What’s the first thing you do when you walk in your house? If you answered, “Take off my shoes,” then give yourself a pat on the back.
Barefoot is beautiful. A man named Tony Riddle just finished running 30 miles for 30 consecutive days. His journey took him from Britain’s southernmost point to its northernmost village on the Scottish mainland, almost 900 miles in all.
The craziest part? He spent the entire time barefoot.
In a great cosmic wink, a friend shared a podcast about Tony’s adventure on the same day I bought new running shoes. I didn’t go to an expensive run shop and have my feet measured. I didn’t spend a mortgage payment on them. I bought a $50 pair of New Balance “street shoes,” size six, and pulled the insert out of them.
Street shoes are designed for fashion, a shoe you wear with a cute outfit rather than a shoe you exercise in. With the insert gone, my shoes now have close to a zero drop from heel to toe, no arch support or cushioning, and probably a 5 millimeter sole. Skip the socks and, while not exactly barefoot, it’s still a far cry from what most people have been taught entails an appropriate shoe.
My love for “as little shoe as possible” is based on building strong proprioception, or how I understand where my body exists in space. Our feet are constantly in communication with our brain. There are 26 bones, 33 joints, 20 muscles, and hundreds of nerve receptors, tendons, and ligaments in the feet. Those joints require a range of motion that is inhibited in shoes. When you’re barefoot, you engage your vision, your brain, your nerves, the soles of your feet, and all the muscles, bones, tendons, and supporting structures of your feet and legs. Everything works together, and messages are relayed efficiently between these things. When we train barefoot, or place as little between our feet and the actual earth as possible, we fall into our natural gait, or the walking pattern specific to our unique body.
Now let’s say you have on cushy socks, shoes with lots of padding, and possibly inserts. Your body’s proprioceptive system loses a lot of input. When you are disconnected from what’s happening inside, you get injured. Biomechanically, we use fewer muscles to walk or run in shoes than barefoot. So shoes often prevent you from using muscles that might strengthen the entire body, leading to balance issues over time. Your body forgets its natural gait.
When you shed the shoes, your body naturally builds you the “shoe” you need through calluses. Contrary to popular belief, calluses do not make feet any less sensitive. This makes evolutionary sense. Cave men – who did not have access to zappos.com – used calluses to protect the part of the foot that naturally hit the ground most often, since it wasn’t advantageous to lose sensation and thus communication between their feet and their brain. It’s still the same for us. Calluses will grow thicker when you spend more time barefoot, but there is no proprioceptive trade-off. So do not ever shave your calluses when you get a pedicure; that thick skin –mostly keratin proteins – was designed specifically to transmit mechanical force to the nerves of the foot, ankle, leg, and hip.
Further, bare feet receive electrons from the earth that make us healthier. Grounding the body allows negatively charged antioxidant electrons from the earth to enter the body and neutralize positively charged free radicals in inflamed areas. Sounds crazy, right? Scientists have actually documented a reduction in inflammation using MRI while measuring blood chemistry and white blood cell amounts before and after grounding. What they found is that the electrical currents rooted in the earth’s layers make the ground under our feet a huge antioxidant. Humans have an electrical system that needs to be grounded. When we walk around insulated all day in our shoes, the rubber sole prevents that good healthy grounding.
Humans will take millions and millions of steps over their lifetime. I’m not saying we don’t ever need shoes. What I’m saying is that it would benefit us all to spend more time barefoot.