Barefoot and antisocial
By Sheena Fraser
15th Nov, 2021
I broke a societal norm this week, I turned up to my HIIT class with bare feet. My classmates were taken aback and the class instructor was obviously shocked and pleaded with me to put my trainers on as I was evidently “breaching health and safety”. I felt like a kid in school again, I didn’t want to be the odd one out, I just wanted to fix my calf pain.
You see, over the last few years I have been on a journey of discovery about my own health and wellbeing and when I started running I experimented with bare foot shoes in an attempt to resolve the pain in my feet from osteoarthritis. What I found was that I could run much easier with bare foot shoes without my feet hurting at all. With time I noticed my feet getting stronger and more flexible and gradually I have changed over to wearing bare foot shoes all the time. This wasn’t that hard, as with every heeled shoe I threw away, my feet seemed to get stronger and I even managed to resolve most of the aches and pains in my feet, knees and back. I was a bit upset at first, when contemplating a life without my Doc Martins, though I definitely don’t miss high heels!
I’m always surprised at people’s reaction to me wearing bare foot shoes “don’t you get sore feet?” Is the most common remark or “I couldn’t wear those because I have knee/foot/ankle pain” is another. These remarks amuse me since it was my pains that drove me to these shoes in the first place and they are the very thing that has fixed them. But like in my class, the societal norm is that when we have a pain in our legs or feet we pad our shoes up with extra cushioning, heel support, arch support, ankle support as if our feet were to collapse without all this splinting.
Well, my feet haven’t collapsed yet and there is good reason for this, quite simply our feet are designed to support us – better than any shoe could do – they are the best cushioning we could ask for and if we look after them they should last a lifetime.
A study on children comparing the influence of footwear (Wolf et al, 2008) on foot motion found a significant difference to motion patterns especially in the forefoot when wearing commercial footwear compared to barefoot. The writers hypothesised that this may contribute to foot problems later in life. From my own experience with my triathlete daughter, we switched to minimal shoes after she suffered months of knee pain which didn’t respond to physiotherapy. We noticed a resolution in her symptoms away from cushioned shoes, which haven’t returned since.
It’s not just children who benefit from a lack of foot support. An article looking at the impact of wearing minimal shoes (flat and flexible shoes with little heel rise) compared with conventional shoes (cushioned shoes with arch support and heel lift); found that minimal shoes improved posture and dynamic stability. The same researchers have also found that switching to a minimal shoe for day to day walking for 6 months increases foot strength by 60% in a 2021 study.
For millions of years we exercised in bare feet or applied a piece of leather to our feet to protect us from the elements. This developed into a fairly minimal flexible shoe until the 1970’s when we started adding cushioning and support to our shoes.
In fact our feet are the only part of our bodies we continue to splint and support even in the absence of injury or pain so its no real surprise that modern shoes weaken our feet and affect our balance and posture.
So if our feet are more flexible, stronger and dynamically stable with improved motion pattern in minimal shoes why are cushioned shoes so popular? I believe it comes down to the huge amount of advertising and money that goes in to developing the latest trend in shoes for all occasions. I can’t imaging that shoe companies would be interested in any evidence which would threaten their shoe production. The advertising has been so successful that people now genuinely believe that cushioning their feet is the best thing for them. This way of thinking is even supported by many of the health profession, including podiatrists and orthopaedic surgeons. Barefoot running has also received some bad press with people injuring themselves in the transition from cushioned footwear to barefoot shoe. Unfortunately this can happen if you make the change too quickly and don’t allow your feet, and Achilles especially, to adapt to the change. This isn’t really the fault of the barefoot shoe, more the fault of the years of cushioned shoe wearing that leads to the deconditioning.
However, the tide is starting to change and a Harvard University doctor in Biomechanics has been leading the way with managing foot and leg injuries with barefoot shoes (see Peter Attia podcast episode 128). There are also an increasing number of companies offering minimal and barefoot shoes now, but we still don’t have anywhere near the range of choice for people who like to set a fashion statement with their feet. When it came to looking for minimal school shoes that were weather proof for my daughter I only found one brand that ticked all the boxes and would be accepted by her school. Many minimal or barefoot shoes are not available in high street stores as they are still considered a specialist shoe, so its not that easy shopping for minimal or barefoot shoes.
So, what of my class, well I didn’t go bare footed as a fad, or to upset my instructor! In the last few months I have been trying to address some calf tightness and realised that my running form was still not perfect, so I consulted a coach with an interest in barefoot running who recommended that I do more exercise completely bare foot to improve my form. This strategy has been working well with me doing HIIT exercises at home with bare feet so I wanted to continue this in my gym class. After all there are plenty of other bare footed classes – yoga, Pilates, karate. So I did the class and my feet felt great; strong, supple and well balanced. My calves were much less painful and I had no injuries. So I wrote this blog to reassure my fitness instructor that I really am ok exercising bare feet despite how strange it may look and I hope with time that more people may start doing the same.
- Foot Motion in children’s shoes – a comparison of barefoot walking with shod walking in conventional and flexible shoes. Sebastian Wolf et al; Gait and Posture; 27 (2008), 51-59
- Minimal footwear improves stability and physical function in middle age and older people compared with conventional shoes. Tomas Cudejko; Clinical Biomechanics; 71 (2020) 139-145.
- Daily activity in minimal footwear increases foot strength. Rory Curtis et al; Scientific Reports; 2021; 11:18648
- Running, an evolutionary medical perspective. Daniel E. Lieberman; Exercise and sports sciences reviews; American college of sports medicine 2012.