Don’t ask me to explain what triggered the decision because I honestly can’t remember. What I can tell you is that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. A few years ago, my feet were confined to every possible permutation of footwear. I literally never went anywhere without a pair of shoes or boots on my feet – even the beach! You could accurately deduce that I was a junkie of laces and soles, but all that changed sometime between the Fall of 2008 and Spring of 2009.
I don’t know exactly when, and I don’t really know why either. I think it just finally dawned on me how utterly dependent I had become on footwear.
I remember thinking, “how well would I fare without shoes? Could I walk for a few miles without getting any blisters, or run at all without wincing in pain? How about make it down the driveway without looking like a masochistic, hippie freak?” As it turns out, those tiny pebbles did make me walk funny, and the sharp chanting of “Ooh! Ahh!” didn’t help either.
I have a feeling it was my stubborn attitude that finally committed to the decision. I don’t like admitting weakness to something that should technically come naturally to me – even the simple dependence on footwear. Just knowing that I could barely function without a protective covering on my feet was like a loud-speaker blaring weakness in my face. Swallowing that truth was a wake-up call to say the least.
So, after much deliberation, the decision was made to slowly wean myself off the shoes. Now, you’re probably thinking that I simply got rid of all my shoes and started doing everything barefoot right away. You could imagine me running and hiking trails with monstrously strong feet – prepared to take on any task that life dished out.
My beginnings were actually much more humble. I initially started making the transition by walking around the house barefoot. That’s right – no jagged, volcanic rock for these toesies just yet.
Even amidst all the smooth floors, walking barefoot indoors was enough of a challenge. Every time I stubbed a toe, it felt as if a sledgehammer had smashed my entire foot. My dogs claws suddenly manifested into clusters of razor-sharp spear-points that gleefully jumped and danced all around my poor, unprotected appendages. Whenever he pounced on my feet, it felt as if a few toes had been severed. In giving up shoes, I had lost all cushioning, shock absorption, and the extra inch of height that came with elevated heels. And where was my arch support?
Naked. That’s how I felt. The floors were colder, too.
I continued on until something magical happened. Actually it wasn’t magical at all. It’s just that all the snow had finally melted. I had absolutely no excuse not to take my newfound hobby outdoors, and thus began the true journey.
Two Feet in All Their Glory
Going barefoot outdoors was much more challenging than I had anticipated. I couldn’t predict how hard it would be for my deconditioned feet (read “stumps”) to adapt to the varied surfaces I would be walking on. After a lifetime spent in shoes, my feet were borderline crippled, and in need of serious rehabilitation. So, I decided early on to take my barefoot training very slowly – baby steps.
Over the next several months, I practiced barefoot walking over a variety of terrain including: asphalt, concrete, manicured grass, sand, packed dirt, fine gravel, crushed stone, woodland trails, granite-strewn mountains, tall grass, and the woods around my home. It sounds cliché, but I let my feet by my guide. I listened to their intuition and never walked further than my they could handle. That’s one of the reasons why I think I avoided any injuries during my training.
After several months of progressively more challenging walking, I decided to try running barefoot. I began by trotting very short distances on smooth roads, and built up from there. Even with the caution I employed, I developed blisters from the first few runs. I quickly learned that I needed to overhaul and refine my running technique. By the end of the summer, however, I was running for miles on wooded trails and gravel roads with low-moderate discomfort – still pain and injury-free.
The Benefits I’ve Experienced From Going Barefoot
To say that I’ve gained something from the decision to start going barefoot would be a massive understatement. The scope of the benefits is only eclipsed by the simplicity of the decision.
Firstly, the health and strength in my feet and legs have improved dramatically. The muscles, ligaments, tendons, and even bones have all strengthened in my feet and ankles, and in the rest of my legs. My feet have actually widened, which has resulted in toes with spaces between them (instead of being crammed together). My arches have lifted from the strengthening, too - not to mention the skin on the soles has toughened up (more leathery, not calloused). My feet used to ache after a long day in shoes, especially after a hike. Today, my feet rarely, if ever, ache. After a day-long barefoot hike, I experience more of a tired feeling in my feet – like the muscles were worked instead of restricted and immobilized (hint: that’s how they should feel). And these are just a sampling of the health benefits.
The other major benefit is that I haven’t worried about buying shoes for the past few years. Going barefoot has substantially cut down on clothing expenses – and extra money is nothing to sneeze at!
Apart from those direct benefits, there are a few others. For example, my feet have stopped emitting odor; whereas before, my feet would stink after a day of wearing shoes (every day). I’m also much more aware of my surroundings, out of necessity. When you take your shoes off, you start paying attention to where you are going! As was already mentioned, my running technique also improved out of necessity (both gait and carriage). Rather, it’s more like I finally realized how poorly I was running while shod because I could feel it in my feet when not. Yup, feet are pretty good at telling you all about their feelings. They’re sensitive little guys!
The Less Obvious Benefits
One thing that should not go over-looked is the feeling of empowerment that comes from going barefoot. A few years ago, I literally could not run without shoes. Heck, I could barely even walk down my gravel driveway without wincing (while hopping around and shouting). This wasn’t something that occupied my mind or worried me, but the fact that I couldn’t just bound out the door bothered me.
Today, I can run roads and trails for miles, climb mountains, and walk everywhere completely barefoot – and I do just that whenever it’s not too cold or socially unacceptable. Shoes are one item that I used to depend on daily, that today; I simply don’t need most of the time. Experiencing independence from anything is a sweet feeling. It’s wonderful not needing several activity-specific pairs of footwear, and it’s one less thing to grab on my way out the door. Plus, I never have a rock stuck in my shoe (just some dirt to clean off once in awhile).
Lastly, I’ve been privileged to experience the world in a new way. Sure, there are all the different textures to feel – the sand, grass, stone, and my personal favorite, mud. But in a greater sense, going barefoot has given me a new perspective. This manifests itself in many ways, but you could summarize it as a greater sensitivity to the environment around me and a predisposition towards personal reflection. Either I’m a poor communicator or this just needs to be experienced to be fully understood (probably both). It should suffice to say that I’m looking at things differently as a direct result of going barefoot.
It seems silly to admit that going barefoot is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, but the truth is that something so trivial has the potential to be life changing. I would encourage you to put some faith in your feet and try going barefoot for a change. Please remember my story with an understanding that the beginning will probably be hard, but that the journey is worth it.
Footwear will continue to be an appreciated luxury, but going barefoot is a luxury that is accessible to all and should not go overlooked.
If you want to start to experience all of the barefoot benefits, all you need to do is start relying on footwear less. You don’t have to buy anything. You don’t even need to read or study anything. All you really need to do is take off your shoes and listen to your feet. It’s really that simple.