Updated: Nov 26, 2022
Started Me On The Path to Looking Into Barefoot Shoes
I have to start with a disclaimer. Sorry! Now, nothing in this post is meant to be taken as medical advise, personal trainer and/or fitness advise, or anything like that. This is the take of a layperson in this field. This post is intended for informational and educational purposes. With that said, it started with me watching some YouTube videos.
I know what you might be thinking. Sure, there may be some accurate stuff on YouTube... But there can be a lot that isn't accurate. But that wasn't what sold me on trying out barefoot shoes or looking more closely at walking barefoot. It got be thinking about some things I already new about science. See, I don't know a lot about biology and related science fields. But I do know a bit about physics. The videos got me thinking. So, that's what I did.
The Way Shoes Are Designed Don't Make Sense To Me
When I looked at the videos, they showed feet that were both deformed a bit, such as with bunions, as well as feet that appeared to be healthy. The healthy ones have the big toe straight in alignment with the rest of the side of the foot. However, when I look at my shoes, and some of the shoes of people I know, they tend to curve inwards on both sides. This doesn't seem like much of a problem for the side with the smaller toes, but rounding such that the big toe can't be straight seems problematic to me.
Another problem I've started paying more attention to is how I walk with and without shoes. Without shoes I tend to walk more with the wider part of my foot in the middle and the front. I also notice I use my toes more. On the other hand, when I walk with my "normal" shoes, I lead with my heel. When I was at a water park, I started paying attention to this. If patrons and lifeguards were wearing shoes or sandals, they walk with their heel being the first to touch the ground. But if they were barefoot, they walked more with the wider parts of the foot.
So, it is my estimation that many shoes make you walk in a way that is not natural. Some would say that the foot needs help. But before there were these relatively recent forms of shoes, people wore simpler shoes, wraps, or perhaps no shoes. One thing is clear is that you aren't born with shoes. I don't want to say there is no place for them, or clothes, as we need both of them. But it makes sense to me that the design, especially in the 21st century, should more closely follow the anatomy it's supporting. This should not be the other way around.
I don't think I'd be doing this topic justice if I didn't at least speak on this last design problem. If humans were meant to walk barefoot, coming into the world without shoes, well perhaps shoes offer too much support. Many of you probably have heard of the phrase "if you don't use it, you'll lose it" or something similar. Well, part of being healthy is being strong. But, if your shoes offer too much support and padding, you could cause problems just from having weak muscles.
Adding A Little Physics into Walking
I'm aware that walking with the heel solidly striking the ground before the rest of the foot may seem "natural" to many. This may be the case even when barefoot. But that doesn't make sense to me from a physical forces and stability standpoint. To me, you want to walk such that you minimize the forces and pressures acting on your feet and translating through your body. I'll give you some examples to show what I mean.
Two Sides of a Knife to Show the Importance of Pressure
If you take the flat part of a knife, and try to use it to damage or break some garlic, you'll probably find that it takes significant to substantial effort to break the garlic apart. You could apply that to some nuts or hard-shelled legumes as well. But if you use the sharp part of a knife, you can damage/cut things with a lot less effort. Why is that?
Well, the difference in using the knife edge and the flat is the pressure you're able to put on something. And pressure can change even if you apply the same force. Pressure is the amount of force, which can also be measured as a weight, applied over a given area. So, 5 pounds of force applied over a square inch will be less than 5 pounds applied over a square millionth or billionth of an inch. The knife edge could be micrometers or nanometers. That's small. So, of course you can apply more pressure, and thus cut through more things, with the knife edge versus the flat portion.
Pressure will also apply to your body. You generally don't want to over stress your body. While the difference in your heel width and foot ball width isn't so drastic as the flat of a knife versus it's edge, you do get a reduction of pressure using the wider part of your foot. There is another component to lowering the pressures and forces on your feet, and your body, as well. How fast does your body weight come to a complete stop walking heel first versus ball first? The overall forces can be vastly different in one versus the other. Guess what? I've got another example for you.
The Life and Death of the Fragile Egg
When talking about walking, we are talking about impact forces. You probably have heard your doctor (or similar professional) refer to certain exercises as high or low impact. Every time you take a step, a portion of your weight is coming down on your foot and translating through your body. An important thing about impact forces is that they are greater when something comes to an abrupt stop and less when something is allowed to stop more gradually. An egg is a great example of this.
If you drop an uncooked egg on the ground, it's very likely to break. You usually don't have to drop it from very high up, either. But, if someone threw an egg at you very fast, and you caught the egg just right, the egg likely would not break. See, it's not the speed the egg is traveling at that's the problem. It's the sudden acceleration or deceleration and the egg mass that causes the overall force acting on it.
Applying that concept to your foot, well if you walk heel first, it tends to feel a little jarring if barefoot on a hard surface. It looks and feels like the foot is coming to a stop pretty quickly. But, if you use the ball or wider portion, you can touch the ground with your weight more gradually and gradually (at least compared to the heel) let the rest of your weight hit the ground.
The Physical Conclusions of a Good Gait and Use of the Feet
I'll try to keep this bit short. If you walk in a way that takes advantage of physics as shown above, you likely will have less overall forces and pressures acting on your feet and body. Less unnecessary stresses due to efficient use of the feet and walking may help improve certain ailments. The body is a complex bio-mechanical machine in a number of ways. One thing being out of whack could cause a chain reaction of issues.
As stated before, this is not medical or fitness advise. I'm hoping to get you thinking and shine some light on this. If you have questions on how to proceed, seek out a qualified medical or similar professional.
Now for the Barefoot Shoes Part, Finally!
I decided to try some barefoot shoes so that I could more readily take advantage of the physics and potential benefits I mentioned earlier. Before I got a pair, I tried, just for fun, to walk where I didn't put the heel down first. This was very awkward. It feels like the shoe is designed to make me need to put my heel down first. There is so much thickness in the sole that... It just didn't feel practical to try to walk like I want in "normally" designed shoes.
The barefoot shoes, on the other hand, do allow me to walk more like I described. I definitely can feel the ground better and walk differently. But they still offer some protection. I notice that if I try to walk in these shoes like I do my normal shoes, my feet fatigue more. And that should be expected. I don't normally walk miles and miles barefoot, so I need to get used to them.
The first pair I got did have a much wider toe box, that didn't squish my big toe inward. However, it wasn't wide enough overall. So, I had to take it back and get a wide pair. They were wide enough and seem to be working out so far. I don't want to bash the need for shoes. There are some environments out there that it would probably be unwise to not wear some form of protection. People had been doing it for centuries and longer. But, the design does matter.
The key differences I've noted in the barefoot shoes I have is that they have minimal padding, thin soles, a very wide toe box to allow the toes to spread, and they don't elevate the heel. My normal shoes tend to curve near the toes on both sides, elevate the heel, have lots of support, and thick soles. I am looking for a bare of barefoot shoes designed more for hiking that offer a bit better protection. But I'm going to focus on what I have for now. I plan to have an update on my thoughts after using them.