Dos And Dont’s Of Barefoot Walking
Learn how ditching your shoes can reduce pain and prevent future injuries
By Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie May 1, 2012
Dos And Dont’s Of Barefoot Walking
For new walkers, like toddlers, feeling the ground beneath their feet is essential to learning to become mobile. It’s how they learn to coordinate the muscles from their legs to their toes to balance upright and get where they want to go, explains Marlene Reid, DPM, a podiatric surgeon in Naperville, IL. But since we all start shoving our feet into shoes by preschool, some experts believe we’re inhibiting the senses in our feet and causing the tiny muscles to weaken like an arm or leg that’s been in a cast. “Feet are sophisticated parts packed with bones, ligaments, and muscles that provide support through the arches,” says Amy Matthews, a movement analyst who teaches anatomy and kinesiology to yoga instructors as well as conducts workshops exclusively on the feet. “Shoes can make the feet passive and unconscious because they do all the work for us.”
While advocates for the barefoot running trend say this shoeless sport may help reduce injuries and enhance running efficiency, we found out that walkers can benefit from a shoeless practice as well. Passive feet may be to blame for aches and pains you feel in your knees, back, and even neck, explains Matthews. But you can benefit from barefoot training even if you don’t have aches and pains. Reconnecting with the tiny muscles and the senses in your feet can help you use your whole body more effectively, warding off future injuries. Here are some get-started tips for healthier walking from the ground up:
Do: Get Hands-On With Your Feet
Wake up your feet by improving their sensory awareness. Wiggle your toes in relationship with each other and see if you can control individual movement in each one (many of us can’t tell the difference between the second and third toes at first). Touch the tops, bottoms, and tips of the toes, and pay attention to how that feels. Find different ways your foot can flex and move that you never realized before—there are 26 joints that make up your toes and foot, plus moveable joints between each of those bones . Discovering the many ways your feet move will help them become agile so they absorb stress better.
Don’t: Try To Do Too Much At Once
It’s better to practice for 10 minutes a day than an hour once a week, says Matthews. One big reason: frustration. Trying to peel your pinky toe off the ground by itself may seem futile if it just doesn’t budge. “The feet will change, though, and your brain can adapt,” insists Matthews. “When I do workshops, I warn people that trying to change the patterns of our feet can be profoundly unsettling, and you may find it makes you feel angry, or even nauseated, at first.”
The Right Way to Walk Barefoot]
Do: Focus On Your Foundation
Take a walk around and see where you feel the weight land in your foot. Notice where it lands first and how it travels through your foot. If it goes from your heel to your big toe right away, experiment with shifting your weight so that the weight goes from your heel to your little toe and then across to the big toe. The bones in the outer part of the foot are the largest and the best equipped to support the weight of your body, says Matthews, whereas landing on a heel and going directly to your big toe collapses the arch inward. This small change—learning to use the larger, outer foot bones to create the foundation of your walk—can help support your knees, your pelvic floor, and even the deepest muscles of your abdomen. You’ll feel the difference right away, but over weeks of practice, these core muscles will get stronger from the inside out.
Don’t: Be Afraid To Land Heel First
According to the barefoot running craze, landing heel first is a no-no, but a healthy walking stride is different from a healthy running stride and a heel-first landing is fine for walkers. This is because runners leave the ground completely, whereas walkers always have one foot on the ground. To improve your stride, think about taking shorter, softer steps, which subject your joints to less impact. Place your foot down before you put any weight on it—something that will likely come naturally if you’re barefoot—and try to avoid stepping hard onto a sharp rock.
Your 10 Biggest Walking Pains, Solved
Do: Scout For Safe Surfaces
The softer ground you can find, the better it will feel on your feet. While some die-hard barefooters go bravely across concrete, for most of us, there’s no need to ask that of our hardworking soles. After all, the feel of grass or sand between our toes is half the fun, right? As a beginner, a grassy park or a beach—if you’re lucky enough to live near one—is a great place to start. If you find you want to get serious about logging miles barefoot, the rubber track at a local high school should be a relatively safe and forgiving surface once the soles of your feet get used to the knobby texture (this could take a couple of days or a couple of weeks, depending on how sensitive your soles are). Dirt trails are another back-to-the-earth option that many barefoot hikers swear by. Steer clear of gravel trails, at least to start, but as you get used to feeling things underfoot (and your soles get tougher), you may find that gravel is not such a big deal after all.
Don’t: Be Afraid Of Germs
Sure, the world is a pretty gross place if you think about it, but as long as you don’t have any broken skin or open wounds, the skin does a pretty good job of protecting us, says Matthews, who spends much of her life barefoot in yoga studios and clients’ homes. “After all, it’s damp, dirty socks inside of shoes that really harbor bacteria,” she says. Still, the NYC dweller doesn’t take to the sidewalk shoeless. Rather, with years of barefoot practice, she’s learned to tune in to her feet even when they’re in shoes.
Where to Walk Barefoot
Do: Become A Barefoot Tourist
Do Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (of Barefoot in the Park fame) one better and plan a trip to visit a park that specializes in going barefoot. Over 100 shoe-free parks and paths were founded across Europe in the past 20 years, offering the ultimate sensory experience with specially designed walking paths that meander over grass, logs, smooth stones, water, and even mud. While you can certainly kick off your shoes in any park, these destinations typically offer a setup that includes a secure place for your shoes and a means to wash off the dirt when you’re done.
Don’t: Go Bare All At Once
The same rules apply for any new exercise—too much too soon can leave you sore or, worse, injured. And barefoot walking is no exception. If you’re a regular walker, end your walk in a grassy field, where you can take off your shoes and do a couple of laps au naturel. Start with no more than 20 minutes and listen to your body, easing off if it feels uncomfortable and icing any sore areas that may crop up. If you find your walking pace is slower than normal, that’s okay, but if you feel any sharp or shooting pain, or have discomfort that keeps you from walking normally with or without shoes, lay off the barefoot walking until you can discuss it with a doctor.