It’s only recently in our evolutionary train ride that we’ve decided to wear shoes, or “casts for our feet,” as sports commentator Joe Rogan calls them. In fact, we existed for millions of years without footwear anywhere near our trotters. This meant our feet had to be a lot stronger in order to absorb the pressure we put on our bodies when running and walking.
When Nike developed the modern running shoe, it changed the way people run. Before running with the fluffy cushioned heel pad of today we know and love, running barefoot meant humans tended to avoid landing on their heel and instead defer the pressure to the mid and forefoot. This allows a broader surface area to absorb force.
We stopped landing on the balls of our feet when running and started ‘heal striking’. A term used to describe the act of landing on one’s heel first when running, instead of the front of the foot. It’s a running motion that puts a great deal more pressure on parts of the body, such as the knees.
The modern running shoe has resulted in 75% of all runners being heel strikers.
“In order to avoid a heel strike, the foot must never be too far in front of the body. As a result, barefoot runners tend to have a shorter stride. A shorter stride needs less leg extension, which is why barefoot runners have greater bend at the knee and a more pointed foot towards the floor. These joint positions allow muscles around the knee to help control landing and allow the ankle to behave in a more spring-like fashion. Running as nature intended so to speak.” Peter Francis – The Independent, London.
When we don’trun this way, it causes us to overstride, which in turn results in force being absorbed through our heels and our bone structures and joints, with less assistance from muscle to absorb this. Interestingly, when people remove their shoes, most revert to middle and forefoot striking almost immediately.
“I know it sounds stupid, but after using minimalist running shoes with thin soles, my feet feel stronger, they feel different. I know it sounds weird saying that but my feet feeling stronger makes my legs feel stronger, my knees don’t hurt as much when I run, I don’t get shin splints or anything like that,” says Rogan.
Our feet are our root system and it makes sense that the extremity in contact with the ground the most should be the strongest of all our appendages. Studies have shown that children and teenagers who grow up mostly barefoot, appear strong enough to run quickly and for long distances without shoes. The study also revealed that the children growing up using shoes less, also had less leg pain than their counterparts who grew up mostly wearing shoes.
Our feet have muscles in them. Those muscles don’t get used as much when we put our feet in shoes. However, it’s important that after reading this we don’t all start burning our shoes in mass bonfires. Like any muscle, your feet will need to be built up before you can run barefoot.
Transitioning to more time out of shoes will require slowly building up these muscles by walking barefoot first for periods of time before running. A good idea might be to begin on grass or the beach before attempting it on a harder surface. Minimalist running shoes have come along way too in recent times, meaning you won’t be at risk of damaging the skin of your foot in the beginning.