The latest issue of Backpacker Magazine (August 2011) has an article on barefoot hiking. It’s on page 76, for those of you who want to browse it in a store. It’s the usual mix. In fact, the subtitle is “Yes, no, maybe. The experts debate the controversial new craze.”
On the pro side is long-time barefooter Richard Frazine, author of one of the books that started (or maybe rekindled) the trend towards acceptance of bare feet: The Barefoot Hiker. That was back in 1993.
Here are a few excerpts from the article.
The intro is the generate-some-controversy paragraph:
Proponents of barefoot running and hiking—booming in popularity since the 2009 publication of Born to Run claim that training shoeless builds foot strength and reduces injuries. One outfit, Barefoot Hikers (barefooters.org/hikers), organizes boot-free jaunts all over the country. And barefoot-running clubs, websites, and even races have taken off. But naysayers warn that forsaking foot protection only invites new injuries. Who’s right? We think the jury is still out. You?
Then they talk to Richard:
“I have been hiking barefoot for 50 years,” says Richard Frazine, 63, author of The Barefoot Hiker. “Going shoeless requires finding the right foot fall with every step. No step is the same. You literally feel your way down the trail with your feet.” A 2009 study by researchers from the University of Belgium and University of Liverpool found that South Indians who spent their lives barefoot had significantly wider forefeet—allowing a more effective redistribution of downward pressure across the entire surface area of the sole—compared to people who grew up wearing shoes.
Their “no” person was a physical therapist:
“For people who have grown up wearing shoes, hiking without them is a bad idea,” says Arizona-based physical therapist Brian Schmitz, echoing the consensus of sports medicine professionals interviewed for this story. “You need structure around your foot for support when hiking. And you also need the protection that hiking footwear offers against cuts and injuries.” That doesn’t mean you don’t need the strengthening touted by barefoot advocates, but it’s better to achieve it through training, advises University of Calgary kinesiology professor Reed Ferber.
These are people who don’t know what they are talking about. They are operating outside of their areas of expertise and don’t know it.
For people who have grown up wearing shoes, barefoot hiking is probably the best way to go out and strengthen your feet (as long as you don’t overdo it, and stay well within your limitations). I wouldn’t carry a (heavy) pack to start out, but the varied surface of a hiking trail is probably the best surface around to give your feet a workout and start strengthening all your muscles, tendon, ligaments, and skin.
I’ve said it before: this notion that feet need support comes from the fact that none of these doctors have ever seen feet that haven’t been horribly weakened by being supported all the time. I’m repeating myself: for the next six weeks, give your main arm plenty of “support”. Put it in a sling. Only let it do things with support. At the end of that six weeks, let’s play a game of tennis. Who will win?
And the thing about injuries is grossly exaggerated. Trails where you can see where you are putting your feet are quite safe. Richard Frazine’s book gives a lot of good tips for getting starting, and the most important one is not to shuffle your feet. If you are not shuffling your feet it is incredibly difficult to step on something, on a hiking trail, to get any sort of cut or injury. These people simply haven’t tried it and are generalizing without the specific knowledge.
If you’ve been reading this blog you know that I’ve been doing a lot of barefoot hiking, and I’ve even been doing a lot of bushwhacking (where you really cannot see what you are walking on, or at least what is beneath the dried leaves that you are walking on). Here’s a picture of the sole of my foot (taken within the hour):
That foot has, within the past month and a half:
- Played tennis approximately 5 hours per week.
Hiked about 30 miles with quite a bit of that bushwhacking (it would
have been more but I’ve been busy).
- Forded streams.
- Walked along various stream-beds.
- Clambered up and over various rock formations.
- Walked on railroad ballast (gingerly, I admit).
- Navigated all sorts of leafy, twiggy, branchy, rocky terrain.
Too bad that sole didn’t have the protection of a shoe, eh? Oh, but while my sons were Boy Scouts, I did have to provide a fair bit of blister repair for other boys in the troop, obviously caused by the “protection” of their boots.
This is not to say that I have not occasionally injured my feet. But that has obviously not been a big problem, and I have not had to deal with blisters or sprained ankles (you need the fulcrum of a shoe heel to really do a good job of spraining your ankle). By the way, it does appear that bare feet heal more quickly than a containered foot. Shoes restrict blood flow and motion, and that seems to slow healing.
Anyways, back to the Backpacker article. Then there was the “Maybe”:
“The ability to hike barefoot depends on the condition of your feet and how much ‘movement wisdom’ you have,” says Esther Gokhale, who studied indigenous populations in India, Asia, and Africa for her book 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. She found people who grew up wearing minimal footwear had stronger feet with healthier arches—not to mention a healthy posture and back for carrying loads—compared to well-shod Westerners. Unless you have muscular feet with well-developed arches, Gokhale suggests a “happy medium.” Wear a supportive shoe that has a thin sole, she says, “so you feel contours on the Earth.”
That is some wisdom mixed in with gobbledygook. Yes, going barefoot gives you stronger feet and healthier arches. Yes, it really helps with pain in the back (I can attest to that—Neinast backs are legendary). But the comment about “unless you have muscular feet with well-developed arches . . .” gets it completely backwards. Going barefoot will give you muscular feet with well-developed arches (just don’t overdo it at first). And she just cannot resist the “supportive shoe” shibboleth. It’s really annoying.
The article ends with a table comparing the pros and cons of various footwear, and also has tips for them. At least the “Barefooting” Pro gets it right:
Putting skin to the ground strengthens your foot’s muscles, tendons, and ligaments, develops tougher and thicker skin (gee, have they been reading this blog?), and trains your sensory nerves to help with balance. Unrestricted toes provide stability, disperse pressure, and help propel you forward.
Overall, the article is worth taking a look at. (And actually, I enjoyed the rest of the magazine to. Their feature on “50 Perfect Weekends” was really nice.)