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Should I or shouldn’t I go minimalist/barefoot?

This question is still a hot topic in the running world today.

I will be upfront and honest with you, I am a big fan of going barefoot and using more minimalist shoes.

Understanding threshold

The point of this article is not to “convert” you to the barefoot side, but to help educate you more about the foot and it’s function.  Whether you choose to switch to minimalist shoes or not is entirely up to you.  Each of us is different and we all have a different “threshold” to what our body perceives as a stress.  To explain this “threshold” right quick, think of it as a continuum.

  • On one end you have your little old lady who can barely get out of bed and has to sit back down due to exhaustion.
  • On the other end, you have your elite, pro and Olympic athletes who are doing the non-human and are totally fine.

The question is, where are you on that continuum?  Depending on where you are dictates what your body perceives as a stress.  Make sense?  Oh and by the way, this threshold is effected by a lot of variables: the type of diet you have, the amounts of stress you’re experiencing, how much sleep you get, the toxins you’re exposed to, how active/inactive you are, etc.

To go barefoot or not 2 (1)

 

Quick review on the foot

 

First off, quick review, the foot contains 28 bones if you include the tibia and fibula of the lower leg.  There are 55 joints within the foot and more than 100 ligaments, tendons and muscles.  That’s A LOT of elements that allow your feet to function.  It’s main purpose is to absorb shock with every step you take and to continually provide feedback to the brain in regards to the environment around you.  Of course, these purposes are only fulfilled when all elements in the foot are functioning properly.  There’s the problem.  Most people’s feet are NOT functioning correctly, which can lead to injury or pain in the foot or further up the body.

The shoe industry

The shoe industry caught on to this problem decades ago and did what it thought was best by trying to create shoes that were more supportive and stabilizing to the body.  This was a fantastic idea in theory but ultimately has not helped fix the real issue of a person’s foot not functioning properly.  Many people swear by their shoes that provide more support or are more stabilizing and have experienced relief of their symptoms by finding such a shoe.  I’m not discounting these changes by any means.

Different perspective from the Dr.

However, I’d like to provide a different perspective.  When you’re fitted for a shoe based on what your mechanics look like, for example, your feet roll in too much (you overpronate).  You will be put in a shoe that keeps the foot from overpronating and potentially even has a bit of an arch support in the foot to aid in this process.  When wearing this shoe and now watching your gait, everything looks perfect.  You’re no longer overpronating.  Perfect, problem solved!  Or is it?  You wear these shoes and notice the knee pain you were having begins to disappear.  Clearly the shoes have fixed your issue, right?

Let’s talk about redirection

I venture to say the issues and where your body was absorbing these stresses have only been redirected to somewhere else in the body.  And, given enough time, you’ll end up developing a symptom/new issue somewhere else.  Why?  The actual cause of the problem, in this case someone overpronating, was not actually fixed.  Putting this person in a shoe that keeps the foot from pronating/overpronating is like putting them in a splint or brace.  It’s restricting the excess motion but it is not addressing why they were overpronating to begin with.  It’s band-aid therapy as I like to call it and only provides temporary relief.

Your feet are meant to flow through a supinated, to a pronated and back to a supinated position through your walking gait cycle.  If this is not happening because the foot has lost it’s normal function, then the foot is no longer capable of absorbing the shock from every step.  That shock is now transmitted up the leg to the knee, low back and all the way up to the neck.  Wherever your body’s next weakest link is, is generally where you’ll experience symptoms next.  When motion in your foot is “blocked” due to orthotics or shoes that are restricting excess motion, the same problem occurs.  With 55 joints in the foot, they’re suppose to be very dynamic.

Why go barefoot?

The beauty of going barefoot and/or wearing more minimalist shoes is that your foot is required to do it’s job.

When you’re feet are put in shoes that restrict motion, the muscles of the foot no longer have to do their jobs and become weak.  This is a large reason why people experience pain when they go barefoot or try to switch straight over to minimalist shoes.

Think about it, you’ve been in supportive shoes for years and rarely go barefoot.  Those muscles have been totally deconditioned.  Now, you decide you’re going to go barefoot and switch to minimalist shoes entirely.  No surprise, you’re feet are going to be killing you.

You are requiring your muscles to now do their job ALL day all of a sudden.  It’s like taking years off from working out and then, one day, just deciding to spend all of your waking hours at the gym day after day.  No one would ever do that.

If you’re going to try out this barefoot thing, start SLOWLY!

Who is it for?

I wouldn’t even suggest running in minimalist shoes until you get your body and feet more use to going barefoot first.  And guess what?  You can’t judge a book by it’s cover.  Meaning, if you have really flat feet or you have incredibly high arches, that doesn’t matter.  The bigger question to be asking is, are my feet working the way they are suppose to?

Fun Fact: The fastest runners in the world have practically flat feet.  The high-arched individuals actually have the most problems.  In all cases, the muscles of the feet and the joints in the feet need to be working properly.  This is simply something that cannot be answered by just looking at a foot.  Stay tuned as I’ll be giving some specific exercises to help improve the overall function and strengthen your feet, which will better prepare you to go more barefoot/minimalist if you choose.


 

Read more by Dr. Shockley HERE.

Scott

Scott is the founder of Becoming Ultra and spends most of his time with his family and ideas to get people moving!