If you can live with the fact that some people will think you’re weird for not wearing shoes and still avoid the religious “barefooters” who drink the Kool-Aid, then I think you can greatly benefit from some barefoot living. Going barefoot is becoming increasingly popular in some social circles, and I’ve been hearing a lot about it recently. So, I compiled a listing or resources to give you a comprehensive perspective on the benefits of going barefoot anywhere – whether it’s barefoot running, barefoot walking, or barefoot training in the gym.
The Case For Going Barefoot
It turns out that most people not only have very weak feet and ankles, they also have immobile feet and ankles. This is largely due to over-engineered footwear being the norm across the civilized, modern world.
Think about it – what does putting on a work boot do to your foot in terms of mobility? It limits it to a pre-determined range of motion. Sure, it stabilizes your ankle and protects your toes from falling objects, but it also prevents your ankle from moving through a full (and natural) range of motion, which means over time your ankles and feet will get progressively weaker. Your feet will become less independent and able to protect themselves from injury, and more dependent on the work boots to prevent a sprained ankle or any other foot injury. This starts a vicious cycle of poor movement patterns, which eventually leads to injury or worse.
Najia Shakoor and Joel A. Block of the American College of Rheumatology (1) found that walking barefoot decreases loading on the lower extremity joints. Here is a snippet from their study conclusions:
It has long been appreciated that excessive loading of the lower extremities is associated with the onset and progression of knee osteoarthritis (OA); however, no attention has been given to the role that modern shoes may play in potentiating these aberrant loads. In the present study, we formally evaluated the differences in gait and joint loads that occur when patients with knee OA walk barefoot compared with when they walk in shoes. This study demonstrated that such patients undergo a significant reduction in their joint loads at both the knees and the hips while walking barefoot compared with when walking in their normal shoes. Moreover, whereas significant changes in several gait parameters were observed during barefoot walking, including changes in stride, cadence, joint ROM, and toeout angle, these changes in gait could not explain the significant reduction in loads at the joints. This suggests that the design of modern shoes may intrinsically predispose such patients to excessive loading of their lower extremities.
Michael Warburton of Gateway Physiotherapy (2) found that running in shoes appears to increase the risk of ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis and other chronic injuries of the lower limb. He also found that running in bare feet reduces oxygen consumption by a few percent = more efficiency. And I’ll agree with him that running shoes play an important protective role on some courses, in extreme weather conditions, and with certain pathologies of the lower limb.
Researchers Kong, Candelaria, and Smith from the University of Texas at El Paso (3) concluded that “runners should choose shoes for reasons other than cushioning technology.”
Phil Maffetone says in his book “In Fitness and in Health” (4, 1997):
For the most part, shoes are tested on machines, not people, because machines give the results the company wants and people don’t. A quick look in the medical journals will point out the abundant problems.
Did you know, for example, that the support systems in almost all shoes can weaken your ankles? And the soft, cushioned shoes of today can harm your feet? How about the height, in other words, the thickness of the sole? The farther above the ground you go in a shoe, the more unstable your foot becomes.
Scientific articles over the past decade or more strongly suggest that such protective features put in by shoe companies, including shock absorption and motion control actually increase the likelihood of injury.
Here’s a visual example of what happens to the body while running when wearing shoes versus barefoot:
Dr. Silverman from the New Jersey Sports Medicine and Performance Center created this video. This is the same runner on the same day, with no instruction given in between videos. On the left, the runner displays correct SHOELESS forefoot strike – good running technique. On the right, incorrect, wearing SHOES with heel strike, braking, and straining – incorrect and joint-damaging running technique.
A work boot is an extreme example that does the most damage to your feet over time (and to the rest of your body). Walking and running shoes and cross-trainers are still guilty of the same crime though, albeit to a lesser extent – they all limit your foot to a pre-determined movement pattern that is not natural. The take-home point is that wearing shoes will eventually lead to imbalances and injury. The other take-home point is that if you must wear shoes, take a minimalist view and adopt the philosophy of “less is better.”
The feet have ligaments and muscles just like the rest of the body, and they need to be exercised through a natural range of motion just like everything else. You wouldn’t put your hand in a cast before you go to work or to the gym, would you? (well, some people use gloves and wraps, which I almost always DO NOT recommend for these same reasons.)
Then why does our culture insist on doing the same thing to our feet? Well, for one – going barefoot doesn’t cost anything. It’s free, and that’s a pretty hard deal to beat for a shoe company. Obviously, the shoe execs want you to buy their shoes, and will tell you anything to get you to do it. So, there is advertising stating that shoes are better and healthier for your feet, and even for your performance – blah, blah, blah.
Like most messages in the health and fitness industry, this is only a half-truth. Sure, wearing shoes will help protect your feet from getting cut on glass or sharp rocks, etc. BUT, wearing an over-engineered shoe or boot will weaken your feet over time. So, it’s a catch 22! Protect your feet from the rough surfaces, but atrophy the muscles and ligaments of your feet.
And it makes sense too, how many shod runners do you know that don’t have an injury history longer than their laces? Sometimes, it seems like almost everyone who runs regularly has knee problems. Walk to any high school track and field meet and you’ll likely see half the team wearing knee wraps or taping from a sports medicine specialist. The sad truth is that these kids are usually better off than most adults.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’ve been there, done that, too. I wore running shoes every season of Fall Cross Country Running, Winter Track, and Spring Track and Field in high school – and I had the injuries to prove it (3 years in physical therapy to rehabilitate myself from over-training via long distance running – anecdotal evidence, I know).
Now, that’s just the movement half of the story. Some other problems that shoes contribute to include: athlete’s foot, deformed toes, hammer toes, and ingrown toenails.
Now we know the drawbacks of wearing shoes, what about the benefits of going shoeless…
We already know that wearing shoes leads to injury such as plantar fasciitis, shortened calf muscles, knee osteoarthritis, tight ilial tibial bands, and lower back pain, among many other things. We also already know that running barefoot takes about 4% less energy than running with shoes. So, here are some of the other benefits of barefooting.
- Running or walking barefoot will help to naturally improve your gait and carriage, which will improve your performance. More effeciency = more speed.
- Going barefoot will help to develop strength in the muscles and ligaments in your feet, legs, and hips that are inhibited and disintegrated when wearing shoes.
- You won’t get athletes foot or other odd foot odors if you aren’t getting sweaty from unventilated shoes.
- There’s nothing like walking on sand or grass in your bare feet. Seriously, the more you can enjoy nature, the better for your well-being.
- It’s free. I don’t even want to know how much I’ve spent on high class running shoes in the past… going barefoot will save you a lot of money!
Some more info about the barefoot vs. shoe debate…
So, where do we draw the line? Is there a healthy balance?
Obviously, we can’t just go barefoot all the time and everywhere. Society, propriety, and etiquette dictate when and where shoes are most appropriate, but you don’t need to wear them all the time. If you’re like me, then you’re looking for the most “bang for your buck” benefits without getting sucked into a subculture of hippies and other barefoot nerds.
Just start to go barefoot whenever you can – around the house, around your yard, and at the park or the beach. These are easy transitions to barefoot living, and probably a better idea anyway. If you’re accustomed to wearing footwear, then you will want to “break your feet in” to barefoot walking. The muscles and ligaments will need to strengthen before you can jump into full-time barefoot walking without injury – not to mention your soles too. You may find that after an hour or two of being barefoot, the tiny muscles in your feet start to get sore. That’s because they are now moving in a range of motion that they are not used to.
Progress intuitively, and only go barefoot when you’re comfortable. You may find that some surfaces hurt a little and have you waving your arms with every step, but eventually, your feet will be so tough (read tolerant, not insensitive), that you’ll be able to run over some pretty rough surfaces while barefoot like MovNat founder Erwan Le Corre:
Bare Minimum Footwear Alternatives
Of course, there are times when we simply do need to wear shoes. So, when going barefoot is not an option, there are some good minimalist alternatives.
In general, look for footwear that allows the most freedom of movement. If the shoe can bend, flex, and twist easily, it’s a winner. Some shoes are better than others, but I have found that Nike Free’s are a somewhat viable option (minus the tall heel), and some Puma shoes are also decent. My wife and I both wear Puma’s (rawwwr!)
I’ve heard nothing but good reports about Vivo Barefoot shoes. There are many different styles from dress, to casuals, to athletic:
Vibram Five Fingers have received a lot of positive reports:
Traditional Huarache’s by Barefoot Ted (the barefoot guru of the internet – you’ll definitely want to check out his site if barefoot walking or running interests you.):
Barefoot Ted has been testing these huarache sandals for years. Now, he makes them and sells them too. All he needs from you is payment and a paper tracing of your feet. If you can get past the “ancient empire” look, they will serve you well. He even has a free how-to guide, teaching you how to make your own huarache’s at home – or buy one of his kit’s to do-it-yourself.
More Barefoot Living Resources
The Bottom Line
Go barefoot whenever you can and only where you are comfortable. Shop for shoes that will allow the most freedom of movement around your feet and ankle joints. The less and lighter, the better for your health.
If anyone asks why you’re not wearing shoes, just look them directly in the eye, point up towards the sky, and say “the aliens took them.”
The Society for Barefoot Living would like you to know that…
- It is healthy for your feet to go barefoot.
- It is not against the law to go barefoot into any kind of establishment including restaurants.
- It is also not against any health department regulation.
- It is not against the law to drive barefoot.
To your health and success,
Fitness Professional and Barefooter
1) Najia Shakoor and Joel A. Block. ARTHRITIS & RHEUMATISM. Vol. 54, No. 9, September 2006, pp 2923–2927. DOI 10.1002/art.22123. © 2006, American College of Rheumatology. (read the rest of this study on Matt’s site here)
2) Michael Warburton. Barefoot Running. Gateway Physiotherapy, Capalaba, Queensland, Australia 4157. Sportscience 5(3), sportsci.org/jour/0103/mw.htm, 2001 (read the rest of this study here)
3) Kong PW, Candelaria NG, Smith D. Running in New and Worn Shoes – A Comparison of Three Types of Cushioning Footwear. University of Texas at El Paso, United States. (read the abstract here)
4) Maffetone, Phil. In Fitness and in Health. David Barmore Productions; 3rd Rev edition. June 1997.