A year ago yesterday I took off my shoes, and *mostly* haven’t looked back. Envisioning this post months ago, I projected an enthusiastic account of how a barefoot lifestyle can radically improve foot health and transform your running. While the year-long journey has certainly been enlightening, it has more specifically revealed the detrimental impact of a lifetime of shoe-wearing, the dangers of demanding too much from the body, and the complexity of the “barefoot vs. shod” debate.
Before expounding upon my personal experiences, let me clarify what I mean by the term “barefoot”. I do not wear shoes unless absolutely necessary. That means bare sole to dirt, concrete, pavement or snow, walking around campus, at lab, through my neighborhood or hiking a mountain. I’ll slip on a pair of flip-plops in professional situations or at restaurants or stores that request shoes, since I may not understand others’ distaste for feet, but hey – I’ll respect our difference of opinion. The other main exception is when I run. Although my feet rapidly adapted to walking bare, the demands of running bare are considerably greater and require a more cautious transition. For this reason, depending on the distance, my running footwear ranges from a lightweight shoe to a sandal to fully bare.
As my original motivation for this experiment was to personally assess the effects of a barefoot lifestyle, the critical question is how has shoe-free living changed my life and health? As a scientist, you’d think I would have conducted a properly controlled experiment. But as an overzealous extremophile, I of course changed too much at once, and now have a mess of uninterpretable anecdotes. Over the past year I not only started walking barefoot, but concurrently started using a standing desk and running in minimalist shoes, making it essentially impossible to dissociate their impact on my well-being. With that caveat, let me share the benefits, frustrations and painful lessons of this adventure.
By far the most entertaining aspect of my barefoot experiment has been the often ludicrous, hilarious and sadly misinformed comments I receive from strangers. I’ve been repeatedly advised to put on shoes because my feet “need” the arch support, I’ll cut myself on all the glass and needles that are everywhere, I’ll contract diseases from all the spit on the ground, and my favorite (from a plumber) – “there’s shit everywhere”. Either these are unwarranted concerns or I’m blessed with super-human resistance, since I have yet to experience any of these complications. In fact, the greatest danger I’ve encountered has been one easily removable splinter. I’ve even proudly developed enough resilience to walk over glass without injury.
Perhaps most astounding is that such a seemingly minor change as taking off your shoes leads to such a dramatic physical transformation. The visible changes have been surprisingly subtle, including slight thickening of the skin on the soles and a slight expansion of the metatarsals. Although I originally intended to document the physical changes with periodic photographs, the differences from day 1 to day 365 are just barely apparent. Rather, the predominant changes have been in terms of internal structure and strength. My feet have appropriately adapted to the demands of supporting themselves, instead of relying on the artificial support of a shoe, by gradually developing stronger muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments. The difference has been dramatic enough that others, including my massage therapist and acupuncturist, have commented on my remarkably high arches and increased strength in my feet and lower legs.
In an ideal world, the story would end here. Hypothesis confirmed … returning my feet to their natural state led to improved foot health and function. But I am an athlete – a stubborn, sometimes irrational, too often fanatic – runner. As such, I of course sought the thrill of pushing my boundaries, expediting my progress towards minimalist running and only half-heartedly heeded the warnings of an overly aggressive transition. I ran contently in a safe transition zone for several months before making the error of incorporating marathon training into my bare and minimalist experiment. Predictably, at the peak of my training I over-ran myself into a metatarsal stress reaction which, due to a combination of a poor self-diagnosis and improper treatment, evolved into an excruciating 4 month hiatus from running. A slow bone recovery was followed by soft-tissue irritation as my foot is re-awakening to the demands of running.
That said, one could justifiably consider this a failed experiment in barefoot living. The anti-barefoot community can now happily add me to their stats of runners who sustain transitioning-to-barefoot-running injuries (although, some research suggests these stats may be inflated). Call me crazy, but instead of convincing me to protect my vulnerable feet with shoes, the journey has opened my eyes to the many joys of a barefoot lifestyle and minimalist running. Walking bare is an essentially risk-free way to improve foot health while inviting in a flood of wonderful, novel sensory experiences. My trials with minimalist running have foremost underscored the dangers of 1) weakening our feet through a lifetime of unnecessary, artificial support, and 2) over-stressing the thus-weakened bones and soft tissue of the foot by demanding too much, too soon. While dangerously high mileage in a minimal shoe pushed my feet beyond their present strength, this is by no means evidence that a lighter – or absent – shoe is inherently dangerous. Running bare with poor form or insufficient strength can lead to injury; conversely, there’s no risk of running in traditional shoes with correct form. While the runner, not the shoe, is the critical factor (for example, see Daoud et al, 2012), the benefit of less shoe comes from the natural tendency to run with improved form – including faster cadence, lighter steps and a midfoot / forefoot strike – with reduced interference from a bulky shoe.
Year one has been filled with surprises, frustrations, and continued physical and mental development. As is true for science in general, our findings may not always confirm our predictions, but we can trust that they’ll reveal the truth. I’m looking forward to a second year of growth and discovery, but can’t help wonder … do bare feet experience the terrible two’s?