Note: In this photo, my buddy Tellman Knudson, is running barefoot in the city of lower Manhattan. He’s currently on his way to the West Coast to be the first man to run barefoot across America with the goal of raising awareness and money for homeless children. More info at www.runtellmanrun.com
I have been pondering the barefoot philosophy for a short while now and after going out and buying FiveFingers and walking around as much as possible it dawned on me that while those activities merit the wearing of barefoot wear or no wear at all, don’t we need compensation on flat surfaces? The foot doesn’t seem to have been designed for pavement and symmetry. Most of us walk on paved, or flat carpeted, tiled, cemented surfaces most of our waking hours. Is barefoot really the way to go here?
I respect your insights so I hope to hear back soon!
Good question. You’re right, it’s unnatural for us to walk on flat surfaces all the time, and that alone warrants some compensatory exercise suggestions like foot and ankle mobility drills, and more specifically, toe pulls. The Four Corner Balance Drill is also another great compensatory drill for ANY walking activity – barefoot or shod. If you own Sonnon’s BodyFlow program, then the squat creep, shin twist, and descending shin roll are all great ones for going barefoot, too.
Put a human in an unnatural physical predicament (like walking on smooth surfaces at all times), and there is reason enough to compensate for it. This is especially important when you’re wearing modern footwear like running shoes or dress shoes, but still important when going minimalist or barefoot. In this case, it’s not just the over-engineered footwear that is unnatural, but the actual surfaces we walk on – two different competing forces to the detriment of our health.
1) Unnatural Environment – smooth surfaces everywhere that lead to predominant movement patterns and eventually overuse injuries.
2) Unnatural Footwear – limits range of motion, atrophies foot and ankle muscles, inhibits proprioception and movement potential, encourages fear-reactivity, increased chance of athletes foot or the more common “stinky feet syndrome,” etc.
The short answer is that for health reasons, barefoot or minimalist is best on most surfaces – even smooth ones. Of course, the context is more important than an absolute recommendation. Certain situations merit certain footwear choices. If I’m doing construction, for instance, you can bet your boots I’ll be wearing steel toes.
I tend to ask myself, do I need to wear shoes, and if so, what’s the most minimal footwear I can get away with and still be appropriate for my needs? I want footwear that will allow me the most freedom of movement and still protect my feet from potential harm (sharp objects, heat, cold, etc.).
I don’t want to have to walk on an unnatural surface all day AND put my feet into over-engineered shoes (aka high-tech casts/coffins). I’d rather get as much freedom of movement out of my footwear (or lack of) and deal with the compensation issue from flat surfaces separately (since it should be dealt with regardless of footwear choice).
I should also mention that I logged many miles running barefoot on asphalt roads last year. I actually prefer this to running with shoes – even minimalist shoes. It requires me to train my body to shock absorb even moreso than when on a softer surface like grass or sand. It’s anecdotal evidence, I know, but I experienced ZERO injuries from running last year (the first time in years that I’ve run 100% injury-free), or anything else for that matter, and I ran barefoot several times weekly from Spring through late Fall (about half road running, half trail running). It could be postulated that my Intu-Flow joint mobility and Prasara yoga practice, among other things, were the reason for saying injury-free, but I think each element played a role in my injury prevention.
So, in summary: barefoot is best in most cases, but minimalist shoes are sometimes required. We should make it a goal to get back into a natural lifestyle as much as possible, but also to draw on modern tools for life’s necessities. A good reminder is that footwear should protect the feet, not direct the feet.
Do you go barefoot? Answer the survey here:
To your health and success,
CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT
P.S. If you’re looking for more info, my friend, Damien Tougas, has a very balanced perspective on footwear selection and he has reviewed many different types of minimalist footwear on his site: