Guest post by Katelin Stecz
I spent my Valentine’s Day weekend this year like many other people in the world, sitting on my couch and drinking tequila out of the bottle. However, I was drinking tequila to numb the pain of a broken ankle, not a broken heart.
By the time I could walk again, COVID-19 was rapidly spreading across the United States, and Miami was approaching total lockdown. When everyone else locked their doors and retreated inside, I was just ready to go to the gym again and return to a life without crutches and handicap parking passes.
The physical therapy office I had planned to rehab at shut down, so I scoured the Internet, digging up any information I could find about sports injuries and exercise physiology. And across my research, I noticed that a common ingredient in ankle rehabilitation was “going barefoot.” So while everyone reorganized their entire house and played board games with their family during quarantine, I walked 8 miles barefoot every day.
In my Internet searches, I also rediscovered Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run.” McDougall’s book sent me down an Internet rabbit hole of investigating barefoot running and barefoot enthusiasts. I analyzed the emergence of Nike and the subsequent increase of running injuries in athletes and recreational joggers across the board, and eventually, I made the connection that running shoes and injuries were synonymous.
Prompted by quarantine boredom and a frustrating sense of restlessness, I threw my running shoes away and started to run barefoot. I found some of Miami’s smoother sidewalks and started my barefoot journey there. I had become that weird girl running down the street without shoes. Old Hispanic women shook their heads and mumbled, “Pata sucia,” under their masks.
By June, my restlessness had grown, and on a whim, I decided to book a flight to Utah and run a half marathon in Zion National Park with Vacation Races. I wasn’t confident that my feet could handle 13.1 miles of canyon rock, so I bought some traditional running sandals.
Despite not running my half marathon fully barefoot, my barefoot jaunts in Miami led me to discover a world of barefoot runners and barefoot enthusiasts in my own backyard. I found people whose mission is to get more people outside and connected to the environment. And I soon realized that maybe the hippies walking around shoeless had a point. Maybe we have gotten too far away from our roots.
Most people find walking across gravel uncomfortable, but imagine running miles on sand that’s hot enough to give you quarter-sized blisters. Or better yet, imagine running on limestone for two hours with nothing but 4 millimeters of rubber protecting your foot from the abrasive rocks. This may seem like a superhuman feat, but Miami native Armando Cruz does it every day.
Cruz first started researching barefoot running when he was running in college. He wanted to improve his running efficiency and gain an edge over his competitors, so he started to implement barefoot running into his training. And he got faster. However, Cruz noted that going barefoot or even adopting a more minimal running shoe takes time.
Cruz advises people that are new to barefoot running to start with just walking around barefoot and explore the “curiosity of connection.” He explained that it takes time to build the muscles in your feet after they have been supported and stuffed into shoes for most of your life. But despite the difficulty of transitioning to a minimal support running style, Cruz remarked that going barefoot helped him to rekindle his love of running.
“When I went more minimal, it felt like less of a chore. Instead of saying, ‘I’m going for a run,’ it was more like, ‘I’m going to connect with nature more,’” Cruz explained.
And while Cruz’s two-hour jaunts through the park at 4 a.m. might not be for everyone, adopting a more minimal running shoe or running barefoot can be. And despite what big running shoe companies would have you believe, running with less foot support is actually better for you and your joints.
Barefoot running protects the joints more than conventional running shoes. It induces the body into a protective state by forcing the runner to shorten their stride, reducing overall impact. Conventional running shoes often cause runners to overstride and land on their heels. Heel striking sends a shock up the skeletal system and generates more force than landing on your forefoot or midfoot, as barefoot runners do.
But if you’re not ready to completely run with naked feet, opt for shoes with less support. Thick-soled, chunky running shoes are more likely to cause heel striking than minimalist running shoes like Vibram’s FiveFinger shoes or Xero shoes. Even Cruz will run in minimalist running shoes when going long distances and preparing for ultramarathons to minimize the risk of damaging his feet before an upcoming race
However, if you can run completely barefoot, do it. According to Dr. Sandy Ziya, founder of the Naked Feet 5k in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the benefits of barefoot running, especially on the beach, outweigh the marketing claims of any custom-fit orthotic shoe sole or any top-of-the-line running shoe. She tells her patients that if they have any foot, knee, hip, or back pain, they simply have to look down at their shoes to find the problem.
Dr. Ziya created the Naked Feet 5k in 2015 to educate people about the physical benefits of barefoot running. She first got the idea for her race when she coached triathletes in Omaha, Neb. And much like Cruz, she noticed that her athletes got faster when she implemented barefoot running into their training. So when Dr. Ziya moved to Fort Lauderdale, she realized that a race on the beach was the perfect way to inform people about the benefits of barefoot running.
Dr. Ziya exclaimed, “I had this epiphany. We’ve been gifted with this amazing venue that is so undervalued and underappreciated…I mean does the world need another 5k on the road? …With this race, I really wanted to utilize the beauty of Fort Lauderdale beach… and lay out all other holistic benefits of running barefoot.”
Dr. Ziya also mentions that running barefoot on the beach brings an additional wave of health benefits besides just strengthening your feet and improving your gait.
Dr. Ziya explained, “When you’re running on the beach you’re getting an infused mineral benefit from running barefoot on the sand. You get the salts, the magnesium, and everything else in the sand. You get the negative ions from the ocean… and then you get Vitamin D from being in the sun with zero tree cover…and you also have the beautiful post-run swim to soothe the muscles after which can speed up recovery.”
All of this sounds great in theory, but what about professional athletes? National Football League players wear cleats to help them cut and fake out defenders. And Eliud Kipchoge achieved the sub-two-hour marathon with a time of 1 hour, 59 minutes, 40 seconds in the prototype Nike Zoom Alphafly NEXT%, rumored to boost running economy. These instances show that shoes can improve athletic performance. However, if your job isn’t winning the next Super Bowl or running a sub-two-hour marathon, then you might be better off trotting your daily 3 miles barefoot on some soft grass.
And even though athletic shoes do offer advantages in performance in a game or race, they still induce heel striking and create other long term functional imbalances. In the last 10 years, the NFL has noticed a stark increase in the number of serious foot and ankle injuries despite the advancing technology of athletic shoes. So if you’re an athlete, consider adopting a barefoot life off the field because it may increase the longevity of your career and overall performance.
Seth Minter, founder of The Foot Doctor Sports, is looking to transform the way professional athletes train by focusing on natural movements, like walking or running barefoot. Minter’s training philosophy incorporates barefoot training and functional foot patterns to prevent injuries caused by conventional yet dysfunctional footwear.
In 2013, Minter started his training practice, The Foot Doctor Sports. And since then, Minter has contributed to notable impacts in many professional athletes’ careers. Some of his more well-known clients include Robby Anderson of the Carolina Panthers, Jeff Green of the Houston Rockets, professional tennis player Varvara Lepchenko, and Mohamed Sanu Sr. of the Detroit Lions.
Minter remarked his biggest success has been Marquise “Hollywood” Brown of the Baltimore Ravens, “He had two bad feet. One, he had actual Lisfranc surgery, and on the right, he had a high ankle sprain. All of last year, he pretty much just played with half of a foot, like a car with three flat tires…So I started working with him this year, and he couldn’t really run underneath routes…where you stop abruptly and cut hard…and now he’s running underneath routes every other play.”
Minter first noticed the benefits of barefoot running and more so barefoot living when he was studying different modalities in physical therapy around the world. In his research, he found areas of the world that were “less civilized and away from technology” did not suffer the same foot problems that Western society did. Going barefoot seemed to be the best practice to maintain healthy feet.
And Minter notes that his success in his field comes directly from his barefoot training programs. Minter explained that when we wear shoes, we lose sensory input from our feet and weaken our neurological connection with them. Being barefoot reestablishes dormant neurological pathways. Minter believes that in order to achieve the true abilities and potentials of our feet, we have to lay down new neurological “tracks.”
“Think about a train. A train is very violent and very fast. But what about a train on the street, or in grass, or on the sand. It’ll probably move, but what makes a train move that fast?…Everyone knows it’s the tracks, so when we lay these neurological tracks down, we become that train,” Minter said.
Minter not only trains professional athletes, but he has worked with the elderly and kids with hemiplegia to improve their movement and gait. His work highlights the notion that athletes and normal people can reap great health benefits by running, training, and living barefoot.
Going barefoot in your running and everyday life certainly comes with its physical benefits, but Jeff Shub believes barefoot running and being barefoot can contribute more to our lives than just healthier feet. Shub thinks it might be the best way to get us to slow down from our hectic, jam-packed schedules and reconnect with ourselves and nature.
Shub, a University of Miami Miller School of Medicine graduate first became disillusioned with conventional treatment for foot problems when he started a podiatry practice with a business partner in 2017. After doing some research and connecting with a few barefoot enthusiasts through social media, Shub realized cultivating the natural strength of our feet provided more benefits than the product-driven podiatry field. Shub now educates people about foot health and sustainable living through his Instagram, @theurbanbarefoot.
On his social media platform, Shub communicates the idea that simply being barefoot allows us to become more self-reliant and move through the world without the latest shoes or newest technology. To him, promoting a barefoot lifestyle challenges societal norms of the “right way” to live. Walking barefoot requires people to physically slow down and become more aware of their environment, or at least the ground. And from there, Shub thinks that slowing down might lead people to reconnect with nature and move toward a more sustainable lifestyle.
“It’s a doorway into a larger conversation about how we live… For me, helping people reconnect with their feet is a way of helping them reconnect back to their natural essence which then helps them reconnect back with nature, seeing the beauty of everything around you. Listen to the birds chirping. It’s the simple things that help you to be a steward of your environment,” Shub explained.
However, getting people to part with their shoes and take up a barefoot lifestyle poses a myriad of challenges. Shub noted that people first need to change the framework that they were socialized to think under. The pressures of Western society usually force people to adhere to the notion that happiness and success are defined in material terms. Marketing and consumerism has tricked people to believe that they need things… shoes.
Shub said, “We’re in this world view of humans are weak and fragile…People need to realize that they are full capable beings who can walk around the earth without shoes on…we need to move away from these systems that tell us we’re not enough and market things to us, and yes, it will be difficult.”
In his barefoot journey, Shub mentioned that he faced a lot of criticism when he took up a barefoot lifestyle. He noticed the people that were the closest to him were the most judgmental. He says that his family thought he was taking his mission too far, but Shub acknowledges that this is the way most of the world thinks.
However, Shub believes educating people about all of the benefits of a barefoot lifestyle is possible, but it requires consistency, the same type of consistency that it takes to be able to run barefoot. He noted that changing peoples’ worldviews requires a small, concerted effort to break everything they’ve been socialized with, and it starts with one conversation at a time.
Maybe you’re not quite ready to part with your beloved running shoes, but you can still go outside, take a barefoot walk, and try to reconnect with your surroundings. And while the idea of barefoot running does sound a little out there, it does remind us that humans didn’t always live the way they do now. We didn’t have iPhones. We didn’t sit down for hours at a time, and we certainly didn’t have the latest Nike Air Zooms.
Advocating and adopting a barefoot lifestyle calls attention to the fact that maybe we’ve gotten too far away from our roots. Because it seems that the more society progresses, the more we’ve lost sight of what matters, our health. Generation Z could be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. And as Americans work longer hours to achieve the ever-growing materialism of the American Dream, they increase their risk of stroke and heart disease. So, maybe we should reconsider what matters to us.
And maybe the way to start is to take off our shoes and slow down. Embracing a more barefoot-friendly lifestyle does more than just improve your foot health. It forces us to reevaluate our choices, specifically our purchasing choices and invites us to question if society’s representation of normal really makes sense. Because from a logical standpoint, it seems like humans need to be barefoot like lonely people need tequila on Valentine’s Day.
This does not constitute medical advice in any way, if you have questions about your personal health situation contact Dr. Ziya OR other licensed medical provider.
Read more about barefoot running here!