Barefoot Notes

  • When are shoes required?

The bare foot is optimized in terms of versatility for safety and functionality for performing  weight-bearing activities (standing, walking and running) on both naturally deposited ground and manmade surfaces. The bare foot is highly functional within a relatively wide range of ambient temperatures - from freezing to relatively hot temperatures.  Protective footwear are required outside of this range. There is a vast amount of anecdotal evidence that barefoot running remains reasonably safe and efficient on most man made surfaces, such as concrete and asphalt.  The bare foot may be more efficient than any footwear for distance running because barefoot running is more energy efficient compared to any footwear system examined. 

Whereas the bare foot is probably extremely safe in terms of injuries and versatile when in contact with many natural and manmade surfaces, footwear designed to be functional on a single surface can improve athletic performance.  For example, it is not difficult to design footwear that are superior to the bare foot in terms of traction (grip) on a specific substrate.  As examples, rubber soled shoes are superior to the bare foot with urethane finishes of gym floors, and spiked running shoes are superior to the bare foot in acceleration in sprints on tracks.  This increase in performance with footwear undoubtedly comes at the cost of greater injury frequency.

Footwear are also required when specific industrial exposures present specific injury risk.

Links to relevant published reports:   1987-1.pdf  1988-1.pdf  1989-1.pdf  

  • Is barefoot activity ideal under all conditions? Will foot coverings disappear?

Certainly not. As mentioned in an early published report of mine:

"Barefoot activity when practical (no need for thermal insulation; no risk of crush injuries; social acceptability) deserves consideration since sensory mediated protective adaptations seem optimized for this condition.  Although this may run counter to notions prevalent in economically advanced countries recounting the dangers of barefoot activity and necessity of footwear even when barefoot activity is feasible, supporting data are lacking, and many have concluded that footwear design is guided by fashion rather than health consideration." 

In addition, as mentioned above, the bare foot on natural surfaces may not be ideal for the elderly.  The barefoot is particularly susceptible to damage when perpetually wet, such as in swamp-like conditions.  

Links to relevant published reports:   1987-1.pdf  1988-1.pdf  1989-1.pdf  

The forces involved in running exceed greatly those involved in standing and walking, therefore barefoot running must be more potentially injurious of all barefoot weight-bearing activities. 
  Yet many of the adaptations for running take place with barefoot standing and walking making these activities ideal stage of adaptation to barefoot running. 

  • Adaptation to barefoot running  (revised October 2011)

Recent information indicates that for almost all of our existence, humans have been upright, bearing weight when wakeful, whereas contemporary (shod)  populations are sedentrary. This information leads to a clearer understanding of the requirements for safe adaptation to barefoot running. Barefoot running is associated with higher amplitude forces than both standing and walking, therefore running must be far more potentially injurious than the other weight-bearing activities. Yet most of the postural adaptations for barefoot running take place when standing and walking barefoot. This leads to the conclusion that barefoot running should be preceeded by an increase in barefoot standing and walking. The magnitude of weight-bearing activity required is unclear, but considering humans evolved weight-bearing most of their wakeful time, hours of daily weight-bearing probably would be required for ideal adaptation of postural muscles. Perhaps the most important postural adjustment that takes place with barefoot weight-bearing is "pelvic tilting" with sustained contraction of abdominal and relaxation of abdominal muscles. This suggests that the postural muscle conditioning techniques currently employed by even competitve distance runners is totally inadequate and increasing barefoot weight-bearing may constitute an important element to improved running performance. 

The following are observations from personal experience.  The mechanics of barefoot running differ considerably from running with shoes - any shoes.  The adaptation is "natural" insofar as instruction as to the mechanics of running is not required - the adaptations are inherent in us, mediated to a great extent through plantar tactile feedback.   The bare foot of the barefoot runner is not thick with callous and inflexible as many has speculated.  This is because abrading of the plantar surface is low when barefoot.  Sensory thresholds direct you to minimize abrasion, but accomplishing this requires muscle adaptations and learning (coordination), both of which take time. The transition period requires a minimum of weeks even if barefoot locomotion is attempted daily.  Once adapted, safe barefoot locomotion can be sustained with a few sessions per week.  Obviously, more is better.  Barefoot weight bearing is useful when not running, as well.

Walk before you run. Most of the muscular adaptations required for barefoot running can be acquired more safely through barefoot walking. Consider gradually increasing the duration of barefoot walking to greater than an hour, with a least three sessions per week. As comfort during barefoot walking increases, and there is no decline in comfort when bare foot walking is performed on consecutive days, it is time to increase the speed of walking. Unshod individuals transition to running from walking at a lower speed than those wearing shoes because without shoes, the extended stride causes contact with the porterior calcaneus, which is painful when barefoot. After one or two sessions at a speed just shy of feeling the desire to commence slow running, it is time to run barefoot.

In my case, I would remove my shoes for the last ten minutes of a normal run to run barefoot. Initially there is a tendency to abrade the plantar surface, hence a day or two off from running barefoot may be required initially.  Otherwise, relatively brief daily runs seem adequate.  Concrete and asphalt initially are easier than natural surfaces at first, because intrinsic foot muscle adaptations are required to spare the tender metatarsal-phalangeal joints through intense plantar flexion of the digits and development of these muscle take many weeks even if stimulated daily.

I have become concerned about the meager amount of weight-bearing time spent by humans particularly in industrially developed countries. There is evidence that humans evolved upright for a great part of their wakeful hours. "Anti-gravity muscles" (which includes what is commonly called "core muscles" and others used in maintaining stable equilibrium) are intensely stimulated when standing, and even more so when walking and running. These muscles are essential to safe and efficient locomotion. The sedentariness of modern human existance may be the largest hazard to safe locomotion. We all have to spend far more time upright to sustain a healthy and functional body through proper development of anti-gravity muscles. This can not be replaced with the occasional "core muscle" exercise session. This will be the subject of future site entries. 

  • Elderly beware

There is evidence that the adaptation to barefoot locomotion presents hazards to the older cohort, because of exaggerated risk of falling.  The elderly have significant decline in tactile sensibility.  In addition normally shod populations have been shown to have extensive foot osteoarthritis - far greater than normally unshod groups presumably caused by footwear use.  Osteoarthritis appears to cause a more rigid foot that is unable to alter shape quickly (in some cases perhaps not ever), to surfaces of shape different than the shoes they are familiar with.  The interior shape of most shoes resemble little the flat surface confronted when barefoot.  This results in a particularly poor support base. I suspect the many (perhaps most) of the elderly could adapt to barefoot locomotion with advantage, but this is an area of uncertainty.  It should be attempted carefully in a protected environment.