Walking barefoot was all the rage a few tens of thousands of years ago and back before we had shoes everyone was doing it. Since then it went a bit out of style, but like everything it's gone full circle and more and more people are starting once again to go out barefoot.
The reason for this barefoot revival is quite simply that going barefoot has been shown to have various benefits for our health and fitness which make the slight discomfort more than worth it. Another reason for the revival is 'Vibram Five Fingers' which are a range of 'shoes' from Vibram that aim to mimic the experience of going barefoot by providing you with just a thin protective rubber layer and lots of grip which can help you to avoid tripping over or stepping on glass and keep your feet at the right temperature. This then means that you are able to enjoy the benefits of walking barefoot without the negative aspects, and it means that you can go barefoot despite the modern tendency to tarmac everything...
The Problem With Shoes
So what are these benefits and how do they work? Well essentially the idea is that over thousands of years the human body, including the human foot and the human legs, evolved in order to provide us with the optimum mode of transport and that's what our body is designed for. When we evolved though, we didn't have shoes and so our body is actually designed to walk on bare feet. And unfortunately the difference between shoes and going barefoot is more than just cosmetic, and if you walk in shoes this is an entirely different process to walking barefoot. If you walk in shoes you have support on your ankle and your bridge and you have a huge heal that pads the bottom of your foot, changes your stride and alters the angle that you walk – and none of this is what we're designed for.
That support for instance is often touted as a benefit of certain shoes and trainers and thought to be one of the better features of expensive shoes. This is because it can help to prevent muscle strain and twisted/sprained ankles. In reality however this is actually not a good thing as such, as though it would help to prevent injury in the short run, what it would also do is to provide you with too much protection and get you used to it. In other words you wouldn't get the same about of muscle development because your muscles wouldn't be used in the same way to support yourself. This will ultimately mean you're more likely to injure your ankle or trip over and that your muscles won't be as developed.
Likewise the fact that you have a big heel stuck to the bottom of your foot that shouldn't be there is also a problem. This huge heel weighs you down and alters the way you walk, causing you to step onto your heal first and to 'roll through' onto the ball of your foot. This is not the way we would originally have walked and it leads to us being less efficient at walking and again more prone to injury. This all relates to the study of 'biomechanics' which is the science of the exact motion of your legs and feet and the angle in which it hits the floor.
This then further impacts on your muscle development. First and foremost your feet will not be involved at all in the way you walk – they will be insulated inside the shoe on a permanently flat surface and will not be able to grip or adapt to the surface – they become obsolete and the muscles in our feet are wasted as a result. Then at the same time the fact that your legs are hitting the floor in a strange order means that you end up with too much muscle development in some areas and not enough in others – and that can lead to imbalances that result in knee pain, backache and other problems.
Balance and Feedback
Finally if you wear shoes this then means that you are in essence standing on a flat slippery platform at all times. That in turn means that your foot is high up and can 'fall' causing you to twist your ankle. Step on a stone or twig and the whole shoe tips rather than just letting your foot bend to shape onto the stone as it would normally. Likewise if you slip you won't be able to grip on with your toes, and you can't use the tip of your foot to climb or to support yourself.
You also won't get much purchase on the ground in general and you won't be able to feel what's underneath your foot (in order to adjust your stance or gait). All this then means that if you are in shoes you are less connected to the ground beneath you and more likely to slip or fall over.
Benefits of Barefoot
So those are the negative aspects of shoes – and the benefits of barefoot are of course the opposite of this – you do feel more connected to the ground and you can grip onto surfaces to get purchase and avoid falling over. Likewise you will be developing your foot muscles by using them adaptively to shape to the ground. This then means that they become stronger and you become more efficient and less likely to fall over. You also become better at long distance running and less likely to gain weight as a result.
Many tribes still exist barefoot and go out hunting for food and following trails barefooted – and they are known for being able to run for miles without slowing down or tiring – and part of this is due to the far more efficient way in which they are using their feet. Of course walking they won't get tired at all.
When you're in shoes your toes become obsolete and useless – where in reality they are designed to be able to help you adapt to the ground below you and even to wrap around things to help you climb them or pick them up. Using barefoot running you can get this back – and when you step on things you'll see your toes splay and dig in and generally adapt to the ground underneath to stop you falling and give you more purchase.
And further, simply because you have the extra muscle on your feet you'll find that you end up burning fat and producing more growth hormone (which in turn results in more muscle development in other areas of the body and even the faster healing of wounds). This is simply how the body works and the more muscle you have, the more fat you burn.
You will also be using better biomechanics and this will cause you to develop more even muscle – eradicating such problems as shin splints, knee pain and back ache. And then there are all these other little benefits you get from going barefoot – the fact that you don't need to carry shoes, the money you save, and how light footed you are as a result of not carrying them around on your feet.
It's not just walking barefoot that's good for you. As mentioned running barefoot allows you to run for greater distances, faster and without tiring. Your biomechanics change, you spring off the ball of your feet the way you're meant to and you run faster as a result.
Further though for those into rock climbing, mountaineering, parkour and other such sports it's a huge bonus as it allows you to feel what's under your feet and so balance much better. At the same time it allows you to grip onto surfaces so you can climb sheer rock faces and trees and everything else. You run faster, and you can fit your feet into narrow gaps. You can fit your toes around the gaps in fences, and you can stand on incredibly thin ledges. In other words, if you go barefoot or use Vibram Five Fingers you become almost like Spider-Man or a monkey and discover true agility you never knew you had.
Downsides of Going Barefoot
Of course there are downsides to going barefoot too. For instance you will look strange and you'll find that you are told you're not allowed into shops. You'll have to carry spare shoes or slippers just so you can put them on before you head in (sandals are a great option). Some states and countries make it the law to wear shoes when driving too.
At the same time your feet will get dirty and the bottoms of your feet in particular will be black when you get home. This is something that's unattractive and off putting for many people and especially as when visiting guests you don't always have the option to wash your feet.
Meanwhile your feet too will change permanently and you will find you develop calluses and marks on your feet which make them again unattractive – your partner likely won't thank you. Then if you go barefoot with friends you might find you're creating a bit of a smell and this is also something that can be off putting for other people.
In those senses it's antisocial and a bit of a drag. At the same time there are health reasons not to go barefoot. For instance if you drop something on your foot it will damage it, or if you step on glass. You also won't be able to jump from heights if you are into parkour or trail running – the solution to that though is to develop better technique and to look where you're walking and this will actually be good for you in the long run and prevent more problems. You'll also find that at first your feet hurt as a result of going barefoot and this can be unpleasant and alarming at first. And then there's the small matter of your feet getting cold and wet and you can also lose a lot of general body heat through your feet meaning that you end up feeling colder in general.
The pros outweigh the cons when it comes to going barefoot, but unfortunately those cons are pretty hard to navigate and often the law and other people make it impossible.
Vibram Five Fingers
The Vibram Five Fingers however offer a great compromise, and you'll still be allowed out in public and able to walk on concrete despite having many of the benefits of going barefoot. Furthermore you won't need to worry about stepping on things or about your feet getting too cold.
There still are some downsides though. One is that having material between your toes for prolonged periods can get a little sweaty and uncomfortable. Another is that they can still let water in if you step in a puddle and you will likely spend a great deal of time with wet feet. And finally people will still stare at you, so if you're the self conscious type that's not ideal.
In short there is a lot to be said for running barefoot, but the problems unfortunately make it largely unfeasible. However when running, walking your dogs, doing sports, or just running errands, it perhaps is an option – and if you wear Vibram Five Fingers then you can get away with the benefits of going barefoot even more regularly. It's certainly worth investing in a pair, having a go, and at least being aware of the benefits.