Refusing to toe the shoe-clad line

<em>Picture: Chumley80</em>
Picture: Chumley80
By Elizabeth McQuillan

One can never have too many shoes. Or can we? On inspection, I possess an impressive array of shoes and boots, all fit for a purpose. Boots of every kind litter my hallway: boots for walking, boots for riding, and boots that just look damn fine. Add to this the warm-weather sandals and trainers to reduce my over-pronation when running, and my feet are very well catered for.

As consumers we spend millions of pounds on footwear and orthotic devices that claim to help with our gait, to improve athletic performance in any given field or make us more comfortable. However, there is a suggestion that we might actually be better off simply getting back to nature.

Going barefoot tickles our senses, evokes memories of childhood and brings with it a sense of freedom. Be it the cushioned transient sensation of warm sand between toes, cool damp grass generating a reflex curl, slipping over wet flat pebbles when paddling or even the ouch-factor when we step on gravel – they all fire the 7,000+ nerve-endings on the sole of the foot. These receptors have a very real function to perform and relay information to the brain about external factors, as well as working with the twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments to help our body move in a bio-mechanically effective way.

By binding our feet in thick socks and placing them into unyielding, solid structures it follows that perhaps our feet simply cannot function as they should. Perhaps we are having a negative impact on our natural way of moving and inadvertently causing unnecessary stresses and strains. Even the wearing of sensible shoes with a small heel will alter the natural alignment of our pelvis, hips knees and ankles, throwing us off balance and stressing joints. Shoes cannot flex at the balls of the feet to a sufficient degree when we take a step, so it would not take a great leap of faith to suggest this might reduce our propulsion with every step.

Indeed a small but growing number of elite athletes are throwing their trainers to one side and embracing barefoot running as the way forward, with many believing this will prove to be the future of the sport. Anecdotal evidence of injury reduction and improved recovery often provides the initial incentive to try things as nature intended.

For most of us, the prospect of standing on broken glass or a dog’s leavings at the local park, are enough to make us reach for our faithful footwear. Perhaps we don’t have to embrace the concept entirely, but I have tried to integrate a little “foot love” into my life by releasing my feet from their cages at every opportunity when at home. How sensitive the sole of the foot is, the nerve ending firing at every sensation having been exposed to nothing more challenging than a cotton sock and a sweaty shoe for years on end.

Although a little strange to begin with, and ultra-sensitive, I am now enjoying the sensation of stepping on different surfaces, and I particularly enjoyed this through the warmer months; bark chips (warm and yielding), freshly cut lawn grass (spikey). When I climb the steep bank in my garden it is intriguing to discover how my toes grasp the surface to assist in the task, and when I run the heel is no longer the point of impact and I land deftly on the ball of my foot.

Over the course of a few weeks, with the help of some dry weather, my home became a shoe-free zone. My calves and Achilles were a little stretched, my feet seemed to spread, but I felt lighter and more nimble and enjoyed the feeling of liberation. Wearing shoes now involves beating my feet into submission first.

For those who would like to try to enhance running performance, while protection their tootsies from the assault from grit and tarmac, a few manufacturers have produced a “sole” that fits over the underside of the foot and toes. Though they may look a little strange, these are gaining in credibility with athletes and according to the manufacturer of FiveFingers: “Outdoor enthusiasts have found FiveFingers to be the ideal crossover shoe for multiple sports and activities – from ChiRunning and bouldering to kayaking and windsurfing. Fitness enthusiasts use FiveFingers for core strength training, yoga and Pilates. Our customers continually discover new and creative uses for our alternative performance footwear.”

Harvard University studies certainly point to barefoot running as being a positive thing. After all Homo sapiens have did not require Nike trainers until the emergence of the jogging fad in the 1970’s, and managed very well without. As do many people and tribes in Africa and South America who are renowned for their running ability. Zola Budd excelled without the need for running shoes.

The study showed that runners who wore sneakers ended up landing heel-first 75 to 80 percent of the time. By contrast, barefoot runners usually land toward the middle or front of the foot.

The heel-landing without shoes means a painful collision force of 1.5 to 3 times human body weight. But cushioned sneaker heels have allowed runners to change their stride to high-impact running, and likely open up a whole world of pain involving foot and leg injuries.

It is a contentious issue, with a lot of a heated debate within the running world. If you want to give it a go do a bit of research first, start slowly and choose a forgiving surface (a beach is a good place to start) until your tootsies toughen up.