What are the advantages and disadvantages of barefoot walking?

Image by Lu - CC-BY

Barefooting (Image by Lu - CC-BY)

In modern western cities it’s uncommon to see people going barefoot, yet in most of the world and for most of human existence barefoot has been the norm.

The human foot has 24 bones, working together in a complex structure designed to lessen the impact of footfall, combined with muscles tendons and ligaments that store energy during the footstep and release it at the end.

The bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments can only do their job properly if unrestrained by shoes. Without shoes, less energy is needed to walk (because the movement is more efficient), and less jarring is transferred to the rest of the body, particularly to the knees (because the internal movement of the foot spreads out the impact, and because the foot’s richarray of  nerve endings provides feedback to help the body manage the movement).

So why do modern westerners wear shoes? Partly for protection from injury and disease, but also partly to be “civilised”. It’s not an accident that we refer to a rich person as “well-heeled”, because in the past only rich people could afford footwear.

Injury and disease are genuine hazards, particularly in cities, and must be managed. A barefoot walker should keep up-to-date with their tetanus shots, and should be aware of where they’re stepping, and should avoid walking barefoot with open wounds. The other side of the coin is the reduction in knee and foot injuries aggravated by footwear, and diseases such as Athlete’s Foot (tinea) that do not occur in full-time lifelong barefooters.

Over time, with barefoot walking, the sole of the foot develops into a thick leatherly layer which protects and cushions. Thorns, glass and sharp rocks become less of a problem than before. I can remember as a child happily walking barefoot over sharp railway ballast; I couldn’t do that now because my feet have lost that natural protection, which would take several months of barefoot walking to build up again.

The issues relating to barefoot walking are covered very well in this New York Times article. The Society for Barefoot Living provides practical advice and encouragement, and serves as a point of contact for like-minded barefooters. They debunk the oft-heard myths that it’s forbidden to drive barefoot, or that store owners are required to forbid barefoot customers.

The Barefoot Hikers have chapters around the US, and organise barefoot trail walks. There are similar organizations in many other countries. In Germany‘s Black Forest there’s BarfussPark, a free forest park with trails of different lengths where you walk barefoot – there are shoe lockers at the beginning.

Barefoot runners prefer to run barefoot, on hard or soft surfaces, often alongside shod runners in competitive events. Some people even climb mountains barefoot!

Parents for Barefoot Children aim to make it easier to raise children who are allowed to go barefoot. They point out that there are even some socially-acceptable barefoot activities, such as gymnastics, yoga, trampolining, gymnastics and dance.

Although the barefoot movement is most prominent in the USA, it’s also active in Japan, the UK and Europe. In other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa the barefoot culture never really disappeared.

All of the above hasn’t even touched on the main reason to go barefoot. It’s aesthetically delightful. The sensations of different kinds of ground on the bottom of your feet are wonderful, and the more pleasant and efficient gait (which you will develop after a while) is most welcome.

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  • Chris says:

    You’re so right on the spot correct! Going barefoot is so healthy for the feet, legs, and back. Not to mention the feelgood factor! (And yes, I think it looks better too…)

    Also, the risk of getting injuries is extremely small. -I know this from own experience of walking barefoot in europe, america, asia, australia and africa.

  • eiffel says:

    A review of research by Michael Warburton shows that “running barefoot is associated with a substantially lower prevalence of acute injuries”, and that “the energy cost of running is reduced by about 4% when the feet are not shod”.

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