Why Ditching Your Shoes for Exercise Might be Healthier

The idea of running barefoot may sound shocking to some of you, but it is an activity that nearly all of us have done, admittedly usually as children.

If you get the opportunity, watch an infant walking barefoot; they actually display the correct walking technique that we adults have lost touch with -- because they are still paying attention to the way their feet tell them to move.

Your feet were actually brilliantly designed, and they work best without shoes. So when you surround your feet with the extra padding and protection that most athletic shoes offer, your foot muscles are not being used appropriately.

Chris McDougall, who is featured in the video above and is the author of the very inspiring book Born to Run, put it well when he said:

“The foot is the greatest disciplinarian. You can’t over-pronate, can’t over-train, can’t over-stride … if you do anything wrong, the foot will tell you `uh uh, don’t do that’. Shoes are like morphine: a sedative that deadens the pain.”

A signal of this is how very good it feels to run, or even walk, barefoot through a grassy park or on the beach. If you haven’t done this recently (or ever), I highly recommend you give it a try.

Barefoot running has been described as a lost art, and certainly people have been doing it for centuries. Marathon runners in Kenya actually do it all the time, and McDougall’s book describes the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons, who are able to run for hundreds of miles without rest to chase down deer -- all barefoot of course.

What Does Science Say About Barefoot Running?

Science backing barefoot running is still rather sparse (after all, what corporation could benefit from sponsoring a study about barefoot running? Not many … ), but research by Michael Warburton, a physical therapist in Australia, found that running barefoot decreases the likelihood of ankle sprains and chronic injuries, such as plantar fasciitis.

He writes in the journal Sports Science:

“Running barefoot is associated with a substantially lower prevalence of acute injuries of the ankle and chronic injuries of the lower leg in developing countries, but well-designed studies of the effects of barefoot and shod running on injury are lacking.

Laboratory studies show that the energy cost of running is reduced by about 4% when the feet are not shod. In spite of these apparent benefits, barefoot running is rare in competition, and there are no published controlled trials of the effects of running barefoot on simulated or real competitive performance.”

Upon reviewing the handful of research studies he could find, Warburton found:

  • Running-related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare in developing countries, where most people are habitually barefooted

  • Where barefoot and shod populations co-exist, as in Haiti, injury rates of the lower extremity are substantially higher in the shod population

  • Wearing footwear actually increases the likelihood of ankle sprains, one of the most common sports injuries, because it either decreases your awareness of foot position or increases the twisting torque on your ankle during a stumble

  • One of the most common chronic injuries in runners, planter fasciitis (an inflammation of the ligament running along the sole of your foot) is rare in barefoot populations

  • Running in bare feet reduces oxygen consumption by a few percent.

For Best Efficiency, You Should Walk Like a Fox

Much of the problem of wearing shoes comes from the way they cushion your foot, to the extent that your feet no longer naturally adjust your gait for optimum efficiency and safety.

Because of this it’s been suggested that shoes lead to what’s called “cow-walk.”

Cow-walk puts tremendous pressure on your joints. Starting with the squeezing of your foot inside the shoe, jarring the knees as they're locked straight upon the pole-driving impact of the heel, which then travels straight up your spine, all the way up your neck.

In contrast, "fox-walking" is the walk of the natural hunter-gatherer -- the graceful flow of your body in total synchronization. Your knees are bent, rather than locked, the ball of your foot touches the ground first, followed by your heel, in a virtually soundless step motion. This is the natural gait that should occur when you walk barefoot (and you can often still observe this in action in children).

Spending Time Barefoot Keeps You Grounded, Literally

Another primary reason why walking or running barefoot might be helpful is that it allows free electrons from the earth to pass into your body and essentially provide you with loads of great antioxidant potential. Very few of us currently touch the earth’s surface as we are nearly always wearing shoes.

Well, for most of history our ancestors did not wear shoes and had this type of regular contact with the earth, either by walking, running or sleeping on the ground. In other words, they were grounded through much of the day, and most of us are not.

When you are "grounded" free electrons can easily come up from the earth and essentially nullify free radicals in your body.

My Personal Experience

Many of you may know that I am a major advocate of exercise and was passionate about it long before my interest in nutrition. I actually started running in 1968 and ran for 41 consecutive years before I finally stopped earlier this year. I just got tired of running. I never thought I would, but I did.

So I’ve put running aside in favor of a more varied workout.

I used to compete in college and ran a 2:50 marathon and sub 5:00 miles. By today's standards, that isn't very good.  But back then I would have been in the top 10 of most of the local races I competed in.

About two years ago I first learned of Vibram Five Finger shoes. They actually have no arch support and have a pocket for each of your toes. I originally didn’t like wearing them as I thought they were uncomfortable. So, I returned them.

But earlier this year (after I stopped running), I was prompted by a blog post by one of my friends, Tim Ferriss, who felt that Vibram Five Finger shoes provided a modern-day equivalent to barefoot running.

As a result, I bought another pair, fell in love with them and wear them constantly. About the only time in the last three months I didn’t wear them was when I was lecturing professionally. I was actually even tempted to wear them then. If I was still running I would use them.

They look a bit different and are a major source of conversation. When I was in Europe earlier this summer I noticed that. So if you want to spice up your social life, they are highly recommended.

But, they are only sold online and are somewhat of a pain to get. I had to return three pairs before I finally found a size that fit. But overall it was more than worth it as these are my new shoes.

Unfortunately, winter is fast approaching in Chicago, so I can't wear them. But January 1 I will be in Maui where I'll be able to wear them again.

Vibram Five Fingers

I do believe they are superior to most shoes. Although I could care less what people think of how I dress, many might be sartorially challenged with them. They are probably not as good as actually running barefoot, but they are useful in terms of protecting your feet from sharp objects, hard pavement or cold weather.

Are You Thinking of Trying Barefoot Running?

If you decide to give actual barefoot running a try make sure you do it slowly, progressing gradually to more and more time spent without shoes. A good starting point is to first try walking barefoot and then begin with quarter-mile barefoot runs.

Keep in mind also that your gait will be different than it is with your shoes on. Listen to your body and try to tune in to your innate knowledge of how to run and walk barefoot.

Also, when you start going barefoot it is best to start out on naturally softer ground like grass, dirt paths and sand, not cement, asphalt or hardwood. When the muscles and joints of your foot become more stable and the skin on the bottom of your feet thickens, you will be able to handle progressively more time barefoot and on a wider variety of surfaces.

If running barefoot sounds like too drastic a step, you can also start out gradually just by spending more time without your shoes on.

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