In fact – it influences much more beyond just Movement!
The biomechanics of our feet and space that they have to live in will dictate everything from our strength, posture and pain. Interestingly there are even more links to all the other functional systems of the body. Whether that is breathing and cardio-respiratory function, circulation and lymphatics, TMJ (jaw), vestibular and vision function, or even gut health.
Let’s look at some of the key Principles when considering a change in footwear.
Start with Informed Choice
You don’t actually need to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ barefoot footwear. If you love this type of shoe, you don’t need to ‘hate’ conventional trainers, shoes and high heels.
The health industry is full of extremes and you don’t actually need to be versus this or that.
VivoBarefoot have a pretty firm stance: “Over the last few hundred years, trends in shoe design have distorted our idea of the foot. As a result, bonkers shoe shapes have become fashionable and normalised, to the detriment of our feet and ultimately healthy human movement.”
But, in reality these are all just different options with different outcomes.
We’ll leave those arguments and debates to the rest of the industry.
Instead we’ll focus on options, choices and changes you can consider to help progress to your own individual goals.
Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of different types of footwear will be key to making decisions congruent with the desired outcome.
And if you are truly interested in your next footwear to be minimalist and barefoot style – then it’s essential that you are aware of the pitfalls and challenges related to them. With the ultimate goal of achieving and emphasising the benefits and minimising the risk of the drawbacks.
Conventional Footwear Considerations
Shoe shapes that appear the most popular today are criticised by the barefoot community for not taking into account the natural function of the foot.
These shoes, be them trainers, school shoes, working boots, wellies, sandals, flip-flops, high heels, sports footwear etc – have all been designed to fulfil a certain brief for a certain niche.
That’s doesn’t make them right or wrong – good or bad – but they certainly don’t appear to be delivering on the value of natural foot function.
VivoBarefoot describe the origin of the pointed shoe: “The humble pointed toe shoe was originally developed to allow feet to easily slide into horse stirrups, with a heel block to stop them from sliding too far through them. Back in the day, the shape and quality of a gentleman’s boots were a pretty good indicator that his equestrian skills were up to scratch and that he had a decent ride hitched up outside. These days not many of us commute to work on a horse and therefore you would have thought the market for stirrup friendly footwear would have disappeared long ago. This is not the case as the vast majority of the 23 billion pairs of shoes made each year have heels of some form and pointy toe shapes.”
Integrate any change in Footwear
Just deciding which or what footwear to start wearing is only part of the process. How you actually bring them in will greatly influence the success and integrating them I can be applied in quite a simple way.
Let’s say you’ve decided to invest in some barefoot footwear. Here are some very simple factors and variables to consider as you introduce them to your feet and integrate them into your life:
Type – Which type of footwear have you been wearing for the last few years/decades? This is what your feet currently ‘know’. It’s what they are used to. Conventional shoes and trainers, work boots, high heels, school shoes, flip flops, wellies, etc? Consider how much of a change this would be for your feet when you change your footwear. Whilst it may be for the ultimate benefit, going from high heels or arch support trainers to barefoot shoes can be quite dramatic and needs to be done carefully.
Frequency – How often will you wear the new footwear as you gradually bring them in?
Duration – start with 20 minutes per day and build up from there.
Activity – Start with more basic activities and movements such as standing and walking, before you start to perform more dynamic and intensive exercises like running, training or playing sport.
Terrain – Consider starting on softer surfaces like grass, before progressing towards harder surfaces like concrete and pavements.
Correctives – Just putting our feet in another shaped shoe will not always be the wisest step. In addition, you could perform some additional toe, foot and ankle corrective exercises as part of your routine. Afterall – we are re-educating and challenging the feet to experience something else and still be able to perform effectively.
Be creative with these and you’ll significantly reduce the risk of creating stresses, strains, pains and injuries that could occur. And emphasise the benefits.
Sensory / Stimulus / Proprioception
You will notice that the minimalist and barefoot footwear will have a tinner sole than most other footwear.
Consider that a foundation of movement is Proprioception. This is the communication between the receptors throughout the body (feet in this case) and the brain and how that sensory feedback loop functions and thus creates movement.
Take out the natural stimulus and rich sensory communication pathway and movement is ‘dulled’ too.
It’s not about ‘barefoot running’ per se. It’s about all movement.
When this is flowing well we have constant information about where we are in space and time. You don’t see a tennis player watching their feet so that they don’t trip over. A fell runner can leap up and down mountains and rough terrain whilst orienteering (and taking in the scenery). A leopard will sprint across the undulating savanna while laser-focussed on their prey!
Whilst the feet do not have as many sensory nerves as for example or hands, it’s simply about not shutting down the foot by locking it tightly in narrow spaces and wedging thick soles between the sole and the earth/ground.
What happens when we lose this feedback mechanism? We have to overly rely on our other senses for movement in our environment. Conscious and subconscious fear of injury and distrust of our capacity means we typically move slower, over use our vision and eyes to look down at the floor and shuffle more cautiously.
Space / Width
The foot and ankle complex consists of 28 bones, 33 joints, 112 ligaments and is controlled by 13 extrinsic and 21 intrinsic muscles.
There’s a wisdom to this design.
Of course the foot is responsible for great levels of movement. But it also has a significant job to do in dissipating force and load. These are impact forces from the surfaces below and gravity and weight forces from above.
If we compress the foot, lock it up and treat it almost as if it were just one block, rather than 33 joints – then we will simply lose these capacities somewhat.
One of the key principles of barefoot footwear is acknowledging that the shape and especially the width of the foot needs to be complemented.
If the shoe shape is constricting and squeezing the foot into a narrow alignment then this will compress the tissues. The fascia, nerves, tendons, ligaments, muscles and bones will have a lot more pressure on them and the movement of the joints will not be able to move as effectively.
The shape of the foot will likely become distorted. We’ll likely see the anatomical, structural and physical changes in shape of the foot. They’ll probably have been given a name or diagnosis. There may be some treatment options in place for these conditions.
To some degree these distortions could become permanent. But there is still a huge scope for giving the feet a different environment and enabling more functional anatomy and movement.
Anatomy of the Heel Raise
There are various reasons and justifications for the conventional shoe and trainer heel raise. High Heels footwear are another example, but even other therapeutic and orthopaedic approaches to footwear promote cushioned heel raises as beneficial.
Encouraging the heel strike is thought to provide much more impact up into the leg, knee and hip.
Literally missing out the dissipation capacity of the mid/fore foot.
The higher heel to lower forefoot will also change the anatomical alignment of the foot and ankle causing different movement mechanics here. This doesn’t just impact the running and walking gaits – but significantly – the other functional blueprint movements such as squatting.
So barefoot footwear is more interested in providing zero heel raise, complementing the natural relationship the foot would have with the surface that it is on when moving, walking and running.
There are many trainers and orthotics designed around providing support for the arch of the foot. There can be benefits and value in this, as many podiatrists and biomechanists would attribute.
But there are also many more questions we could ask in this situation.
In short – the barefoot movement would see arch support strategies as inhibiting the natural pronation and shock absorbing system inherent in the foot.
After all – the foot arch and achilles tendon are designed to receive, store and then recoil about half of this impact energy, where natural movement contributes to natural movement.
Cushioning the Musical Score Sheet
Imagine the movement pattern of walking (gait) as a musical score sheet. The order of specific notes being the sequence in which specific muscles are firing to produce a specific movement pattern.
Ideally this music/movement plays perfectly. Melodic.
Yet if we change the order of the notes, miss some out and add new ones it, it will not sound quite right. It’ll be more like noise. The movement will be ineffective.
The narrowing and locking up of the foot, rigidity, dulling of the senses, cushioning, heel raise and arch support, will severely muffle and distort the sound.
Some practitioners were say that the big toe is the most important joint in the body when it comes to walking/running.
To put this in context – just consider how much opportunity for movement your big toe has when you are wearing shoes, high heels, sports footwear etc.
Then compare it to when you are barefoot.
There’s a huge difference!
Why is this important? Well, First Ray flexion (bending our big toe) relates greatly to foot arch function and optimal levels of pronation and natural spring-loading.
When the big toe joint is rigid or dysfunctional we simply change the mechanics of the whole foot and lose the natural shock absorbing system.
So, of course, barefoot footwear (and even sock design) encourages the full function and flexibility of the first ray.
Barefoot – Final Word
The ideas, mechanisms and answers are there for us to observe and learn from.
Nature has provided the functional anatomy. The feet will define the natural laws.
The feet aren’t owned or defined by footwear.
Yet – the idea of adding ‘footwear’ to this perfect system is all valid.
And we definitely have options and choices to make. Give yourself the informed choice and options of all footwear and stay balanced.
The feet will teach us. Can we see both sides, a balance, left and right as it were? They’ll ‘ground’ us in more ways than one.
Ultimately – clarify your goals and desired outcomes and enjoy the process of wearing whatever footwear gets you there!
Any Questions? Just ask: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the Functional Health Clinic, Newcastle: https://functionalhealthclinic.co.uk/map-directions/
PS – I’ve found the Vivo Barefoot shoes to work well for me. Great for the indoor, movement work we do in the clinic. You can find out a lot more on the VivoBarefoot website via this link (affiliated).