On your feet

In a forum I ran across an interesting article on walking, feet and shoes. I felt that it confirmed my own experience of light footwear being better for my feet as well as much more comfortable to walk in and also having the benefit of much lower energy expenditure than heavy hiking boots. I felt that this article was an interesting complement to my interview with Chris Townsend on footwear as well as my write-up on different scientific articles on weight of footwear that all support the old adage about "one pound on your foot equals five pounds on your back". I have collected some tidbits for you from the article in New York Magazine.

By Jörgen Johansson

Here are some things I picked from the article:
  • The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, published a study titled “Shod Versus Unshod: The Emergence of Forefoot Pathology in Modern Humans?” in the podiatry journal The Foot. The researchers concluded that, prior to the invention of shoes, people had healthier feet. Among the modern subjects, the Zulu population, which often goes barefoot, had the healthiest feet while the Europeans—i.e., the habitual shoe-wearers—had the unhealthiest. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Bernhard Zipfel, when commenting on his findings, lamented that the American Podiatric Medical Association does not “actively encourage outdoor barefoot walking for healthy individuals. This flies in the face of the increasing scientific evidence, including our study, that most of the commercially available footwear is not good for the feet.
  •  “Natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person,” wrote Dr. William A. Rossi in a 1999 article in Podiatry Management. “It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot.” 
  • I know what you’re thinking: If shoes are so bad for me, what’s my alternative? Simple. Walk barefoot.Okay, now I know what you’re thinking: What’s my other alternative?

  • For decades, the guiding principle of shoe design has been to compensate for the perceived deficiencies of the human foot. Since it hurts to strike your heel on the ground, nearly all shoes provide a structure to lift the heel. And because walking on hard surfaces can be painful, we wrap our feet in padding. Many people suffer from flat feet or fallen arches, so we wear shoes with built-in arch supports, to help hold our arches up.  
  • ...the shoe, by its nature, won’t allow your foot to work in the way it wants to. Normally your foot would roll very flexibly through each step, from the heel through the outside of your foot, then through the arch, before your toes give you a powerful propulsive push forward into the next step. But shoes aren’t designed to be very flexible. Sure, you can take a typical shoe in your hands and bend it in the middle, but that bend doesn’t fall where your foot wants to bend; in fact, if you bent your foot in that same place, your foot would snap in half. So to compensate for this lack of flexibility, shoes are built with toe springs to help rock you forward. You only need this help, of course, because you’re wearing shoes.

  • Consider a paper titled “Athletic Footwear: Unsafe Due to Perceptual Illusions,” published in a 1991 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. “Wearers of expensive running shoes that are promoted as having additional features that protect (e.g., more cushioning, ‘pronation correction’) are injured significantly more frequently than runners wearing inexpensive shoes (costing less than $40).” According to another study, people in expensive cushioned running shoes were twice as likely to suffer an injury—31.9 injuries per 1,000 kilometers, as compared with 14.3—than were people who went running in hard-soled shoes.
  • But (you might say) if you walk or run with no padding, it’s murder on your heels—which is precisely the point. Your heels hurt when you walk that way because you’re not supposed to walk that way. Wrapping your heels in padding so they don’t hurt is like stuffing a gag in someone’s mouth so they’ll stop screaming—you’re basically telling your heels to shut up.
  • So the researchers at Rush tried something different: They had people walk in their walking shoes, then barefoot, and each time measured the stress on their knees. They found, to their surprise, that the impact on the knees was 12 percent less when people walked barefoot than it was when people wore the padded shoes.  
  • If bare feet are natural, why do we need shoes to “protect” the foot?—to a podiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, who explained, “People who rely on the ‘caveman mentality’ are not taking into consideration that the average life span of a caveman was a heck of a lot shorter than the life span of a person today. The caveman didn’t live past age 30. Epidemiologically speaking, it’s been estimated that, by age 40, about 80 percent of the population has some muscular-skeletal foot or ankle problem. By age 50 to 55, that number can go up to 90 or 95 percent.” Ninety-five percent of us will develop foot or ankle problems? Yeesh. Those are discouraging numbers—but wait. Are we talking about 95 percent of the world population, or of North America? “Those are American figures,” he says. Which makes me think, North Americans have the most advanced shoes in the world, yet 90 percent of us still develop problems? We’ve long assumed this means we need better shoes. Maybe it means we don’t need shoes at all. 
  • What you can do, though, is stop taking walking for granted and start thinking of it like any other physical activity: as something you can learn to do better. Don’t think of your feet as fleshy blocks to be bound up or noisy animals that need to be muzzled. 
  • In one of the Rush Medical College knee-adduction experiments, barefoot walking yielded the lowest knee load, but a flat sneaker, like a pair of Pumas, also offered significantly less load than the overly padded walking shoes. 
 I encourage you to read the whole article here. And, like the author of that, I do not think I or most people will become barefoot walkers. But it encourages me to think that I am correct in being sceptical when I hear that it is necessary to have strong, sturdy and supportive boots with soles that protect your feet for hiking and backpacking. At least I know for a fact that I don't.


  1. Thanks Jörgen for highlighting a very interesting and important article. Whilst Inov-8 are not exactly the same as what is discussed in the article it appears to me at least that the thinking is similar. That is do not force the feet to adopt an unnatural shape.

  2. This "barefoot stuff" is really among the most interesting stuff I've read in a long time. There is also a new article discussing some of these issues at Backpackinglight.com now (Members only):

    A guy in Sweden also just finished a one week hike in Sarek wearing Vibram Five Fingers all the time. I've walked some of the same valleys he walked and I can tell you if his shoes could take on that they manage almost everything. An important point is that you MUST train your feet first to have a pleasant experience. I think it could be worth a try. I like to walk barefoot. Interesting to note is also that my favourite outdoorsman, Horace Kephart, had an interesting similar discussion on walking in moccasins:

    "After a few days the feet will toughen, the tendons will learn how to do their work without crutches, and you will travel further, more noiselessly, and with less exertion than in any kind of boots or shoes.This too in rough country" (Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1917)

    He recommended them only for dry weather though, but I suspect this has to do with the fact that moccasins where made in soft leather.

  3. I believe that the all the scientific tests (expect maybe some done by the military?) are done without external load and quite often are realted to running. Even with lightweight backpack one can easily have about 10kg of extra weight (for example in the start of week long trip to fjells). I believe that with the load, shoes do help.

    Also in some environments shoes are really helpfull, tkae for example really rocky fjells in late autumn with some snow. Of course heavy high altitude mountaneering boots are not needed but some sort of shoes would help. Especially if you want to hike for the next 40-50 years and not just a few...

    And some of us have foot problems that can not be prepared by walking barefooted or in light footwear but require quite heavy footwear.

    Inov-8:s didn't work on me, I could get only some 200-300km out of them with pain in my heels. But I've found that a bit sturdier trail running footwear is great for hiking!

  4. Hi, Jorgen.

    This is a very interesting post. I wish I'd read it forty years ago.

    Here are two anecdotes. A couple of decades ago, when training shoe heels were seriously built up, I suffered a lot from shin splints. One day, while carrying my kayak half a mile to the local river, I realised I had the wrong glasses on. I put the boat down and sprinted home in kayak shoes, which had soles 1 mm thick and no heel build up. There were no injury consequences at a time when any distance in a trainer would have hurt me. It goes without saying that I failed to act on this lesson.

    Working in a timber yard, I was provided with safety gloves. My hands sweated inside them so if a splinter got through the rubber, it went deep into my hand. I did what everyone else was doing and stopped wearing the gloves. After a few uncomfortable days, I had pads on my hands like those on my feet and no splinters got through. (I was spending much of the day carrying veneered chipboard for budget coffins.) It seems to me that anyone who commits to going barefoot will soon stop noticing those painful bits of gravel which have got on to a hard surface.

    Keep up the good work. Best wishes, John

  5. John,
    I wish I had heard about lightpacking 40 years ago :-)
    A couple of days ago I got an appreciative from a reader of one of my books where he wrote words to the effect "..did weigh all my gear but failed to act on my knowledge". My book evidently got him out of this stupor, but what you wrote reminded me of this very human fallacy that I also share.

    Barefoot is on the move; recently a leading Swedish outdoor magazine, normally very gear conservative, published an article by a former chief editor on how he went backpacking in the mountains barefoot. He described his barefoot running starting with an experience akin to your kayak running experience.
    Thanks for your appreciation. We will continue doggedly to help people lighten their loads. A couple of days watching other hikers in the Swedish mountains on a two-nighter with my a couple of days ago has only reinforced my belief that it is sorely needed....

  6. Yes, the feet....
    I think to walk on bare feet is the best way, but not always possible. But it improves your awareness where to walk etc. I myself live in northern Värmland in Sweden. Lots of forests and moors (wet!) Now(beside going barefooted) I use to walk in sandals in the summer and when it's a bit colder rubber boots. I also use to walk in Salomon mesh shoes, the sort you use Jörgen. I like the shoes, light and flexible, combined with thin socks I have not yet had blister problems. (Not unlike the heavy Meindl Perfect boots I used many many years ago..) But I do have a problem with the 'odeur'. They do smell like hell!!
    Probably because of the moors. Maybe the peat causes the smell. Every time the shoes get wet, they start to smell. I suspect the innerlayer under the insole causes it.Are You familiar with this problem or does anybody else? As it is now my wife refuses to get in the car when I have the wet shoes on after a walk (or after a canoetrip in Norway this week...) I like the shoes but not the smell so I would not buy a new pair of these shoes.
    Greetings from Fred

  7. Fred,
    I agree that it is not always possible, mostly due to the risk of having your feet punctured by sharp twigs and such. One reason that I do not want to use sandals off trail. I have had a couple of incident when really sharp pieces of wood almos have penetrated the mesh of my shoes. If not for the mesh I think those twigs would have penetrated skin and flesh quite considerably when my whole weight came down on them.
    And yes, I have the same smelling problem with my Salomon. A mixture of foot odor and, mostly I think, walking in mud and bogs. At times I have been painfully aware of this odor going home from treks on buses and trains. I try to tromp up and down in clean water on occassion, to wash the worst slime away. I hope it helps, but I have no good remedy. On occassion I put them in the washer at 30 degress and no spin.


Post a Comment