The Barefoot Revolution
Article by: Stephane Robert, Curriculum Coordinator and Physical Educator in the RMCC Athletic Department.
Several years ago, a man by the name of Christopher McDougall wrote an excellent book titled “Born to Run” which seemingly started a footwear revolution. In his book, he described the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who are well known for running distances well beyond the perceived capabilities of even the best marathoners, all the while performing these amazing feats of endurance wearing nothing but thin soled sandals (see below).
As the popularity of this amazing book took off, so has Western society’s interest in the concept of running barefoot.
Since then the demand for minimalist footwear has exploded dramatically. Walk into any gym and you’re sure to find at least one individual wearing some type of “barefoot” style shoe. This ever-growing demand has forced many of the most well-known shoe companies to produce the next and best in minimalist footwear: Vibram Five Fingers, New Balance Minimus, Inov-8 Bare-X, Merrell Trail Glove, Adidas Adipure, and VivoBarefoot are just some of the most popular shoes currently on the market.
The premise behind moving towards a minimalist style of shoe is based on the fact that our feet have evolved since the beginning of man (and women of course!) to function devoid of any type of footwear. Only until relatively recently has this fact been violated with the introduction of the modern day shoe, which may be linked to a host of potential issues.
Considering the foot is littered with both muscles and an extremely high number of sensory receptors, the newly introduced unnatural thick and inflexible sole of the modern day shoe has led to less proprioceptive and tactile demands in terms of controlling the position, movement and feeling of the foot. This then leads to a decrease in the tissue quality of the muscles of the foot through stiffening, shortening and even atrophy of these small muscles (in some cases may cause flat feet); decreased ability over the control and positioning of the actual foot; and finally a diminished sensitivity of the foot in terms of temperature, pain or pleasure.
Adding to the drama of the modern shoe is a relatively significant heel lift.
Nobody will argue that the human body is an extremely intelligent and adaptable piece of “equipment”. When a shift occurs anywhere inside or outside the body, a cascade of events follows in order to ensure the body continues to function in an optimal manner. With the addition of a heel lift, the angle at the ankle joint changes significantly. If one joint angle changes, others throughout the body must compensate in order to remain in an upright position. Therefore this seemingly insignificant heel lift then leads to a shift in the angle at the knee, hip, spine (all segments) and even the shoulder itself (more so as a result of the suboptimal thoracic spine/rib cage position). This can cause significant problems such as heel cord issues, knee pain, lower back pain, “hunchback” type posture known as kyphosis, shoulder issues, and finally neck pain.
DOESN’T STOP THERE…
The modern shoe has another drawback specifically related to the position of the toes. If you take a look at men and women who spend the majority of their day without the use of shoes, you’ll notice their toes are spread widely apart. This increases both the base of support leading to improved balance, but also allows the muscles of all of the toes to function optimally.
When wearing shoes the toes are placed in an unnatural side-by-side position leading to a kind of constriction in terms of toe spread. Although this can lead so some physical dysfunctions, I’ve personally seen the biggest issue in relation to performance. When the ability to “grip” the floor is lost as a result of weakening of the toes (more specifically the outer toes), performance in specific athletic movements then decreases. When shoes are removed for only a few days, many notice that, for the first time, they can feel their baby toe quite literally gripping the ground.
The final issue in terms of conventional footwear is related to why this whole “revolution” started in the first place. Running!
If you spend a few minutes watching a child run from one point to another, you’ll notice that they run rather differently from what is commonly seen in the running form of the average westerner adult. Children and anyone who has grown up without running shoes have a natural tendency to run with their forefoot making first contact on the ground. Instead of landing naturally on the forefoot, which effectively absorbs much of the downwards force, the modern running shoe has led to the heel as the first point of contact. When the heel strikes first, the downward force must now be absorbed by the heel of the shoe and since a heel strike equates to the foot being in front of the knee, the unnatural position leads the knee joint to absorb much of the force. This can lead to minor issues such as knee pain all the way to possible knee replacements if left uncorrected.
After all this being said, it seems common sense that moving towards footwear which more closely mimics being barefoot would lead to significant improvements in posture, injury prevention, general well-being and performance. I really wish it was as easy as ditching the shoes and immediately reaping the benefits of a barefoot lifestyle. Unfortunately, as is many times the case, theory doesn’t always transfer over to reality.
DON’T GET TOO EXCITED!
Although I feel this revolution has done more good than harm, I also feel it has created a host of other physical dysfunctions due to the lack of knowledge on the part of the general public as to proper “use” of the barefoot “method”.
The reality of the situation is that most Westerners have grown up in an environment dominated by the modern day running shoe. Your body, being an amazing and adaptable “vehicle”, has surely compensated through multiple means in order to make sure you’re still working as optimally and efficiently as possible even with these foreign objects attached to your feet.
Let’s begin at the heel lift. As mentioned previously, the angle at the level of the ankle joint must change in order to keep the body in an upright position. Since raising the heel leads the heel cord (think Achilles tendon) to shorten over time, taking away this heel lift automatically causes a slight stretching on the heel cord. This isn’t necessarily a big issue if it’s addressed properly with the use of varied stretching methods as well as tissue quality work (foam rolling, ART, Graston etc…). If these techniques are adopted early on, then full function is definitely possible and actually quite likely.
Unfortunately this step is very rarely taken and instead many individuals begin immediately where they left off in terms of physical activity, such as running several kilometers in their new “functional” barefoot footwear. The reality is the now unnaturally shortened heel cord is continuously in a “stressful” position. This compromised position automatically leads to a decrease in the ankle range of motion (ROM). When you begin to run barefoot, there is an increased need for this full ROM in order to land and takeoff in good order. Since the heel cord cannot meet the demands of the full ROM needed for proper barefoot running form, possible strains or even heel cord ruptures may occur.
Considering the ankle joint doesn’t like unnecessary stress, the body will find a way to compensate in order to do whatever it takes to prevent injury. This typically results in a significant external rotation of the lower leg (think duck stance). This dysfunctional position inevitably leads to some form or another of collapsed arches, excessive strain on the knee, and internally rotated femurs. If left uncorrected, there is a great likelihood of experiencing severe knee issues such as ligament tears, and even dramatic hip issues such as labral tears which will likely require surgical intervention.
WHAT ABOUT RUNNING?
For years I’ve heard the argument that the moment you begin running barefoot, your running technique automatically corrects itself. Although I have seen this happen when coupled with proper running form instruction, it’s not as simple as it seems.
Each year the RMCC PSP staff (including myself) test over 1,000 Officer Cadets, multiple times and in multiple events (including the 20MSR). This affords us the opportunity to watch the running form of many, many individuals. One thing we’ve all noticed is a surge in popularity of minimalist footwear. Unfortunately though, this is rarely ever coupled with the necessary shift in running technique. Instead the individuals continue to land of their heel causing massive amounts of force to be absorbed by the knee joint. You can actually hear their feet slamming into the ground from across the gym! Studies have shown that proper barefoot running is overall the best in terms of force absorption. Second is the conventional method of heel striking using running shoes. But the worst type of running which leads to massive amounts of force being absorbed by the joints (especially the knees) is barefoot running using the conventional running form. Sadly enough almost every individual I see running in minimalist footwear continues to strike with their heel thereby leading to assured musculoskeletal issues.
THERE’S STILL HOPE!
If you want to experience the numerous benefits which can be obtained with adopting a barefoot lifestyle, certain steps MUST be taken in order to assure no unnecessary harm is done to your body. Remember, quick fixes are rare so make sure to never skip any of the steps below.
STEP #1: Have your posture assessed by a qualified individual.
Whether it’s a physiotherapist, chiropractor, athletic therapist or qualified strength and conditioning coach it really doesn’t matter as long as they look at the body in a global manner (i.e. not focusing solely on your feet, or ankles etc…). What they’ll typically look for are postural and muscular dysfunctions and whether or not they’re structural or functional abnormality (i.e. whether or not they can be corrected and to what degree).
STEP #2: Work on ankle flexibility, mobility and tissue quality.
Go to your nearest sports store and buy yourself a cheap lacrosse ball. Place it on the floor, adopt a seated position with your legs outstretched in front of your and begin rolling around on the muscles of your calves. Chances are it won’t feel great, but this is good news in that it indicates much benefit could result from working on the tissue.
Next up, stretch your calves and make sure to include both straight leg and bent knee variations in order to lengthen the majority of the muscles in your calves.
STEP #3: Gradually increase your exposure to barefoot on floor contact.
Whenever you have the opportunity, remove your shoes in order to begin strengthening and regaining the previously lost sensitivity and control of the foot. If you can, go for a short walk (I would recommend buying a decent pair of minimalist footwear as walking barefoot outdoors may result in injury due to debris such as glass and many gyms including the CFB Kingston gym have policies in place to prohibit bare feet as a risk management measure). Once you’ve done this for a while and the initial soreness typically associated with the switch in footwear subsides, then you’re welcome to try an extremely light jog as long as you don’t try to run the distances and times that you used to.
Many individuals make the mistake of performing activities such as 10K’s for time without the slow progression which is necessary in order to allow the muscles and connective tissue of the foot to adapt to the new demands placed on them. What results is incredible soreness and even injury leading them to oftentimes dismiss minimalist shoes as not being effective.
STEP #4: Progress to daily use in most activities.
This is the final step which should only be attempted after all postural issues have been corrected and you’ve spent a lot of time gradually increasing your exposure to minimalist footwear. Failing to do so WILL inevitably result in dysfunction and most probably some form of injury.
Overall I believe including minimalist footwear into your daily life could have a host of potential benefits for everyone from the average Joe to Special Operators. The key things to remember are to take it slow, understand why you’re using minimalist footwear in the first place, and listen to what your body is telling you. If your joints and muscles feel great and your posture is impeccable, then by all means feel confident that you’re on the right track. Just make sure not to strap on a pair of Vibram Five Fingers because you heard they were “functional” or because your buddy has a pair. Understand the risk vs. reward and the work which will be involved in this drastic lifestyle shift.
Stephane Robert is a Physical Educator for the Athletic Department of the Royal Military College of Canada specializing in strength and conditioning. Since coming to RMCC in 2009, he has become more and more involved in the development of strength and conditioning programs for the varsity teams, RMCC Training Programs (including FYOP and 500 PPT), and is currently the head strength coach for the RMCC Sandhurst Team.