When a person has had a cast on a part of their body that was broken, one day the doctor takes the cast off and gives some advice about gradually getting strong again. Sometimes, in other situations, a brace of some sort is used to force bones to adopt a more preferable shape, but even this is limited because it creates weak muscles and skin problems. In fact, the main reason for gradually transitioning out of a brace is to help the body remember the shape that it was forming. Any sort of stiff or thick covering on the body is cumbersome and used only when absolutely necessary, like when a body part is permanently non-funtioning. Gloves, face masks, knee pads, are all only worn for specific purposes in specific conditions. To wear them at all times would greatly inhibit both the use of that body part and comfort.
I find it hard to believe that most people need to brace or constantly protect any part of their body, including their feet. However, most of the population in our country regularly stick their feet in hard cases or on inflexible platforms. It leads to all kinds of problems, but the problems have become so common place that they are rarely associated with shoes. Instead the poor feet are condemned and ridiculed. They have become the victims of both false accusations and false imprisonment.
Having the proper evaluation of shoes can help in devising an approach to running or walking without shoes. If you realize the majority of shoes are really abnormal, unhealthy bracing and distortion devices, you can see that so-called transition is really a misleading concept. It really should be called “strengthening and recovery.” Sure, the idea may be to go from running with shoes to running without any shoes (or very minimally) but if you’ve been hobbling around with a splinted ankle or suffering with neck brace, you aren’t going from one healthy alternative to another. You have to start from basics and be patient so that the previously restricted body won’t be injured.
The longer a body part has been in a cast, or the more restrictive or oddly shaped the cast or brace has been, the weaker the surrounding musculature has become. It will take longer to regain strength and reform proper muscle memory. Keeping the cast or brace on for some of the time reinforces bad habits and keeps it weaker longer. The better idea is to be done with that which fosters these things and move forward to health.
Every person has a different history of shoe usage. You can’t base how long it will take your feet and attached muscles to get strong based on how long it took someone else. From another point of view, a person who has gone barefoot for a long time can tell you a lot about the potential of bare feet, but may have very little insight into what it feels like to recover from shoes. Someone like me who has pretty much worn low heel shoes for 30 years will not have the same trouble strengthening as someone who regularly wears high heels. Still, there are some basics about anatomy and physiology that we can all understand. So here are my simple suggestions for learning to use your feet the way they were designed:
- Wear shoes as little as possible. You don’t want your feet to remember shoe shapes. Walk and run with bare feet when you walk and run.
- Very gradually increase the amount of effort you put into propelling yourself with bare feet. Slow is good, even for walking. And for running. If you are getting out of breath or being intense you are not going to be able to pay attention to things. You need to be watching the ground and thinking about being light and springy. You can’t do that if you are gasping for air.
- You should begin trying very short distances for any running. Did I say short? I mean less than a half mile. Probably ¼ mile. There are parts of your feet and legs that you don’t know about that need time to adapt and get strong.
- Walk and run in places where you can see what is on the ground. Other people’s grass or anything your feet can sink into means trouble waiting to happen. My grass is the only grass I will run around on because I have a good idea of what is there and where the holes are. I would rather run on gravel than into mud when I don’t know what is on the bottom. Even a smooth rock can take a chunk of skin off.
- That said, don’t be overly concerned about minor flesh wounds. You will heal from smaller cuts, blisters, and scratches more quickly than you think. I even run with bare feet much of the time without covering such abrasions. If you aren’t pushing the running schedule and effort you will probably have fewer unnecessary problems. But keep in mind that it is not a perfect world. People hurt themselves. Also, the injuries to skin are much less of a problem than injuries to joint and ligaments.
- Develop the habit of scanning the ground as you run. It won’t take as much energy as you think, but it has to be done. Really, people in shoes should be paying more attention to the ground, too, but shoes lull them into false security. Think “rolled ankle,” something which is almost impossible to do when in bare feet.
- Never assume that because it feels okay at the moment that it is okay to push the boundaries of speed or distance or temperature.
- Keep records of progress and what you have tried, to remind you of what your current parameters are. Do not make drastic changes to any parameter in a short time. It will depend some on how often you can be in bare feet. Someone who can have their shoes off for walking most of the day will probably make faster progress than someone who has required work boots.
- Try to find other forms of exercise while strengthening your feet and legs for barefoot running especially. (swim, bike, yoga?) Barefoot walking is the best way to start getting your feet used to the bare life, but not for exercise. Walking gradually stretches and strengthens the apparatus that has been neglected for who knows how long. But it will be a few weeks before you can run enough to get significant exercise from your running again.
- The more days you can be in bare feet for walking, the better, but best to take days off between even your shortest runs. Running puts more force on everything than walking. Give your soles a chance to respond to the stimulation. Take time to let your musculature send you messages about what it is feeling. You will be better able to evaluate.
- Be consistent about massaging or rolling your feet and calves. As they are getting strong, the pressure will help work out cramps and kinks, plus it will stimulate circulation to those areas that are growing in capability.
- Get in the habit of putting olive oil or some good lotion on your feet. Some barefooters highly recommend a hemp based product. I have found every night to be a good time.
- Do NOT go get a pedicure that files away supposed callused. The ground and the nightly lubricating are all that you need. The feet will develop and nice smooth skin and you want it to stay there.
- Avoid using soaps or scrubbing tools on your feet. Some soap once in while, with the help of a wash cloth or soft tooth brush should be all you need. Anything else stresses you skin. Besides that, asphalt and sidewalk cement actually leave feet pretty clean.
- Avoid minimalist shoes as much as weather permits. You will be surprised how much you don’t need them. It is much harder to learn proper barefoot running form in particular with anything between your soles and the ground. There are many stories of people who have injured themselves trying to maintain or push mileage in minimalist shoes. Walking in bare soles helps prepare the soles for running.
- It will probably take more than one year to really adapt. After 3 years, I am still learning things and seeing changes in my feet and skin. Learn to enjoy the journey and the benefits along the way. Take satisfaction in knowing there is more to come.