I am a huge fan of barefoot/zero drop shoes for restoring and maintaining the health of the feet and body. But just like you wouldn’t take your 95-year-old bedridden grandmother on a hike up to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro immediately upon getting cleared for light exercise, you shouldn’t rush into barefoot shoes with some preparation.
Barefoot style shoes help your foot maintain it’s natural ability without restricting movement. Yes, it feels like you’re barefoot and no, you don’t really need arch supports (read more in my article Flab Feet, Not Flat Feet are the Issue). Shoes that restrict motion or support arches will increase the pressure into any of the joints above the foot (i.e. ankles, knees, hips and low back to name a few).
If you run out right now in a pair of barefoot shoes, you run the risk of injury, as your foot is not strong enough to support the entirety of your body’s weight. That’s not because the foot will never be able to do it, but because you probably haven’t been prancing around barefoot in 20+ years.
What does barefoot/zero drop mean? Zero drop refers to the height difference between the heel and the ball of the foot. Most shoes have a few millimeter difference between toes and heel. While that may not seem like a lot, any height difference will cause your joints to compensate for the change in levelness. Some of my favorite brands include Lems, Altra, Vivobarefoot and New Balance.
So how do you start the process of building up the strength of your feet to go barefoot?
- GRADUAL! – start with a short amount of time in your barefoot shoes, and gradually increase the amount of time until you can tolerate them throughout the day. 5-10 minutes for the first week or so should suffice. If you increase the time and notice a ton of pain/soreness/stiffness, decrease your time for a few more days before trying again.
- STRENGTHENING EXERCISES – add in mobility and strengthening exercises that will help to prepare your feet. Calf raises are a good place to start – check out my video here for a how-to) Spend as much time barefoot when you are at home and if possible, walk on various surfaces outside to strengthen your feet. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and see how many different surfaces you can explore barefoot. This barefoot time will translate into stronger feet that are also not quite as sensitive as a foot that has been in a sock and shoes forever. Jump rope is also a great way to dynamically strengthen the feet, which leads to #3….
- LEARN HOW TO RUN PROPERLY – when you ditch the cushion of traditional footwear, your poor running technique may lead to injury. When running, you want your feet to land directly beneath you, with your toes and midfoot hitting the ground first. If your heel is out in front of you upon landing, you lose all the springy recoil that is built into the foot and the impact of the hard landing can send a massive amount of load into the knees and low back. You shouldn’t need to change your walking technique with barefoot shoes (it’s pretty intuitive), but find a movement professional in your area who is skilled at gait analysis to help if you have any questions. (I do one-on-one coaching in person and online if you want help. Email me for more info.)
Go slow and be smart when transitioning to zero drop footwear, when done properly, you will build strong and healthy feet that will support your entire body with a strong foundation!
Are you a barefoot aficionado? What did you do to transition yourself safely? Let me know in the comments below!
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