The joy of barefoot walking

I always enjoyed the freedom of walking barefooted, though mostly just at home. One major contributing factor was probably that I practiced Judo regularly since I was 11 (only on break since recently due to me moving, finishing my PhD and the COVID19 pandemic) and like many partial arts, it’s a barefoot sport. The warm-up runs, games, gymnastics, strength and of course the Judo exercises and fights are all performed barefooted.

I just love the feeling of standing with my bare feet on the mats, just remembering this feeling sparks joy in me. For much of my life this feeling meant that I can forget all of the daily troubles and go full out and have the best fun during training (even if sometimes, fun means suffering during exercise, but that is still fun for me).

Others might better relate to memories of summer days at the beach or playing in the grass as children. It’s interesting how many memories I can contact with just some feeling under my feet. Of course the intensity of those memories has to do with all the experiences that we associate with those feelings (same reason why I have strong associations with certain smells). But another reason might be the high amount of sensory receptors on our foot soles. However, most of the time when we wear shoes they are deprived of much stimulation. The visual equivalent would be sitting in a room with white walls all day.

Especially during the very hot summers, I sometimes also walk barefoot outside. But this has the downside of having to wash your feet later and once I had a bad experience with stepping on a shard of glass in the basin of a water fountain. Also, there’s societal expectations/norms and people laughing about you, but I usually try not to care much. Still, I can understand why most people don’t walk barefooted.

I don’t think the invention of shoes was a idea. They were invented for a good reason; because people needed them to get work done, to prevent injuries, to march long distances… I’m one of the privileged few with a safe office job in a high-income country. I don’t have to do menial tasks my surroundings are mostly clean and safe (except the occasional glass shard). People whose daily life itself is a fight for survival don’t often seek for adventure in their free time and similarly, I assume they don’t wonder as much about sensory deprivation of their feet.

“Diogenes did not need a study or a warm habitation; it’s hot there without. You can lie in your tub and eat oranges and olives. But bring him to Russia to live: he’d be begging to be let indoors in May, let alone December. He’d be doubled up with the cold.”

β€” Gromov in the short story Ward No. 6 by Anton Chekhov about the ancient Diogenes who was happy with living in a tub.

What potential advantages I see for myself

There’s also some believe that frequent barefooted walking might be have health advantages and might help to prevent foot problems. Several years ago I had pain in the right foot from running. An orthopedist diagnosed me with a mild form of flat feet and prescribed insoles. They definitely helped with the immediate symptoms. However, I didn’t want to depend on them and also tried foot exercises (you can find many online, e.g. on youtube). After over a year I could switch back to shoes and running with no insoles at all without having pain. I don’t know if that’s because of the foot exercises, the insoles of just time, but since then I try to take care for my feet and exercise them as much as possible.

Recently, I was in the local running store for buying new running shoes, because my old ones wore out after a lot of regular running during the pandemic (luckily, the foot pain that I had several year ago never came back). The employer took my footprint and strangely enough didn’t confirm flat feet 🀷. Also they recommended me to do a lot of barefoot walking to improve my running form and stability1. By that they didn’t mean that I should go around my entire life without shoes (it’s a store which sells cushioned running shoes), but I should try to do it at home and in my free time as much as possible.

Later I did some online searches and found some articles that barefoot walking might improve foot strength and running form when combined with foot gymnastics. But I didn’t see any scientific consensus that it might improve flat feet in adults (there were varying opinions), though I didn’t dig into the scientific literature. However, there seems to be more consensus that barefoot walking is important in children to prevent conditions like flat feed. And there are frequent warnings that changing to barefoot walking to fast and doing much of it might actually cause injuries, so be careful and listen to your body.

Discovering minimalist shoes

When hearing in the running store that I should walk more barefoot, I remembered that many of my climber/student friends wear shoes they refer to as barefoot or minimalist shoes (it seems that they are popular recently among this group of people). These are light shoes with thin and very flexible soles and large space in the front for the toes. They protect the feet, but still offer much freedom of movement and make the muscle in the foot work when walking. The lack of cushioning promotes not walking the heels and instead stepping on the mid- or forefoot. You can feel the ground under you much better than in normal shoes, but I still would not claim that it “feels like walking barefoot” because you can’t feel the texture of the ground well and are missing much of sensory input of real barefoot walking. This is why I prefer referring to them as minimalist shoes. It seems that they are quite a hyped currently and not surprisingly, they are quite expensive, which prevented me from buying them when I first heard about them years ago. But now I have some income and a new incentives, so I went to the local store and bought a pair of “Groundies” and do the experiment for myself.

My experience so far

Walking in the minimalist shoes so far seemed surprisingly normal. When I first tried them, I could immediately start walking and it felt quite natural and not strange at all. I guess this is expected in retrospect since we all have walked barefoot in our lives. Walking in socks also doesn’t feel strange, and minimalist shoes are like socks with laces and a rubber sole.

I also find them quite comfortable when working in the office. I just like the lightness and the freedom of movement that my feet and toes have. On hot days it’s really nice how well my feet breath in the shoes, in contrast to other sneakers I don’t miss my sandals or slippers.

However, I found that I don’t enjoy walking on hard surfaces for a long time, like concrete, asphalt or cobblestone. There, I really have to be careful not to step to hard on my heels. On the other hand, walking of soft surfaces like grass or soft earth in those shoes feels very comfortable (though not as much fun as actually being barefooted). But even on hard surfaces walking is okay if I just walk more slowly and pay more attention to how I place my feet. I think this will get easier and more automatic the more used I get to this type of walking, but now, it still gets tiring after a while. So I don’t recommend walking in them for long distances, especially if you are still getting used to minimalist shoes. From what I saw on the internet, changing the shoes to fast can also cause injuries. If you feel pain, just stop.

But one of the other great advantages that I didn’t consider much when buying them, is that due to their light weight and flexibility, you can always take your minimalist shoes with you and they won’t take up much space. Since it’s still warm, I always wear either my minimalist shoes or my Teva trekking sandals and have the other pair of footwear in my backpack. Whenever I feel like my feet need cushioning and arch support, I change to the sandals. Thus, I can increase the volume of the distances that I walk in the minimalist shoes incrementally and get gradually used to them.

So far it has been not a life-changing experience, but it was fun so far. But I still need to wear them for longer and get really used to them before I can give my final personal verdict and decide if that’s really for me. Next weekend I will have a short 6 km hike and I’m excited how it will be to wear the minimalist shoes there. However, since my feet might still get tired, I will bring my trekking sandals as well.

(Maybe I’ll add some pictures later in an update of this post)

  1. : Running store employees, youtubers etc. are not medical professionals and therefore I’d be sceptical. In case of medical issues, I would always visit and listen to your doctor first and foremost. This is the best that you can do for your health. ↩︎