There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs), shoes that emulate being barefoot. They’re actually selling so well that they’re hard to find. Even celebrities are wearing them, garnering more attention. Yes, I wear them too. Actually, I’ve been wearing them for over two years. Before the popularity and trendiness. I jumped on these weird pieces of footwear because I sensed that there was something humanly important about being barefoot. For example, in martial arts training, we were always barefoot (and in the very rare instances we weren’t, things were just very off). Still, I didn’t understand what the real significance of this was.
That is, until I read this article about 16 months ago. It discussed how increasingly “advanced” running shoes were doing nothing to help runners prevent injuries; that humans have evolved incredible foot mechanics and are better off barefoot. The author’s book on the subject, Born to Run, (released soon after and which later became a best seller) shared inspiring real-life stories of amazing runners, many of them running in a barefoot manner, as well as the research and history behind running barefoot (and not running barefoot). I share a few very important points mentioned along with my own experiences:
First, that our feet have undergone a great deal of improvement through over four million years of evolution. They contain a large number of muscles and ligaments (I believe the number is somewhere around thirty, if not more). Our feet also contain a large number of nerve endings – as many as our hands – so they provide a great deal of sensory feedback to deal with balance and mobility. Wearing padded shoes, like most sneakers, undoes much of the evolutionary benefits. Shoes are too cushioned to give feet the beating they like and hence the muscles and ligaments in the feet atrophy. Likewise, the thick sole of a sneaker deprives us of all the nerve feedback that tell us so much about what we’re walking on.
Second, shoes actually negate the most important of the evolutionary features – the arch of the foot. Any person with a hint of engineering knowledge knows that an arch is fantastic at bearing load. So it makes a great deal of sense for humans to evolve a load bearing mechanism on their feet to support all the force from walking, running, jumping, and whatnot. The scary part is that many shoes “support” the arch; an arch does not need support and giving it “support” causes it to cease function. This means that since it’s no longer dissipating the load, some other body parts must step up. Force from the foot hitting the ground, no longer absorbed by the arch, travels up to the knee and the lower back. Enter injuries to these regions.
So what if you have flat feet? Does all this still apply? Yes, because flat feet are often caused my atrophied muscles. I myself have flat feet from decades of wearing sneakers on a daily basis. However, I’ve made noticeable improvement to my arches by regularly wearing non-padded footwear, including VFFs and flip flops, to slowly build up the muscles in my feet. Another interesting argument lies at the crux of the sneaker industry: shouldn’t the padding provided by shoes be adequate? It seems not – more padding means more sensory deprivation which means the foot must strike the ground harder to know what’s going on. Any benefit is cancelled out, if not making things worse.
Third, there seems to be discrepancy about form and it often centers around heel-striking – that is, landing on the heel of the foot when running. Sneaker companies have a huge hand in this mess. Forty years ago, they came up with the idea to pad the heel of the shoe. They claimed that this would improve runner performance by allowing longer strides from heel striking, made possible by the padding. One consequence was an unnatural running form, which exacerbated the problem of shock traveling to the knees and back. With heel striking, there’s no possibility of the arch absorbing shock. This makes it a very dangerous practice. It’s pretty frightening since this is the way most people walk and run, as afforded by their shoes. It seems the proper way to land is to do so on the mid-foot, maybe even landing on outside and rotating it in as so to compress the arch. I’ve found this to work best from my own experiences. I’ve also noticed that this is the natural way people run barefoot, by secretly observing my karate students, kids and adults alike, run. Note that for walking, you pretty much have to land on your heel, but you can do so gently and then let the mid-foot take over (and hence make use of the arch).
The problem of heel striking may come as a surprise to many people; it certainly did for me. In fact, when I first had my VFFs, I was heel striking on them when merely walking, simply because I had a habit from wearing sneakers my whole life. Needless to say it was a very painful experience to walk on pavement with VFFs and I avoided doing so for nearly a year. It was after I’d read Born to Run that I understood that the problem was in technique. After correcting for this (as in, I stopped heel striking when walking) the VFF barefoot experience became very enjoyable, even on concrete sidewalks. I should note that I had to “break in” my feet and have them get used to walking “barefoot”. The muscles in my feet needed to be rebuilt and the process took at least several months.
It’s interesting that running has gotten such a bad rap – how it’s hard on the knees. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that when you undo four million years of evolution, there’ll be problems. We have an incredible amount of technology built into our very bodies. Be mindful of it. Watch the way you walk and run and jump. Note what you’re putting around your feet. Feel all the sensations from beneath your feet and what it means to be connected to the world.