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Should You Be Going Barefoot More Often?

Get-Fit Guy spent some time chatting with Vivobarefoot CEO Galahad Clark about the importance of going barefoot and the health science presented the new documentary Shoespiracy. 

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #451
Photo of feet doing an exercise known as toe-ga

A while ago I wrote an article called How to Build Strong and Pain Free Feet that really resonated with a lot of people. Apparently, foot pain is even more of a problem than I thought. Is going barefoot more often one possible remedy?

In my article, I mentioned that although most shoes are specifically designed for various aspects of athletic performance, general protection, correcting footfall, and lookin' good, many of them do not manage to avoid some very important factors:

  • Toe-boxes that press your toes together, weakening foot muscles and weakening nerves
  • Thick soles that reduce sensory input in the nerves in the feet
  • Elevated heels that limit the foot and ankle's proper range of motion
  • Built-up arches that do the work your natural arch muscles and ligaments should be doing

I linked to lots of research in my article, and the evidence is still piling up. According to a new study of shod and unshod walkers in the Journal Nature, wearing shoes when we walk is changing how our feet interact with the ground below us. No matter how big our foot callouses get, shoes are still causing more issues than we imagined. 

My guest, Galahad Clark, noticed these issues. It's why he created a line of barefoot-style shoes (I'm a proud owner—check out the Magna Trail shoes). It is also why he created the mini-documentary called Shoespiracy. After I watched the documentary, and had a lovely old biomechanical geek-fest with Galahad about foot health, I invited him on the podcast to fill us in on when, why, and how often we should be spending more time barefoot.

Interview: The Benefits of Going Barefoot

Below is a transcript of the interview. But, as with all my podcasts, I encourage you to listen to the audio. Not only does Galahad have a lovely accent, but you really miss out on the nuance of the conversation if you only read it. You have been warned—hah! 

Brock: Galahad, I know you've got an interesting background, a family history of shoemakers or cobblers. So, I'll let you take it away.

Galahad: Yeah. Hi, my name is Galahad Clark. I'm the CEO and founder of Vivobarefoot. I come from a long line of cobblers. Specifically, seven generations that have been making shoes in the southwest of England for all that time.

It was actually a childhood friend of mine, who came from the same little village where I grew up and where the family shoe business was, that came to me with the idea of barefoot shoes. He'd taken a pair of Nike Huaraches and cut off the soul and slipped on a tennis racket cover and said: "This is the way shoes should be made."

To cut a long story short, I instinctively loved the idea. Then, as this Pandora's box of science, biomechanics, and holistic health (and everything you can care to imagine) opened up, the less and less shoe we started to wear. Then we started to learn about the anatomy and function of the foot, and that was about a five-year process. 

Then, in 2012, we finally decided to launch Vivobarefoot as a standalone brand and drop everything else that I was doing in shoes. As we believed so much in "this is the way shoes should be made." Then, the knowledge and insight built and built and culminated in what we hope is just the video trailer now of what will be the longer documentary "Shoespiracy."

Brock: Oh, wonderful. I thought it was just a mini-documentary, and that was enough for me, to be honest though, I learned a lot from the mini-documentary. I can't wait to see a more extended version.

Galahad: You should be crying out for more Shoespiracy, is the hope.

Brock: All right!

Well, so what was it about that sort of deconstructed Nike shoe that actually allowed the foot to move differently—or, dare I say, move properly?

Galahad: Most shoes obviously have padding. They have a restricted shape, and generally, they have some kind of support or definitely a general lack of flexibility. And we just started making prototypes, literally just doing foot coverings around as close to our foot shape and foot function as possible. We came at it from a fairly traditional cobbler's point of view. By this time there was a growing number of scientists and experts that were obviously lining up behind the foot, and you know, what happened in America and the early 2009 or 2010 and the explosion of Vibram FiveFingers. This is what we call the "first barefoot revolution," which has unfortunately rather subsided.

We now like to think that we are at the dawn of the second barefoot revolution, which is going to be a calmer, more considered and educated revolution against conventional shoes. Going back to shoes that allow the foot to do their natural thing. But we hope it will be more considered in the way that people understand that you just should walk before you run.

It's sort of an almost unshackled journey back to the foot from running to just allowing ourselves to walk before we run and build up the strength in our feet before we build up the exercise.

Brock: I know when we spoke before, you told me something interesting that I wasn't actually anticipating. That was that you actually have a rule— or maybe you just discourage people that are using Vivobarefoot shoes to not actually run in them.

Galahad: Especially in the beginning! It's just so important to get used to less shoe.

My favorite marketing campaign that we've never quite done yet is "don't run in our shoes." The worst thing you can do is go from wearing, let's say, conventional padded, supported, tapered shoes to then suddenly going running barefoot. It's like having your arm in a cast and then the first thing you do when you get the cast off is to go and play tennis. Maybe it would be better if you just take your take some time to build up the strength again.

The worst thing you can do is go from wearing conventional padded, supported, tapered shoes to then suddenly going running barefoot.

I'll just tell you about some research that has just come out, that I'm not sure we were able to talk about the last time we spoke.

It's a pretty good study at the University of Liverpool, with 50 young kids in their twenties and a control group. The kids spent six months just walking around in barefoot shoes, with the control group in their normal shoes. And after six months they recorded a 60% increase in foot strength, which is unbelievable, and you can extrapolate from would arguably be 100% after a year.

But the point is not that walking around barefoot makes your feet stronger. The point is walking around in conventional shoes takes away so much of your natural strength from your feet. So, all that's happening is you're just regaining the natural strength. Your foot is full of muscles that are allowed to lay dormant because of thin toe boxes and over-supported arches and things, those muscles atrophy. It's Wolff's law basically: if you don't use it, you lose it.

Brock: That is a really important distinction that you just made there. Because I think a lot of people don't necessarily want to have "strong feet," they're not going to lift weights with their feet. They don't realize that that foot strength is actually, like you said, just returning to our natural-born ability, not some sort of foot-weight-lifter.

Galahad: Yeah. And this is just your base layer. And that's literally just from walking around in everyday life. That's not doing any exercise.

You may be spending three or four hours a week doing exercise or going to the gym, on average (some people obviously do a lot more, some people less). But you spend probably over a hundred hours just walking around, and that's obviously the really important time. There are all those little movements, even just standing, waiting for a bus, all the little micro-movements going on your feet. The balancing, the re-engaging your big toe. It's all happening, all the time through gravity, just when you're standing and walking around.

There are all those little movements, even just standing, waiting for a bus, all the little micro-movements going on your feet.

Brock: So, the documentary does an awesome job of explaining the difference between walking, standing, running, whatever it is, in these built up shoes versus the way that our bare feet would actually move. But can you, for the people who haven't watched the documentary yet—and I encourage everyone to check it out—can you just sort of sum up the difference between a barefoot or a barefoot shoe versus the conventional shoe with a cushioned heel and support?

Galahad: Yes! We like to say "WTF." Which, for us, means: wide, thin and flexible, in this case (but it might be WTF of normal shoes).

Well, let's start with the three systems of the body, which are:

  1. your skeletal system
  2. your muscles and tendons
  3. your nervous system

They all have amazingly high concentrations in your feet, where you've got 28 bones and countless other joints. And, most importantly, you have your big toe, which is four times as thick and four times as dense as your other toes. And the ability for your big toe to reach out straight and act as your body's pivot and anchor is essential to natural movement. And nearly every shoe takes the big toe and shoves it up in the air (what's called toe spring in shoemaking) and sort of pushes it against the other toes. So it not only can't function but it actually gets deformed.

Most people, wearing normal shoes, have big toes that push up against their other toes. In many ways, they sort of point diagonally to the middle of the foot, rather than diagonally away from the foot, and be bold and strong like it should be. That's the first big thing.

The second big thing is your foot is designed to splay and recoil with every step. Arch is designed to be very dynamic, and any support or restriction in a normal shoe stops that foot movement. When the foot is moving, and the toes are splaying and recoiling, there's a lot of muscles and ligaments that work in that movement.

Even in the ankle joint, there's a tremendous amount of shock absorption that naturally should take place in the feet. Whereas when the foot is supported and constrained, all those natural springs, levers, and muscles are basically laid dormant. The shoes being wide and flexible are essential for that natural foot motion and strength.

You have hundreds of thousands of nerve endings in the soles of your feet. Any padding underfoot, say more than 10 millimeters, will restrict that sensory feedback from the feet.

And then arguably the most important is you have hundreds of thousands of nerve endings in the sole of your feet, rather like your hands. So any padding underfoot, say more than 10 millimeters, will necessarily restrict that sensory feedback from the feet. And the less good information your brain gets from your feet, the less good movement decisions it makes. And specifically, it allows [us], even just in walking people, to massively overstride. So even though when your walk is still a heel-to-toe gait, you just take shorter strides, and the impact curve is a much more gentle one. Whereas if you sort of overstride in heels, in any kind of padded shoe, the heel hits the ground with a much more sudden impact. And that's what causes the problems in the knees or the lower back.

So in walking, it's more subtle, but built up over thousands of steps every day. It's an accumulated impact on the body. So, wide, thin, and flexible shoes lead to strong, sensory, and stable feet, which is what they're designed to be like.

Brock: Now, aside from buying some Vivobarefoot shoes, what can my readers do to start looking after the health of their feet?

Galahad: Just wear less shoe, in general. The point is just to disassociate barefoot from just running and bring it back to everyday life and wearing less shoe in everyday life— and especially for your kids.

But if you do want to actively do more than just "wear less shoe," then there's wonderful toe exercises you can do. One of them is to put an elastic band between your two big toes and gently flex out the toe and feel the strength of the big toe re-engaging.

Just flex your toes up and down, fold your big toe under your foot while you're in the shower, and things like that. Squatting is a wonderful way to build flexibility back into your feet — even things like standing on a ball just to massage it and reawaken the foot again.

Just actively think about your feet. Think about using them more. And there are exercises you can do, a lot of them on our website—we have under a thing called Toega—to kind of reawaken all the muscles and ligaments and function back into your feet.

Look after your kids' feet. Keep them wild and engaged and sensory.

And most importantly look after your kids' feet, you know, keep them wild and engaged and sensory. There's a lot of research now showing that people who are walking around in padded shoes in a concrete world literally have parts of that brain atrophying. Because your body is designed with whole parts of your brain, like the part that gets information from your hands... designed to get information from your feet in a vital everyday kind of way. And so the more you just take off your shoes and feel the earth under your feet, the better for your brain, the better for your kids learning, the better for your creativity.

You know, as a famous rap star in America said, Mos Def, "Comfortable people don't become revolutionaries." It's getting away from this padded lifestyle—less padding, more feeling—and that's the way the body is designed. To really feel the nature and be connected to nature. All this jumping in ice-cold baths, and all that kind of thing is all part of it. It's your body feeling temperature, feeling hot, cold, everything that has to offer. I think that the one bit of research on 'things that definitely make humans happier' is that the closer they are to nature, the happier that they are. So every little bit in that direction helps.

Brock: Well, I think that's a great message and a great place to leave off. So, if people want to find out more about you, about the documentary, and anything else to do with foot health, where would be the best place to connect with you?

Galahad: Well me, personally, I'm happy to hear from you all, and my email is Galahad at Vivobarefoot.com. I'm not a super fast responder, but I try and get around to it. And then our website has sections that are full of exercises and everyday hacks to get back to healthy natural movement.

Yeah, it's pretty intuitive for everyone. I think if you want to see a great example of pure, healthy natural movement, watch any four or five-year-old kid running around a swimming pool in bare feet, running on hard concrete, making lots and lots of little steps. Their head perfectly balanced above their hips, above their feet. They're laughing, and they're relaxed, they're throwing themselves in and out of the pool. Adults can learn a lot from that movement. You know, we lose it when we go to school and are told to sit down and shut up. I think, aspirationally, to run around the pool, in bare feet, run in and out, chasing kids around is probably a good summer hack for everyone's feet.

Brock: I love it. I'm going to go and do that this afternoon.

Thank you for coming on the Get-Fit Guy podcast. It was great to hear from you. I really think it's a valuable and important message to get out there.

There are so many people suffering from foot pain and ankle pain, knee pain, back pain, and it all can be aided if not cured by just getting some healthy and strong feet.

Galahad: And, you know, as we said, that the weaker your feet are, the more the rest of your body has to compensate. So the more strain on the knees, the hips and the back. And we just hear so many cases of people just getting back their natural foot health, and then back issues and knee issues just going away.

So, wish you all a happy journey back to healthy, natural movement and strong feet.

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About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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