Barefoot in the Park

Sandy's feet after a barefoot run

Dirty but happy toes!

My daughter started it. I had been curious, but unsure about trying it. The first time I carried them just in case. But it didn’t take long to know that I was ready to do it. And now, after four weeks, I am shoeless and convinced. I love barefootin’ it!

I’ve tried two activities this summer that changed everything about regular exercises, running and yoga, that I have done most of my adult life. Last month I blogged about doing yoga on a stand up paddle board which changed the way I think about stability and balance. Today I’m going to blog about running barefoot, which has changed the way I think about stability and balance.

And first, a disclaimer. I just submitted my test to become a certified foot specialist.* And I would be in deep doodoo if I didn’t say LOUDLY that you should never, never, ever take feet that have spent 10, 20, or more years in shoes out for a barefoot run without training the feet carefully. Think back to the time you broke your arm or leg or whatever. Did you notice muscular atrophy? After only, like six weeks? Would you have lifted heavy weights or jumped up and down right after that cast was removed? No? Okay then.

So, after strength training my feet for the past two years, I tried running on the sand dune trails near my home. My husband and I have been running these trails for a few years. They offer a perfect surface of packed sand covered with pine needles and leaf meal. And acorns. Did I mention we had been running these trails for years? That we have named every hill? That we also know all of the roots, benches, and trail spurs by memory? For my first barefoot run, I had no idea whatsoever where I was. At all. I went totally Zen. I had to focus my eyes on the trail just ahead as I navigated through the roots and debris. Occasionally an acorn would lay in wait under what appeared as nice soft leaf meal and I would have to instantly adjust my foot placement and quickly rebalance my body. Every step took total concentration. Thank goodness my dear spouse stayed close by to guide me and that I didn’t try my first barefoot run somewhere in traffic.

The second run was less disorienting. I could look up and mostly I knew where I was. I noticed that I was holding my torso much more erect in order to shift my balance quickly. Sometimes an acorn would get me, but rather than feel like I might fall over, it just hurt a bit. I also ran a little faster.

By the third week, I saw acorns, but didn’t notice the sharp pain of stepping on them. I wondered if they were somehow washed out from under the leaf meal, but my daughter confirmed she had experienced the same thing after a few weeks (which would have been when I was very much feeling them). A friend that also runs the dunes wanted to see the bottom of my feet to see if I had grown thick calluses. The funny thing is that my feet really have not been so callus-free in a very long time. It was about this time I taught about proper foot alignment to stabilize the hips in my weekly yoga classes. By the end of the week, I DID notice one thing: very tired hip stabilizer muscles. More than usual.

Even running shoes have heels. Most have about an inch incline from the ball of the foot. In my foot specialist training, the physics of a positive heel was taught. And guess what! I’m going to teach it to you! This conservative one-inch heel will pitch you forward 30 degrees. In order to adjust to that forward pitch, we bend slightly at the knee and hip. Essentially, every step we take is a tiny little fall forward and a tiny little catch by our leg joints, especially the knee and hip. It doesn’t seem like a lot until you do the math. Ten thousand steps every day and the ensuing tiny little falls for 365 days a year times 50 or more years is like a gizillion tiny little falls. Ever visit the Grand Canyon? Each tiny little molecule of water added up to quite a big deal of wear and tear on those rocks. In the same way, our soft connective tissues erode in our overused leg joints and eventually we even begin to wear away on the bone surfaces.

So, by ditching my shoes, I also straightened and repositioned my body, which made my hip flexors stretch back to their proper length. I had to simultaneously pull my torso into a more erect position to maintain balance, so those hip flexors had to work harder while lengthening. It is what we call in the fitness biz a “strong” muscle–one that can BOTH eccentrically and concentrically contract. And since training begins to take effect after about 4-6 weeks, it explains why my hips were feeling it at week three.

But what about the acorns? Next lesson: your feet should be able to move like your hands. Hold your hands out in front of you and separate your fingers. Now hold your feet out in front of you and separate your toes. All of them. Including Miss “weeweewee all the way home.” If you cannot do it, you now have your first foot strength training exercise assignment.

The intrinsic muscles of our feet–which means simply, those muscles that start and end in the foot–are weak from being in shoes, just like those arm or leg muscles that were once in a cast. Weak muscles do not move joints very well. Your feet have over 30 joints. The acorns didn’t disappear, nor did my feet suddenly develop a layer of super strong skin. My feet muscles simply began to move their joints and adjust for stepping on those little buggers.

It’s actually pretty simple: I used my body to move in the way it was designed. Now I have more stable hips, more aligned knees, and more mobile feet. My running form is improving–I am more erect and in control. To use an old phrase, less really IS more!!

*certification through Katy Bowman, MS, director of the Restorative Exercise Institute. Her most recent book is Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief.