Making the Transition [Part 6 in The Case for Minimalist Footwear]
This article was originally published on June 17, 2009 at ADVENTUREinPROGRESS. It has been moved to this site so that all of my minimalist footwear articles exist in one place.
So, maybe you are at the point now where you think that you would like to give this minimalist footwear theory a try. Where to next? Well, the good news is that it's easy to get started, you can do it now, and doesn't have to cost you anything. You really have nothing to lose!
The practice that I learned and recommend (although I acknowledge some will disagree on) is landing on the forefoot when walking. When running and jumping, it is universally agreed upon in barefoot circles that landing on the forefoot is the proper form. When walking, some feel that walking on the heel is ok, while others (such as myself) believe that landing on the heel is less desirable. I won't go into the details as to why here, as I feel that the reasons have been sufficiently covered in the previous posts.
The practice of landing on the forefoot will require a little concentration and practice when walking, but will come quite natural when running. Landing on the forefoot does not mean that the forefoot is the only part of the foot to touch the ground, but that it is the first part of the foot to touch the ground. Also note that when I say forefoot, I don't mean toes, I am referring to the pad of the foot just behind the toes. It is usually the outside edge of the forefoot that will touch the ground first. Another important point to make is that when doing this, the knee should be slightly bent, not straight and locked as when landing on the heel. The easiest way that I know to learn what the correct form feels like is to walk barefoot on a rough surface such as gravel. On this type of surface, the body will do the right thing, causing you to land on the forefoot. Once you get comfortable with the motion, try doing the same on other surfaces.
In the beginning it may feel a little strange, kind of like you are walking on your toes. It will require focus and thinking about how you are walking, probably something that you are not used to doing. After a while, with practice, it will seem normal and your body will adapt into an efficient stride that is comfortable, natural, and very smooth.
This is really important. By starting barefoot you will be assured of having the proper form. The easiest place to start is in your house, it is a safe and comfortable environment. For the first little while, as your muscles develop, you will probably feel soreness and stiffness in the feet and calves. This is normal and will subside as the muscles rise to the occasion. The important thing is to take it slow, listening to the body, and not over-doing it.
It probably won't take too long to adapt to being barefoot in your house. After the house, I recommend practicing on soft natural surfaces, such as grass or sand. Once you feel comfortable on grass/sand, try experimenting with other surfaces, making sure to take your time. To get the maximum benefit, it would be a good goal to learn to both walk and run on a wide variety of surfaces: concrete, asphalt, rocks, dirt trails, sand, etc. Also helpful is to practice those surfaces while going flat, uphill and downhill. Each combination of terrain requires a slightly different form that can only be perfected through practice. A worthy long-term goal would be to feel completely comfortable on any terrain.
Once you decide to start being barefoot outside, one recommendation that I can make (although it is certainly not required) is to get a pair of Vibram FiveFingers. They are the next closest thing to being barefoot that I am aware of. FiveFingers will give you pretty much all of the same benefits as being barefoot, along with the added benefit of extra protection for the soles of your feet. The downsides are that there is an initial cost involved, and that your soles will not get toughened up as quickly. (Please note that I have absolutely no financial ties to Vibram in any way, I just really like the product.)
Another benefit of starting barefoot is that you will learn what the ideal feels like. If/when you decide to purchase footwear that allows for barefoot movement, you will be better able to discern what makes a good minimalist shoe.
Walking and running barefoot relies on the usage of muscles for support and shock absorption rather than footwear. These muscles (as any muscle in the body) require slow development in order to reach their full potential. Nobody who is new to weight lifting would (in their right mind) immediately try bench press 200 pounds, they would most certainly get injured. The same can be said for going barefoot, substantial training will be required before the muscles are ready to be used to their full potential. Take your time, start easy, progress slowly, and enjoy the process. Think of this as a life-long endeavor, listen to your body, and have fun!
The soles of the feet will gradually adapt for barefoot usage. Over time they will become tougher, thicker, and less sensitive to every little pebble. As with the muscles, this process of adaptation will take time as well. Too much, too fast can lead to problems of pain, swelling, or injury. Again, Vibram FiveFingers can help in this regard (although they are definitely not required) because they give your soles a jump-start on the adaptation process.
- Don't worry about what other people think.
- When first starting out, do it in your house, in the grass, in the sand, or any other comfortable surface.
- Start doing it for 15 minutes, then gradually increase it as your body allows.
- A good goal is to work up to going barefoot all the time when in the home.
- Play. If you are in the park on on the beach, try running, jumping, skipping, walking.
- If you are learning to run barefoot, alternate running/walking, starting with a few minutes of each. Gradually increase up the running time as you feet get stronger.
- Don't worry about dirty feet. It's ok, really, they can easily be cleaned.
- Learn to be comfortable walking barefoot on as many different surfaces as you can.
- Try to work up to as much barefoot, or close to barefoot (using minimalist footwear) as your lifestyle allows. The more the better.