The sensible side of the barefoot walking movement

Last year, I read a bizarre article (sorry, I don’t remember where) that ridiculed modern man for wearing shoes when millions of years of natural selection have designed us to walk best on our bare feet. I will admit I saw some appeal to that argument, but the article was written by a complete loony who recommended barefooted “fox walking” as the correct alternative to the “cow walking” he chides the rest of us shoed folk for employing. Fox walking involves landing on the balls of your feet, which just looks ludicrous and is also energy inefficient to boot.

But the article “You Walk Wrong” by Adam Sternbergh, published in New York Magazine, outlines a vision of barefoot walking that I can definitely get behind. The people he talked to aren’t advocating anything nearly so silly as fox walking. They don’t even advocate barefoot walking in many circumstances, because while not wearing shoes may lead to a more natural stride, they recognize that shoes provide vital protection in many urban environments. So by not being wacko, I find myself actually agreeing with most of the things they’re saying.

The article also talks about the Vivo Barefoot shoe, which sounds like such a neat shoe I think I may have to get a pair. The shoe provides a thin layer of outsole as foot protection, but is otherwise very flexible and provides no support or padding. It’s supposed to be almost like walking barefoot, except the added protection from sharp or abrasive surfaces, hot asphalt, etc., means you can wear them in many situations you wouldn’t even consider going barefoot. Also, they look for the most part like normal shoes, while going barefoot has all sorts of social stigmas attached to it.

13 Responses to “The sensible side of the barefoot walking movement”

  1. Kelly Martin Says:

    What’s wrong with walking on the balls of your feet?

  2. drinian Says:

    Ever walked very far on concrete without good support? Don’t.

    And I can imagine plenty of countryside hazards to bare feet as well.

    To be fair, I try to spend as little time as possible during the summer wearing shoes (sandals, mostly) and my soles do get quite a bit tougher because of that.

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    Kelly: It’s totally not how walking works. If you read the article, you see that a natural gait involves landing on the heel of your foot, rolling through the arch and ball, and then finally pushing off with the toes. Landing on the ball is totally nonsensical. It’s backwards. You’re basically taking a stride, then losing some of it as your heel settles behind your landing point, then repeat. Plus, just try walking like that. It looks ridiculous.

    drinian: I might have to try it just to see if the article is correct in its theories. Yes, they might be tougher on the feet, but it’s supposedly a lot easier on the joints. And they say you land on the heel only momentarily, rolling right into the rest of the movement, so it isn’t as jarring as it sounds.

    Yeah, they could be telling the truth, or they could be making it all up. I’ll have to wait until I get a pair of Vivo Barefoots to try myself, but they’re really fricking expensive on the Internet right now, probably as a result of increased publicity.

  4. William Says:

    “walking shoe says”? Is that spam or a link you posted, or what?

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    Sigh … yes, yes it is. It’s gone now. Oh, what I wouldn’t do for an “auto-moderate all pingbacks/trackbacks” option in SpamKarma 2. This is potentially a deal-breaker. SpamKarma 2 is no longer being updated, so I may have to look for another anti-spam solution.

  6. William Says:

    I went for a run this morning in my Tivas, which are aimed at hikers, but I remember thinking when I first bought them “Wow, I can feel the ground. That’s weird.” They’re not anything like walking barefoot, but it’s something to consider for someone who wants a good middle ground. Also, they’re less than $100, usually.

  7. T L Holaday Says:

    The “good foot support” you need for walking on concrete can come from the muscles of your foot.

  8. brian Says:

    I’ve been walking/hiking barefoot after 30+ years of almost always wearing shoes. Just to comment on…er…some of the comments. Walking heal to toe, with large strides is something you really can only do comfortably with shoes on. That’s the whole point of the natural vs. unnatural in the debate. When you walk barefoot, jamming your heal into the ground not only hurts it’s just not good for you. Even if you try to land lightly, a good mile and you will start rethinking how you walk. You just have to.

    If you watch children walk, you will notice that they actually do hit the ball of their feet first (Some times it may even appear like their entire foot hits all at once) It’s not like going around tip toeing though. It’s almost imperceptible. But I have found, for myself, barefoot walking requires, for the most comfortable walk the following:
    a) Let the ball of my foot touch the ground slightly before any other part of the foot. Not by much, and the timing takes some getting used to. The harder the ground, the more I have to let the ball of my foot touch. The heal, especially when the leg is stuck out in front like we tend to do with shoes on, simply is a horrible shock absorber.
    b) Slow down! No more huge, gaping strides, kicking my heal way out in front of me.
    c) Keep glancing at the ground and noticing where I am going and what is up ahead. No more just plowing through the woods or streets.

    Yes, it takes getting used to and can be a bit overwhelming, but the brain is an amazing organ, and adjusts fairly quickly.

    Yes, walking around on grass is pretty easy, and I can let more of my heal hit the ground, sometimes even before the ball of my foot, but in the woods and on hard ground, toes pretty much go first. I have paid careful attention to my children (including a 13 and 14 year old) , who have been doing this all their lives, and they do the same thing.

    As to the comment that it “looks stupid”: So what? Like my momma always asked, if everyone jumped off a cliff, would I do it too? My feet, legs and back feel better than ever. True this past month started with sore calves, feet and hips, but now walking barefoot is so extremely pleasurable, I can’t believe I spent all these years in shoes.

    Now I look at shoes like gloves: I use them when I need them. Other wise, I leave them off.


  9. Cyde Weys Says:

    Brian, thanks for your fascinating comment! It’s definitely not for everyone. In my line of work, I really couldn’t get away with not wearing shoes — at least not at the client site, anyway. And when I’m moving around outdoors, which I try to do every day now for an hour, a lot of that is running on streets and sidewalks. I really don’t see how the whole shoeless thing could possibly work for that level of exertion.

    Your story did remind me of something. A long long time ago, back when I was in kindergarten, there was a kid in my class whose dad was an old hippie (the school being in Takoma Park, MD, that’s not too surprising). This guy never wore shoes. And I saw him a lot at school events because he was very involved with the school. He kind of attracted a lot of attention to himself in that way. Looking at the bottom of his feet reminded me of the whole Johnny Appleseed myth, because this guy had been walking shoeless for decades and his feet showed it. I don’t remember anything about his stride, but I bet it must’ve been different than a person wearing shoes.

  10. Lenny Says:

    Adding to Brian’s comment: when you take your next vacation, Cyde, visit one of the world’s poorer regions and observe the shoeless underclass. You will discover that on uneven terrain the ‘fox walking’ you describe as being ludicrous-looking and mechanically inefficient is, to them, simply walking. On flat, unobstructed paths they walk more like Brian or the article describes. If you buy those Vivos, so will you, because slamming your heel down like a civilized man will hurt like hell.

    If you’ve tried to ‘fox walk’ before, I don’t doubt that you looked ridiculous. Being perpetually shod has made that variant of the proper human stride unnatural for you, and even if it weren’t, walking down a road or across a level floor is not when a person would naturally do it unless trying to sneak. I haven’t worn shoes with soles more than 1/2cm thick (or at all when socially acceptable) since returning from a trip to Eritrea 10 years ago. It took time, but my gait has entirely reverted – as have the foot and knee problems I used to suffer.

  11. hh Says:

    Just a comment about the one suggesting landing on the ball of the foot with the front foot:

    try having the weight more on the back foot, p.s having weight on the back foot is not only a result of the body being further back over the feet, but also the body not leaning to much over to the side of the heal meeting the ground, this way you get more weight on the back foot, and more spring in the step, thus no need to meet the ground hard with the front leg.

    This takes alot of practise, and I suggest seing an alexender technique teacher or similar to get some input, and not a monthy python”silly walk”.

    Walking is strongly habitual, and it takes cautious guidance and awareness in order to have natural progress imo.

  12. Alex Says:

    I am 22 and I only started walking bare foot this a couple of years ago after reading about the benefits of it, such as raising sunken arches, and I can attest that thanks to barefoot walking I no longer have completely flat feet!!!

    Now I try to go barefoot whenever the weather and circumstance permits, and it is definitely FAR more energy efficient to fox-walk than to walk landing on your heels, not to mention it eradicates the possibility of landing hard on a pointy stone; if you stand on one with the balls of your foot your weight is spread out more and you are able to cruise over it without hurting yourself.

    Just yesterday I went for a long (2 hour) walk through the hilly suburbs of my town and was amazed at how quickly and effortlessly I could ascend and descend hills when fox-walking with good posture. It was quite remarkable. And no, your foot doesn’t NEED support, ANYWHERE, that is what the muscles in your arches are for. It just so happens that they have become lazy and weak with shoe-wearing so walking barefoot is quite a workout at first. (For everywhere on your body, not just your feet.)

    If you think about it, that is how we have evolved to walk, heels are clearly not designed to take full impact of our steps as they are rock solid and un-moving things. Like walking on an amputated stub of your leg, or something. Like if our knees were locked, or our spine was a solid bone. You know?

    Good posture is essential though, fox-walking with BAD posture is likely the culprit of any ill-efficiency.

    And once you get the hang of it you don’t look much different from anyone else walking! Apart from the social stigma of not wearing any shoes ;)

  13. Darren Says:

    I discovered barefoot hiking years ago and did a lot of research before taking my first “official” barefoot hike in the 1990s. I’ve probably logged at least 1,000 barefoot miles on hiking trails since then.

    In 2006, I interviewed two medical experts about barefoot hiking, and their responses are included in the story I wrote. Simply click on the name “Darren” above to go to the article, “Barefoot Hiking: Strengthening the Feet With a Soleful Array of Tactile Treats.”