movement is common within gymnastics to build strong and pointed toes. To do so go into a seiza barefoot – the Japanese shin sit. From there you put your hands onto the floor to support your weight and straighten your legs until your body weight is partly resting on your toes. Approach this one carefully as it places a lot of load onto this often unknown position.
Lateral Foot Rolls
Stand upright on your feet straight. From there you roll with both your feet on the outside part. Stay there for 3-5s and carry on with rolling onto the inside part of your feet.
Proceed these carefully to not sprain your ankle in the beginning. After some time it will strengthen these weird positions and protect you against unwanted sprains – this exercise should be a staple for football players and the like.
Standing Foot Circles
Stand upright again. What you will do now are loaded foot circles. Try to lift off your soles from the ground and do a few circles to the right, as well to the left. These should look like in this video.
Is Barefoot the ultimate Solution for Foot Health?
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to force a lifestyle onto someone. This is your decision, although I am quite biased regarding this topic. I bet you could read that clearly out. Nonetheless, it isn’t my right to force my views onto someone, only to show ways how I see stuff and maybe it clings with folks.
My goal is to educate everyone interested so that he knows what might be at stake when staying with traditional footwear. Plus, the chance to change that and use footwear consciously for specific jobs – like exaggerated safety at a construction site or stylish Milan leather shoes at an important meeting. Nobody would want to work in a mine wearing flip-flops or climb El Capitan barefoot. Probs to him who manages to do that!
Therefore, I hope you got lots out of this post and can see the usefulness of this small fix. Nowadays I really don’t get why we sell that restrictive footwear – and why we all follow the fashion ideal of a narrow foot shape without even questioning it once. To me, that’s insanity on the level of society regarding how many people’s issues could be eased by getting them back to a more biomechanically correct way of walking and living.
Thanks for staying with me until down here. Spread the word and help your close ones,
Just take a look at Usain Bolts Hallux Valgus because of his great Nike’s. The great question is – would he even be a few Milliseconds quicker if his feet were functioning optimally? Who knows. But it could be.