The large offer of barefoot models, the growing society interest in this footwear contribute the human come back to natural walking. But how do we go back to nature after years of having our feet work in a completely different way? What to keep in mind and how to transition without any harm?
AUTOMATIC? UNFORTUNATELY NOT…
If we do not suffer from some serious medical condition, all of us are somehow capable of walking. Even when the foot does not have ideal conditions for its function, it manages to adapt. However, such kind of walking cannot be called natural. As such unideal habits fixate through frequent repetition, the transition to barefoot shoes in adulthood is far more demanding. The situation is different in children. If small children walk in barefoots since their first steps, they fixate the right habits from the very start and it is a smooth process. Therefore, it would be a mistake to assume that a body in adulthood will automatically know what to do just after putting barefoots on. It is essential to prepare feet for this situation and observe how walking barefoot feels for the feet. If one pays attention to thorough preparation and difficulty level adjusted to the current shape of their feet, all the preconditions for successful transition from conventional footwear to barefoot are met.
MOST COMMON MISTAKES
If the foot is not sufficiently prepared for the new workload caused by barefoot walking it is in the stage Clara Lewit calls the “sleeping foot” when the sensing is limited. If the foot cannot adequately sense the terrain, the muscle reactions are poor. For example, the sleeping foot will not send signals of possible danger soon enough. In such case there is a risk of harm by a sharp object, ankle sprain or long-term overburden of feet, knees, hips, or spine from unconscious stomping. How to start waking up the feet and prepare them for barefoot walking you can find out in our article and video How to manage the transition to barefoot shoes.
Many beginners starting with barefoots quickly realize the hard landing of the heels. That also occurs in conventional footwear, but the thick sole softens the signals and so just a fraction of them is sent to the brain. From the long-term point of view such situation is dangerous and responsible for many problems with joints, tendons, and muscles . There are two factors contributing to the hard landing on the heels – elongated steps, and passive toes. The self-evident solution would be to simply stop putting the pressure on the heels. But this only works when we actively think about it. Conscious correction fails if our concentration divides between more activities, and it is a very physically as well as mentally tiring process. What is much more effective is using our tiptoes for active bounce. This kind of bounce ensures the change of swinging phase of walking and the feet then land on the surface more softly and on a larger area. This naturally shortens the step length that also contributes to the optimal feet contact with the surface.
SPECIFICS OF WALKING IN BAREFOOTS
When walking barefoot the step spontaneously gets shorter. In barefoot shoes we can achieve this by putting our feet rather “under us” than in front of us. Like so, we can avoid stomping on the heels and allow the body to have better suspension from the sole, and prospectively also from the knees. It is important, at least in the beginning, not to rush in barefoot shoes. As when we rush, we generally lengthen our steps and so the feet land on heels. When rushing is inevitable it is better to increase the number of steps. Already mentioned bounce from toe tips also aids the optimal step length. It is important to note that this kind of bounce cannot be achieved wearing sliders, shoes with lifted toe box or in a shoe that is too loose. All these cases cause feet to use toes to hold the shoe during the step. In other words, quality bounce from the toes can only be achieved barefoot or in barefoot shoes. Speaking from experience I can say that this bouncing function of toes often disappears in conventional footwear and the process of regaining it is often strenuous, even if feet have been working in barefoot shoes for some time.
Photo – two types of bounce: (1) ideal bounce from tip toes, (2) wrong bounce from metatarsals, that has a negative impact on the transverse arch.
DO NOT OVERTHINK IT
Many things have been written before about the right technique of walking. Rather than discussing details I feel it is more important to mention that too much control blocks naturalness. The main goal of rediscovering barefoot walking is not to distort the automatic naturalness of walking through excessive correction. Excessive concentration and constant control makes walking unnatural and energetically draining. I recommend to do the most work before the actual walk, in the preparation phase. To wake the sleeping foot up by any kind of stimulation before the stroll (for example using the physiotherapy hedgehog ball). And during the actual walk to harvest the fruits as the awakened feet give body adequate signals and supports its own optimal function. Well prepared body then functions on its own and uses most of its potential.
It is sufficient to set small sections for working to learn walk properly during our walks. And in those sections to fully concentrate and perceive or correct the way our feet land or other aspects of quality movement. Ideally, if we train this way on a specific walk we take everyday, for example on our way to work. The principle of this way of traning is adding little pieces of new stimuli that gradually integrate into our automatic movement.
FEELINGS ARE KEY
At the start try to take off your shoes and walk barefoot in a terrain where you would like to try walking in barefoot shoes. Perceive carefully what your bare feet can feel. Think about how your way of walking changes. If your foot is awake, barefoot walking is likely slower, more careful and feet land on the ground very softly. In barefoot shoes we should ideally have similar feeling and concentration to actual barefoot walking. Barefoot footwear brings focus on what we do at the moment, awakens feet and our bodies’ connection to our feet. It is not always easy but long-term benefits of barefoot walking significantly outweigh the energy we put in the transition process. Keep it up, observe and enjoy!