By Angus Nicol
After reading the first two blog posts you’re probably ready to throw your shoes out right
now! But hold up there, partner. Our feet have become very accustomed to wearing shoes,
so transitioning to barefoot walking can take some time and patience. It’s important that
when you start walking barefoot that you start off slowly, even for as little as 15-20 minutes a day, and slowly increase the length of time. This will allow the muscles, tendons and ligaments in your foot to adapt without causing excessive load, stress or damage. You may wish to begin your barefoot journey inside on familiar surfaces, especially if you have balance issues. However, be aware that hard surfaces (eg concrete floors and tiles) will put more force and stress through your feet, so wooden or carpeted surfaces are preferable.
You can also test yourself on outdoor surfaces, again seeking out relatively flat and semi-
firm surfaces (eg turf/even grass, sandy beaches and/or rubber sports courts) but avoiding concrete/bichuman. You may also like to consider starting activities/exercise that require you to be barefoot - such as yoga, pilates or martial arts. If you are barefoot walking, please check your feet regularly for injury. Many people have conditions that lead to decreased sensation in the feet (a few examples include diabetes, peripheral neuropathies or circulation problems), therefore there is a risk of sustaining wounds without noticing and increasing risk
I wouldn’t be a good osteopath if I didn’t at some point mention everyone’s favourite thing…
REHAB EXERCISES (aka homework).
When beginning your barefoot journey, you can help your foot to adapt more quickly by doing additional exercises to help relieve the muscles and joints in the foot to help them tolerate the changes better. The photo below shows some simple exercises you can do. These exercises can be helpful for people who have foot pain already, and for people who are transitioning to barefoot walking. They should be performed for about one minute each, on both feet, 1-2x per day (so about 10-20mins). Whether you have foot pain, want to try walking barefoot, or just want to treat yourself - I encourage you to try them, because they feel so good! Or, if you have a loving partner or a really, REALLY good friend… ask for swapsies!
These days, there are many barefoot (“minimalist”) shoes available. These are designed to mimick and maintain the natural shape of the foot, and keep you as closely connected to the earth as possible, to allow the biomechanical benefits of barefoot walking, whilst also offering your feet protection. They are becoming more widely available in many different
styles to suit every occasion and purpose, and have come a long way from the classic “toe
shoes”. However beware, not all minimalist shoes are made equal, and some may share design flaws similar to that of conventional shoes (see my previous blog post!), so I highly recommend speaking to your local podiatrist or other foot-savvy health practitioner before deciding on a pair.
One more useful appliance which complements the barefoot movement are toe spacers.
These are basically designed to prevent, and slowly reverse, any changes to the forefoot
sustained by conventional footwear… and more specifically those sexy but pesky narrow toe
boxes. They can be helpful in alleviating a wide variety of foot pain from bunions,
hammertoes, other types of crooked toes, hallux valgus, ingrown toenails, sesamoiditis,
neuromas and capsulitis, as well as having encouraging the change responsible for many of
the benefits of barefoot walking. Similarly to barefoot walking, your foot needs to adjust to
using toe spacers.
One can start by wearing the spacers for shorter amounts of time and progress as comfortable. Start with 30-60 mins for 2-4 weeks. You can wear them in a variety of settings, including: In bed while sleeping, lounging around the house, during yoga and other barefoot workouts, at the beach, outdoors as part of a grounding practice.
It is also important to note that toe spacers are not compatible with all shoes and should NOT be worn in conjunction with orthotics or arch supports. Although orthotics and toe spacers share similar goals (offering support to areas of the foot and stabilising foot arches), orthotics do this in a passive process which opposes the active process in which toe spacers work. Please speak with a foot specialist before trying toe spacers to find out if they can be helpful for you.
By Angus Nicol
Remember that the shape of our shoes, alongside all the added cushion and support, alter
our normal walking pattern. Well guess what? Walking barefoot can help return them back to
normal (in time). When you walk barefoot, more of your foot makes direct contact with the
ground. This means that more proprioceptors (the nerve endings responsible for knowing a
body parts “position in space”) are stimulated - leading to improvements in body awareness
and balance, and reducing pain. It also means that you’ll be more weary and have more
control when your foot strikes the ground. The freedom and lack of rigidity associated with
barefoot walking means that all the joints are free to move through their full range of motion,
and over time the muscles in your legs and your feet will get stronger. Consequently, you will
gain a more stable arch and improved foot mechanics; and have a flow on effect of
potentially reducing the chance of injury and decreasing pain further up the chain in the
knees, hips and low back. All of these changes lead to restoration of a normal walking (gait)
cycle, happy soles… and some research suggests happy souls too (read on!).
I bet that sparked your interest, how could walking barefoot make my soul happy?
That sounds a bit far fetched, and yes… I might be exaggerating a bit, but it sounds good, right?
And it’s pretty accurate! Outside of the biomechanical advantages of barefoot walking, the
process of “grounding” or “earthing” is another understated advantage of stomping around
on Mother Earth - the greatest healer. We humans, like all other living creatures, are bioelectric beings. I won’t dive too deep on the sciencey stuff… all you need to know is that the human body carries a slightly positive charge, and the earth carries a slightly negative charge with an abundance of free electrons (who doesn’t like free stuff?!). Direct contact with the earth allows transference of these electrons and expulsion of excess electricity in the body. There is currently limited research in this area, however the available research isshowing some incredible findings!
Firstly, the transference of electrons from the earth to the body may help to neutralise free radicals (unpaired electrons) in the body, similarly to antioxidants, and relieve oxidative stress, thereby supporting healthy immune function. Grounding has been reported to increase energy and decrease fatigue, decrease cortisol (a slow release, long term stress hormone), decrease inflammation, increase circulation, decrease blood pressure, improve sleep and mood, lessen depression/anxiety, and lead to faster injury and wound healing times. Although further research is needed, emerging evidence is promising and risk free! In addition to barefoot walking, other ways to practice grounding are by laying on the ground (think star or cloud gazing, picnics, sun bathing etc), immersing yourself in natural bodies of water (beaches, lakes, rivers etc). Grounding indoors is a little more challenging, however there are now products available such as grounding mats, blankets, socks and patches that give you more access to these benefits.
Now, sticking to a more energetic approach, barefoot walking may also provide benefits
working within a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) paradigm. Have you ever heard of, or
experienced, foot reflexology? It works on the premise that particular areas of the foot
correlate with specific areas of the body. When pressure is applied to these areas, they are
stimulated and vital energy (or “Qi”) flows to the corresponding area of the body, helping
return the body back to balance and allowing the body to self heal. The scientific evidence
supporting foot reflexology is weak and not significant, however it is reported to share similar benefits to those of grounding. When you stand barefoot (especially on uneven surfaces) for an extended period you will apply pressure to different parts of the foot, thus initiating the Qi cascade to the corresponding area of the body.
Whether it be biomechanical, through grounding/earthing, or via TCM foot reflexology
principles, there is no doubt that barefoot walking has a plethora of far reaching benefits
throughout many areas and systems of the body. Please see Part III of this blog to see how
you can safely start your barefoot journey!
By Angus Nicol
What are your favourite pair of shoes? Are they your reliable, extra cushioned and supportive runners, your convenient and trusty thongs (or whatever you want to call them… pluggers, sandals, jandals) or styley Birkenstocks; your super fly leather boots or bootylicious high heels; or the cosiness of a good pair of fur-lined slippers/uggs? Or… do you prefer feeling the ground beneath your feet and the freedom which comes with walking barefoot?
Your feet are so important. They are your first and main point of contact with the earth, and they carry the weight of the rest of the body… so having foot problems can contribute to compensatory problems throughout the rest of the body! Therefore, it is important to take care of them.
I’m not here to tell you to throw all of your shoes away… they all serve their purpose. However, in this blog I would love to illuminate the features and limitations of modern conventional footwear, and conversely, and in Part II highlight the benefits of barefoot walking/using minimalist footwear, and also discuss how to ease into the transition.
Before we go into the benefits of walking barefoot, I feel it’s important to understand shoes. I want to show you the different parts of a shoe and what their function is, and then tell you the negative effect they may be having on your feet.
To try and keep it flowy, I’ll start at the back and work my way forward, and then out.
The heel of many conventional shoes are thick, causing them to be more elevated than the front. The most extreme example of this is high heels, however it is present in most forms of footwear, including mens boots and most runners. Elevated heels were designed to provide cushion & support, thus providing more comfort. They also act as a shock absorber, so less force is transmitted into the heel, ankle and up through the rest of the body. Sounds ideal, right? Maybe… but there are some negative consequences which potentially outweigh these benefits. This includes shortening (and consequently “tightening”) of calf muscles. If muscles are shortened, they are unable to contract fully and strongly, so this also decreases the efficiency and strength of these muscles. They also reduce the amount of natural arch support, particularly in the main arch of the foot (the medial longitudinal arch aka MLL), which leads to the foot turning in too much (“overpronation”). Overpronation is made worse in shoes with a narrow toe box (keep reading, you’ll learn about this soon).
The middle part of the shoe, where your arch sits, is called the midsole. The midsole of many shoes, particularly runners, will include an inner sole (the spongy layer of foam in the bottom of the shoe) that has arch support. This arch support may be necessary due to the heel elevation and collapse of the MLL, or helpful for people with “flat feet”. However, these act as a band-aid solution to the underlying issues in the foot leading to collapsed arches. Furthermore, over time your body will adapt and may become reliant on this arch support, and the small muscles which should provide stability and maintain this arch can become lazy and weak, causing excerbation of the issue.
The front part of the shoe, the part that houses your toes, is aptly named the toe box. It may be sleek and stylish to have a narrow toe box that ends in a tapered point. However, this is like your forefoot having a giant squishy hug from a grizzly bear, causing compression of the bones and joints in the toes and the foot. Narrow toe boxes are a leading cause of foot injuries/conditions including bunions, hammertoes, plantar fasciosis, neuromas and ingrown toenails… just to name a few.
However, the negative effects can be seen further up the kinetic chain too, and may contribute to knee osteoarthritis, shin splints and runners knee. The very end of the toe box, where the toe is pointed upwards, is known as the toe spring. It is designed to decrease rigidity of the shoe, allowing us to flow easily from heel-to-toe for a nice smooth walking pattern. However, the elevation at the front means our toes have less contact with the ground, so when shift our weight towards the toe box, most of the force is being absorbed by the metatarsals (the bones that connect our toes to the rest of our foot), which can cause or contribute to many of the conditions mentioned above.
The outermost layer of the bottom (sole) of the foot is the outsole, this is the part that directly contacts the ground. These are often designed with materials that provide cushion and rigidity. However, the more cushion there is in a shoe, and the more rigid it is, the less contact and “feel” your foot has with the surface underneath. Our feet are filled with tiny nerve receptors called proprioceptors, which provide feedback to our brain about joints (and our body as a whole) “position in space”, and contributes largely to our sense of balance. Our brain receives information from proprioceptors and responds by sending messages to our muscles to contract, allowing movement in all directions, and adaptation of our feet to the surface below. The rigidity of an outsole only allows the foot to flex and extend, and less contact area between the foot and the ground means less proprioceptors are stimulated, which means that the brain receives less sensory information and less movement messages relayed back down the chain. Over time this can lead to weakening and atrophy (shrinkage) of the muscles that stabilise the arches of the foot.
Phew… that was a lot to take in. Are you still with me?
The good news is, that’s the hard part done. Next, I want to tell you about the benefits of walking barefoot… which to an extent, is just the reverse of the limitations of wearing footwear (plus a few extra little goodies!).
Please see Part 2 of this Blog Post for the benefits of barefoot walking, how to start your barefoot journey, and some other helpful tips and hints.
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