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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Rockman

Why I've Joined The "Barefoot Revolution" and The Problem With Modern Shoes

Updated: May 12

As someone who considers themselves more coordinated with their feet than their hands, my feet are super important to me. To reclaim the future function of my feet I've joined the Barefoot Revolution. This revolution reached me because I was sick of coming home with shoes that would rub on the side of my feet, sick of having weak ankles when playing soccer and sick of shoe companies claiming you need MORE padding, MORE cushioning and MORE support to fix all of your problems when what I liked doing best was spending time barefoot.

To all my friends who have been asking why my shoes are so wide and unexpectedly getting an entire article's worth of answers, thank you for listening with an open mind. Hopefully this post means I don't have to go on a monologue every time you ask and can just point new people here instead.

First, allow me to indulge in the story which lead me to begin this journey.

I've never had the best relationship with my feet.

I have naturally wide feet, so choosing a soccer boot when I was younger consisted of finding a boot that was wide enough to not rub on the outside of my foot before finding a boot which looked the coolest (I thought this should be the main factor for kids!). After games, taking off boots felt like all this pressure had been lifted from my pinky toe, which was often red and sore. I played soccer for 15 years.

Either from an injury involving a certain trampoline warehouse when I was young or from genetics, I was told by a podiatrist that my big toes did not have enough range of motion in extension and classified my big toes as having "structural hallux limitus". Extension of the big toe is used in how we move around every single day, including walking and running. That podiatrist also told me I have the feet of a "50 year old mountain dweller" and told me to buy $500 custom made orthotics. This hallux limitus on my right toe played up so bad I almost had to quit soccer entirely because kicking the ball in a certain way would hurt. And what did I do about it? Ignored the podiatrist, strapped it up and kept playing of course!

More recently I received a similar injury on my opposite toe from playing futsal and stubbing my toe into the ground with force. My approach was different this time, because as I got older I realised I didn't want chronic injuries, so I got it x-rayed and even *gasp* stopped playing sport for a little while to let it recover (this was over the off-season) . But it wasn't enough, I now had two weak big toes. Going back to the start of this all, the outside of my foot started rubbing in shoes again, but no longer just in skinny football boots, it was now in all of my shoes whether they be runners or black leather formal shoes. I would come home and the first thing I would do is take off my shoes and breathe a sigh of relief.

About this time I was introduced to flat gym shoes. The concept of these is simple: when you are lifting heavy things in the gym, in almost every exercise you need to create force by pushing hard into the ground. Most shoes and certainly the runners that I owned had a large, spongy, elevated heel. This means that when you push down into the ground the sponge absorbs some of the force, meaning there is less transference of force from the ground into you lifting something heavy. This is why you see people lifting in casual shoes like Converse over running shoes, they interfere less with the actual lifting.

*Note: The effect of this is very small though, don't expect to break any personal bests just because you changed shoes.

After getting myself a pair of Vivobarefoot Primus lite II's (they were like totes in fashion at my gym, literally) the outside of my feet stopped hurting when I got home from work and my big toes slowly but surely became less sore. I got way more than a little lifting boost like I expected. WTFF is going on?!

WTFF is an acronym which stands for four things that you should look for in a functional shoe (it doesn't stand for the more commonly used wtf with two swear words like I originally thought). It stands for Wide, Thin, Flat and Flexible.

If you're interested in learning more you can read podiatrist and ex-client of mine Andy Bryant's fantastic posts about each variable for a more in-depth and professional explanation (feet are his job).

A wide toe box to allow your toes to spread.

A thin sole lets your body feel and react to the ground as it should.

A flat sole allows the foot to work as it was biomechanically intended as opposed to modern shoes with a raised heel offsetting your entire body position as well as the lift in the toes bracing your foot into a certain position.

A flexible shoe so that you can use all the joints in your foot without any of them becoming stiff.

After wearing these barefoot shoes in the gym everyday for work I found I wasn't desperate to take them off as soon as I got home, I didn't need to take them off when lifting heavy and it was a lot of fun to be able to feel what I was walking on rather than just cushioning 24/7!

The wide toe box has been such a game changer for me. I never really noticed but that rubbing on the outside of my foot has been present my whole life, I always just thought it was normal when wearing shoes. But these "barefoot" style shoes don't leave me with red pinky toes and I'm not desperate to get them off when I get home. Just comparing my shoes now to my older shoes gives me foot pain.

Look at the difference in width where my pinky toe would be *shudder*. I never got to wear that skinny shoe much because it gave me pain even in short bursts of wearing it, which is such a shame.

So if WTFF makes for a good shoe then why don't most shoes fit the bill?

Well there are many reasons for the thin toe box, spongy, elevated soles and stiff designs but for the most part it comes down to fashion and comfort.

Now if you know me personally you'll know that fashion ranks very low on my priorities list (somewhere between the new series of The Bachelor in Paradise and my competitive Mario kart career), so wearing shoes which sacrifice a little fashion in the name of my wellbeing is an absolute no-brainer. But after hearing my story you may be considering picking up a pair of barefoot shoes, so does that mean you have to always wear these clown shoes?

Look the problems from modern shoes aren't big enough that you should NEVER wear your favourite pair of high heels again (although I've given up on wearing high heels...). The problems start when we are wearing these shoes that aren't great for our feet all day, every day. So, it's fine to still dress up fancy every now and then, sacrifice a little function for fashion (goes against my morals but you do you) for special occasions, just try to get some friendly shoes on your feet the majority of the time.

Wearing super comfortable, spongy shoes since we were young means the bottom of our feet have been deprived of sensory sensations and become more sensitive. This means that there is a process to converting to barefoot shoes. Your feet need time to build up the muscles which haven't been used thanks to modern shoe design as well as to create calluses on the bottom of your feet which have been cushioned their whole life.

I remember when I got my first pair of casual barefoot shoes I walked home one late, hungover morning from my friend's house one suburb over. It was only about a 30-40 minute walk but my feet ended up getting sore on the bottom like I was getting blisters. After another month of wearing barefoot shoes, I went on a 3 hour hike through the great outdoors and my feet felt AMAZING! Being able to feel the soft moss underfoot or the bumps on a stick made the walk much more mindful and just straight up fun.

Pro tip: don't take white shoes on a hike

*Also people with previous foot injuries should see a professional before making the transition to barefoot. **Not if you just have a "flat arch" or "high arch" - this is not an injury by itself

So, you have to be mindful when first wearing barefoot shoes that there ain't none of that cushy design to rely on, we are building up our feet to be able to walk again without help. To assist with this transition you can speak to the awesome staff at Sole Mechanics in Hampton, Melbourne. I've never taken money for any recommendations and I'm usually hard to impress so believe me when I say if you're even so much as considering barefoot shoes you should go have a chat to the employees here, they can help you out so much.

If you want something you can do to benefit the function of your feet today you can pick up a pair of toe spacers. They are silicone sleeves that you put between your toes to spread them which then realigns your toes to be straight instead of being bent in from tight toe boxes. They are surprisingly comfortable and cost about $8 to get delivered to your door via ebay. If there's one thing you can do for your toes today, (apart from walk around barefoot) it's to order one of these. They are also used to combat bunions. Did you know that bunions are completely preventable?

You can also perform exercises for the muscles in your feet called "intrinsic foot exercises". These exercises help strengthen the muscles which are often immobilised in modern shoes which causes them to atrophy (get smaller and weaker). A common intrinsic foot exercise involves lifting the big toe while leaving the other four toes on the ground and then performing the opposite move using the four other toes leaving the big toe on the ground. A more detailed explanation with more exercises can be found here. I've started doing these while I brush my teeth or between sets while working out, 2 sets a day for 2-5 days a week.

So, if you're feeling like there is something going on at your feet that your body doesn't like, consider reclaiming your foot function by going barefoot more often. This minimalist approach can help you recapture what it means to move. Personally, I've found my feet are way comfier, it has helped my sore toes, I can feel what I'm walking on, don't need to take my shoes off while lifting, walking is fun again and my feet feel all around happier!

Hence why I'm raving on about this topic like a dodgy doctor pushing supplements.

Go barefoot, grab a pair of barefoot shoes, some toe spacers, do some intrinsic foot exercises and join me in this revolution, to reclaim our future foot function!

Link to Sole Mechanics Hampton:

P.S. if you're still going to complain about my fashion, just be glad I didn't join when the movement was going through it's awkward toe shoe phase! I hope it was just a phase...

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