Should You Go Barefoot?
Yes, no, maybe. The experts debate the controversial new craze. 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?
“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.
“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.
“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.”
||Putting skin to the ground strengthens your foot’s muscles, tendons, and ligaments, develops tougher and thicker skin, and trains your sensory nerves to help with balance. Unrestricted toes provide stability, disperse pressure, and help propel you forward.||Ouch! Most Westerners don’t have the toughness to enjoy walking or running barefoot on rough surfaces (though feet can be trained up to it). And if you get a cut or injury, you might have to abort your trip.||“Always step straight down and avoid shuffling or dragging feet,” says Frazine. “No natural hazards like sharp rocks and sticks can harm you if you walk properly. Anticipate every foot fall and look at where your foot is going to land.” Start with short runs or hikes on mellow terrain.|
|Vibram Five Fingers KSO $85; vibramfivefingers.com
||For people who want all of the benefits of barefoot training—without the barefoot part—this is the solution. The foot-glove design frees your toes and affords utmost flexibility, while protecting skin from sharp and rough surfaces. Testers welcomed the traction of the sticky rubber tread.||The style will spur questions (and a few giggles) on trail. And while the thin materials improve ground feel, there’s little insulation. Testers liked them for short summer hikes and for water trips, but found it hard to get them on/off.||Like barefooting, it takes a little getting used to. Start slowly. And be sure to get the right fit by trying on several sizes. You’ll lose some of the benefit—a close-to-the-ground feeling—if they’re sloppy big or pinchy tight. Our testers also liked wearing them around the home and office for “passive” training.|
|Nike Free Run +2
|Like other natural-running shoes, this model offers the protection of a traditional shoe with maximum flexibility, encouraging the forefoot strike advocated by barefoot runners. Deep grooves in the soft EVA sole allow easy flex vertically and horizontally.||The superpliable midsole is not supportive enough for running on rocky trails without painstakingly selecting foot placement. Testers also found that tiny pebbles get stuck in the sole grooves.||To minimize foot pain when making the transition to barefoot running, replace thin factory insoles with cushioned footbeds. Our tester used the Chi Running method (chirunning.com) to help make the switch from heel striker to forefoot striker.|
|Chaco Z2 Unaweap
|This sandal is uniquely therapeutic for metatarsal pain because it keeps the forefoot fixed in place while allowing the metatarsal bones to spread out and irritated nerves to heal. Testers liked it for hiking and as a camp shoe to help sore foot muscles recover.||It’s heavy for a sandal (2 lbs. per pair), so it’s hard to justify as a camp shoe when you’re trying to keep pack weight low. And, of course, you might as well be barefoot when it comes to weather protection.||Beware pointy sticks and cactus spines, and try to keep your toes pointed downhill on uneven terrain to keep feet from sliding. Not a sandal hiker? Consider Sole’s Sport Flips ($65, 13 oz., yoursole.com) as a camp/recovery shoe. They have arch support, a heel cup, and metatarsal pad.|