I am about to go into a scientific discussion on human ambulation, because it is a very important subject to me. If you are going entirely dependent on your feet for your survival, maybe you shouldnt just slap on some sneakers and walk out the door.
So, what, exactly is the best thing to put on your feet when you walk around? Lets start at the beginning.
If youre going to be a nomad, you are going to have to learn to love your feet. Your feet are awesome. Human beings are some of the most efficient movers on the planet, and have some of the highest endurance of any known animal. We can walk up to 418 miles without rest, and run the same distance in 48 hours. Unless you have some disability, your body is capable of something similar.
There are many theories as to the evolutionary origins of Homo Sapiens. Most of them seek to answer one question: why are we so smart? There are many potential answers, but they all have one thing in common: upright posture. Walking upright is a fairly novel idea in the animal world, and is the key to our uniqueness. Our upright torso allows breathing to be independent of our movements. When four legged animals run, their breathing cycle is synchronized with the contraction and expansion of their torso (watch a video of a cheetah running for an exaggerated example of this). Human beings can breathe as much as they need to, no matter how fast they run. Additionally, the upright posture positions the pelvic bones so as to allow the birth of larger brained babies, giving us a prenatal head start.
Our bodies were built to move. Before we had fancy weapons, the main way we could take down animals was through something called "persistence hunting". The idea is very simple: chase down an animal until it dies of exhaustion. Though gazelle and antelope can move quickly over short distances, they tire rapidly and overheat in the African sun. The only way these animals can thermoregulate their bodies is by panting and letting the hot air from their mucous membranes interchange with the outside air. Humans can just keep running; our hairless bodies perspire and cool us down, and our nimble hands can carry water to quench our thirst. Our prey was allowed no such relief, and succumbed to exhaustion in about 6 hours.
Because of this amazing ability to keep moving, our legs have evolved into fine tuned instruments. Our foot tendons are like springs, and our massive shock-absorbing calf muscles can support our entire body weight indefinitely. Our gait, either running or walking, is a marvel of engineering efficiency. Your foot pads contain as many nerve endings as your hands, constantly feeding data to your brain about the placement and steadfastness of each step. Your peripheral vision picks up obstacles while you gaze straight ahead, and your feet instinctively learn to avoid them. The entire system, from your foot sole to your arms, is precisely designed to distribute your weight throughout your skeleton while you move. In natural conditions, human running ability does not deteriorate noticeably between the ages of 20 and 60!
Then, one day, everything changed.
For the longest time, shoes for athletic events had consisted of simple leather. A totally flat sole protects the foot, while still allowing all of the natural ambulation mechanisms to take place. When the raised heel became popular, it messed up everything evolution had worked so hard to perfect. Instead of landing on our springy forefoot, the heel hits the ground first, sending a shock like a jackhammer through all our legs bones.
Try this: take your shoes off and run down a hallway. Dont think too hard about it, but note which part of your foot you naturally land on. Now try to do it while making your heels strike first each time. It hurts. All the cushioning and padding in the heel of a shoes disguises that jackhammer effect, but the net result on your bones and muscles is identical. Your cartridge deteriorates. This is why its so common for runner nowadays to have knee and ankle problems- a symptom of years of abuse that was virtually unheard of before nike released their raised-heel running shoes. For a complete explanation on the bio-mechanics of barefoot, check this out.
So what does this mean for you, if youre just going to walk all the time? Dont you naturally heel strike also when you walk barefoot?
When you walk on flat ground, many people habituated to shoes heel strike even when barefoot. It is actually much easier for me personally to maintain a mid-foot strike when walking- basically, the whole outer part of your sole hit the ground simultaneously. Walking uphill or on uneven terrain while barefoot, however, puts you almost entirely on your forefoot. Not only does a raised heel prevent a forefoot strike while running, it also affects a lot of other systems. By putting on big clunky shoes, the sensors in your feet that are designed to tell you about your terrain become useless. Its like wearing gloves all the time- you lose all information about how secure your foot placement is. This leads to twisted ankles and misplaced steps, big problems when you have a heavy pack on your back. Additionally, the long term effects of raised heel walking compared to natural walking are not well studied, unlike the effects of raised-heel running. Running is a much more intense activity than walking, so it makes sense to me that the effects are more obvious. I dont know about you, but I trust 1.5 million years of evolution more than 100 years of commercials and shoe salesmen.
I do not, however, succumb to the naturalistic fallacy. I do not think shoes are evil. They are very useful for certain situations, and required for others. The problem is not that shes are bad, its that the majority of shoes are built wrong; its very easy to build a shoe with a flat sole, and many have done it. The most famous examples today are Vibram Five-Fingers. They sure are fun, but ultimately, I think, a waste of money. You can get identical benefits from much cheaper options. Remember the world record run I walked about, 450 miles in 48 hours? That wasnt done with some fancy running shoe: it was a piece of tire tied to his feet. A huarache. Make your own- theyre super cheap!
(picture of my huaraches coming!)
Of course, there are many options out there. I prefer sandals because socks are a pain in the ass on the road- I first started out for 6 months wearing nothing but Chaco sandals (until a skunk ate them). While they arent exactly flat soled (the footbed conforms nicely to your foot), the heel is not raised, and it is an excellent option for reformed shooby to start exploring the world of barefooting.
A note of caution: do not jump right into barefooting. You will hurt yourself and become discouraged. Your feet can develop cushy pads of fat on that make them as tough as dogs feet- they just need a chance to develop. In the six months I spent in Chacos, my foot pads developed tremendously, and i found to my surprise one day that I could run for miles barefoot on asphalt with no problem. Another problems is your calf muscle: its not used to doing its job. Your whole body is supposed to be supported by them, like giant shock absorbers. But like any muscle, you cant just start using it intensely- you have to work your way up. Start taking your shoes off whenever you can- in the park, inside stores, on the beach. Anywhere. The thing that builds up your foot pads is texture: start taking walk around neighborhoods with bumpy asphalt. It shouldnt hurt, but it should feel "loud" to your feet; they arent used to so much stimulation. Things will quiet down eventually, and you will start to notice things: nice textures, temperatures, your step become more playful as your body adjusts and shifts its weight around in a novel way. Oh, and no matter the weather, you feet are totally waterproof! Puddles and creeks are taken in stride, mud is very fun, and cleans off immediately. All in all, even the most tender footed person can become a gravel-walker in less than a year!
So when do I recommend going barefoot, and where with shoes?
Most times I walk through sidewalks, towns, and neighborhoods, I wear huaraches. Theyve carried me many hundreds of miles, and are excellent everyday shoes. However, the second Im off road, the shoes come off. There is little natural landscape that barefooting is not excellent for. You will learn to prevent ijury, and make climbing up slopes much better! Hard soled hiking boots cause great harm to the natural landscape, eroding trails and destroying vegetation. Your barefeet do no such thing- they are soft and barely leave an imprint. Feel free to explore most any natural landscape without doing tons of damage to the environment.
(more pictures coming!)
I bet you have some questions. Let me try to answer a few of the most common ones:
Doesnt it hurt?
Nope, almost never. After the initial "noisy" period, you get acclimated to the textures, and its isnt painful- just interesting. Shoes are like gloves for your feet- they protect you, but at the expense of limiting your sensory experience. Just like touching stuff with your hands feels nice, touching stuff with your feet feels nice. Rarely does it cross the threshold of being unpleasent, usually after several miles of gravel or volcanic rock or brambles.
Do your feet get cold?
Not really! they used to be cold all the time (especially when i was in bed), until i started barefooting. Think of it this way youve been bundling your feet up for decades and not requiring your body to give them proper bloodflow, leaving them extremely vulnerable to environmental changes. If you never want cold feet again, start going barefoot (or effectively barefoot with flat soled sandals). It feels amazing.
What about glass?
I admit it: glass is potentially a problem. Unlike most natural substances, it will cut right though your pads, and can hurt you very bad. But you know what? in 3 years of extremely frequent barefooting, never once have I stepped in glass bad enough to make me need shoes. Good judgement, a watchful eye, and developed foot pads go a long way to protecting your feet. Ive had glass splinters and thorns stuck in my foot pads, but they seem thick enough to take a quarter inch of penetration without any blood. it doesnt even hurt: I think our feet are designed to sustain minor injury without impeding us. Ive never even had an infection on my foot cuts, though they get filled with dirt and stuff! I have no idea why that is. Even if I get hurt badly in the future, all id have to do is put on shoes till I get better, and once every three years is not a bad injury rate at all!
I have flat arches!
Yeah, cause you never use em. Think architecturally: how do you strengthen an arch? You dont poke up the middle, you put weight on the top! What passes for "arch support" today is the foot equivalent of poking the keystone of an archway. Wearing shoes as a child has been strongly linked to fallen arches, and continuing that only perpetuates the problem. I recommend starting with Chacos to get your locomotion right again, and then bare footing as often as possible.
Do your feet stink?
Quite the opposite. I used to have terrible foot problems- ingrown townails, and terrible smelling feet. Once you go barefoot, never again! the bacteria that stink only grow because you give them a moist enviroment (your shoes). Exposed to open air your feet dont stink at all. Also, you never get blisters! Blisters only happen when you have the same rubbing motion over the same patch of skin. This never happens when your feet arent bound up.
Really, you dont think you EVER need boots or anything but sandals?
No. Boots and special shoes are necessary for things like mountaineering, rock climbing, super cold temperatures or any number of specialized activities. Its seems pretty silly to always wear shoes just because you sometimes need them. Think of this: Sherpa on Mount Everest go barefoot up to 14,000 feet, through the snow, carrying tons of equipment. I myself have used huaraches completely comfortably in 2 feet of snow in 11 degree (F) weather. The main source of heat loss on your feet is the sole, so cover that up, and your bloodflow will naturally increase and keep your feet toasty! They turn bright pink, but I swear, even in the snow, they dont feel cold at all!
Ew! Dont you walk in gross stuff?
Yeah, but not any more often than I do with shoes, and feet are a hell of a lot easier to clean than shoes. Its not like im eating with my feet- my feet are never going anywhere but the floor. Get over it.
I bet your feet are all gross and calloused.
Nope! they are quite soft, feeling kind of like leather- think of what dog paws feel like. Concrete is also an excellent exfoliator to take off rough skin as you walk.
Hey! Nice shoes!
Thanks, my mom made em for me.
Wash your feet before coming in.
If yall have any more questions I can answer, just ask!
As for sources, most of the things ive said has been covered and sourced in the book "Born to Run", with a few tasty tidbits gleaned from other sources. If you find any of my conclusions faulty, please dont hesitate to point it out. Logic shapes my ideology, not the other way around.
One last note: Take care of your feet! Just because they are tough, doesnt mean they are invulnerable. Your heels will crack badly if you dont oil them. I use coconut oil, and ancient tribes used animal fats. In theory, any highly saturated oil should do the trick. No reason to use petroleum distillates like vaseline- coconut oil is much nicer, and doesnt stay oily and gross.