Humans were not born with shoes, and while nowadays a short trip to the local footwear shop can fix that, this was not always the case. Humans have evolved for roughly two million years, and for the majority of that period, it is safe to say that the most protection human feet had was a thin layer of leather.
That means no comfortable and springy insoles, and no heavy rubber protecting you from the sticks and stones underneath. This is important to understand – that the human foot evolved to be fairly free of encumbrances. Nowadays, we stuff our feet into the most unbelievably masochistic contraptions – from heavy combat boots to high-heeled shoes.
Many feet out there are in fact in a state of atrophy. They have not been properly used or exercised since we were kids, running around the house in just our socks.
The human foot is a highly complex achievement of nature. More than a full quarter of all our bones are located in our feet, coupled with 33 joints and over 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Most of these simply don’t get exercised in regular footwear. Wearing the average pair of shoes is almost like putting our feet in a cast – many of the smaller muscles just don’t get a chance to contribute.
This is why trying to run while barefoot or in minimalistic shoes will likely result in a lot of pain and discomfort. Trust me, I’ve tried.
The Barefoot Alternative
Luckily, for those who want to give their feet the freedom to breath and exercise as they were supposed to, there are many choices of footwear out there. The one’s I’ve personally experienced are the Vibram Five Fingers. If you ever wear these, you will notice three things.
First, people will look and point at your feet. Some will laugh, others will say they are awesome.
Second, the pleasure of minimalism will be that you can feel everything you’re stepping on. All the little grooves in the concrete, the little pebbles, the softness of grass. It’s like an entirely new world opens up to you that you’ve been unaware of – a sort of new sense.
Third, your muscles are going to hurt the first few weeks, and so will your bones.
You see, most people heel-strike when they walk or run in regular shoes. As an experiment, try to run around the house in just your socks. You’ll automatically switch to striking with the ball of your foot first, and then rolling back before your next step. If you tried to run around barefoot striking your heels first, you would feel a lot of pain. By landing on the ball of your foot, you successfully soften the pressure from each footstep.
This is how it’s supposed to be. If you were to ever purchase some Vibram Five Fingers, you will notice a lengthy caution about slowly working into using that kind of footwear, because your feet just aren’t ready for it.
Many athletes who have tried barefoot running reported improvements in their strength and balance. (Also, if you’ve ever wanted to be a ninja, the art of barefoot movement is closely related to sneaking.)
Of course, barefoot walking and running isn’t always such a good idea. There is after all a reason why hikers prefer boots, and it isn’t purely an unawareness of the other alternatives out there. Barefoot running and hiking is great when the ground is dry, and when it’s warm outside.
But wearing your Vibrams out in the winter, or even just when it’s a little cold, is a terrible idea. They can’t accommodate thick socks, and they have pretty much no insulating capabilities. Rain is no better, and many of the models become dangerously slippery on wet ground. Plus, your feet will get very wet. Walking in mud isn’t an option at all, since the ‘clearance’ on such shoes is virtually nonexistent.
So while the barefoot running shoes out there aren’t an all-weather shoe, they’re definitely worth looking into for anyone interested in strengthening their legs and training in a way that is closer to what humans have historically evolved for.