Walking and running shoes have changed almost out of all recognition over the last 50 years or so. In the past, exercisers were more likely to walk or run in their regular street shoes as that was really all that was available. Go back a few more decades and it was more common for people to exercise barefoot than in shoes at all.
Nowadays, there is such a dizzying variety of walking and running shoes on the market you can all but choose a pair that have been designed specifically for your birth sign!
There are shoes designed for every walking and running eventuality including trail shoes, road shoes, racing shoes, supportive shoes, motion control shoes, cross training shoes, treadmill shoes, and even shoes that are designed to, somehow, help you burn more calories when you wear them.
Going back to our roots – barefoot running
However, you may have recently noticed a contradictory trend towards walking and running without shoes or wearing so-called minimalist shoes which provide zero cushioning or support, have no heel raise, and are designed to make you feel as though you are barefoot.
The “sole” purpose (!) of these minimalist shoes is to prevent you from hurting the bottoms of your feet while you run. Some actually look like socks with rubber soles.
Barefoot walking and running is, it seems, making a comeback and, according to its proponents, is much better for you than wearing big, chunky shoes. Walking and running in minimalist shoes to replicate running barefoot makes a certain amount of sense and offers numerous benefits but it is not without certain risks and begs the question; is it right for YOU?
Stronger feet: Walking and running barefoot, or while wearing minimalist shoes, will strengthen your feet and encourages a more natural foot action as you can’t simply “pound the pavement” and rely on your shoes to cushion and support your feet. Instead, you have to walk or run carefully and use your foot and ankle muscles to do the shock absorbing and supporting. This, in time, will strengthen your feet.
More economical: Walking and running barefoot also forces you to stay more on your forefoot which is much more athletic and energy efficient than heavy heel striking. Walking or running on your forefoot means you are always going forward whereas heel-striking is like putting on the brakes each and every step. Theoretically at least, walking or running barefoot should use less energy.
Minimalist shoes are more long lasting: Where a typical walking or running shoe is only really good for 500 miles or so before its supportive and shock absorbing qualities become defunct, a minimalist shoe won’t break down as there is nothing really to compress, wear out, or go wrong.
A pair of minimalist shoes should last much longer than equivalently priced regular walking or running shoes although, for reasons that are unclear, these stripped-down, un-engineered shoes can be quite expensive. Then again, if you go completely barefoot that is not really a concern.
Many people have weak feet: Wearing shoes habitually, as most of us do, has resulted in a large percentage of the population having weak feet. These weak feet lack the ability to support themselves or absorb shock. Going barefoot or wearing minimalist shows could leave your feet exposed to abnormal stresses and strains, normally alleviated by your shoes, that could cause injury.
No means of correcting irregular gait: We all walk and run with differing gaits. Where some people’s feet roll in, others roll out. Some of us are heavy heel strikers while others walk or run more on our toes.
Add into the equation body weight, stride length, and running speed, and you have a host of potential foot-fall issues that often need to be corrected otherwise injury may result. Walking and running shoes often correct gait abnormalities or special insoles, made by podiatrists, may be required to fix more serious problems. If you run barefoot, there will be no way to correct any gait irregularities you might have.
Achilles’ tendon stress: Regular walking and running shoes have elevated heels compared to the toes. This means you never fully dorsi flex your ankle and that can lead to tight calves and Achilles tendons.
Going to a flat, minimalist shoe or walking or running barefoot means you have a “zero drop” from heel to toe and that places your potentially fragile Achilles tendon in an unaccustomed stretched position. This could lead to soreness and even injury. To avoid this problem, introduce barefoot running slowly and make sure you stretch your calves.
Most people do too much too soon: Our barefoot running ancestors had strong feet and ankles so they never had to worry about making the transition from wearing shoes to running shoeless. Our soft and pandered feet however have been coddled since birth so it’ll take some time for them to become accustomed to running in the nude so to speak!
Most people who want to try barefoot walking and running all but set fire to their old shoes and dive headfirst into going barefoot. Invariably, this leads to injury.
Should YOU go barefoot?
Ultimately, while barefoot walking and running may offer some benefits, the fact that so many of us are very reliant on shoes for shock absorption and support means that we may never truly be comfortable without shoes. However, brief spells of barefoot walking and running will strengthen your feet so you are not so reliant on very structured walking and running shoes.
If you do decide to try walking or running barefoot, keep your initial outings short to avoid soreness and even injury and increase duration, distance and speed gradually – over several weeks or months.