There’s nothing quite like the feeling when after a long journey to some tropical destination you joyously remove your shoes and take a stroll barefooted along the beach with the cool sea lapping languidly at your toes. It is blissful. As your feet begin to unfurl and relax with those first few steps you start to sense and welcome the texture of the sand beneath you. This simple act of walking is like a delightful massage for those most underrated of appendages. Perhaps you notice the occasional discrepancies of small pebbles or shells that inform your gait. It all adds up to paint the pleasant picture of that prime holiday experience: walking barefooted along the beach. It’s when we take our shoes off that we know it’s time to relax and this simple pleasure can tell us a lot about how we use our bodies and approach exercise.
My indignation at having to wear shoes began at an early age. My Mum insisted that I wear a pair of ill-fitting, big buckled Clarks sandals to school every day. When I ran in the playground they made a loud and embarrassing slip-slap kind of sound. They were quite uncomfortable and seriously slowed me down when we played ‘tag’. A few years later just before she died my Mum, under interrogation, admitted with a wry smile that the main reason she insisted that I wore those monstrosities was simply because she thought that they looked pretty… I had always assumed that it was because they were cheap!
Anyway, my first rebellion against shoes was during primary school PE lessons. Not being particularly good at sports I was however a very fast runner. When I was eleven years old my PB for the 100m sprint was 11.2 seconds which made for much disgruntlement amongst the ‘sporty-types’. Inspired by Zola Budd’s barefooted success in the mid-eighties I discovered that running barefoot made it astonishingly easier to run well and much faster than anyone else in my school. It felt so natural. My teachers, of course, frowned upon it and insisted that wearing garishly bright, cumbersome trainers would support and protect the feet allowing one to run better. Similarly my classmates were besotted with expensive trainers. They seemed to think that the more money their shoes cost then not only would they be able to run better but also and more strangely that this would somehow increase their intrinsic value as a person. I wonder where kids get these funny ideas? Well it was the eighties! Other adults viewed being barefoot as being simply too dangerous, too controversial… The evidence of my success however could not be disputed and sometimes I would race the teachers and beat them in order to prove my point. Nonetheless we argued about it each and every week until I left primary school and my mind turned to other things.
These days my feelings about shoes are more or less the same but more informed. I’m happy to say that there is a huge body of excellent research that suggests that the restricted natural foot movement that almost all modern footwear tends to inflict upon us (despite manufacturers and Physiotherapists assertions to the contrary) actually inhibits healthy movement throughout the whole body structure compromising all bodily functions and movement generally.
Those of you that know me are probably aware of my favoured funny looking footwear that I don for my own training and all my classes (and occasionally, if Katherine lets me, the restaurant). I am happy to admit that I can’t be barefooted all the time but there is a close second: Vibram Five Fingers. These wonderful things are like gloves for your feet. I warn you now that they deliberately offer no arch support (arch support continually facilitates weak feet) are quite expensive and look mighty strange. However, over the few years that I have been wearing mine my feet have become like sprung steel and are noticeably wider and muscular. As a result my whole body feels more stable and springy.
They are a real pleasure to wear for my Taiji training – you can feel every nuance in the ground and after a long training session it’s as if my feet have been massage and stretched in the most wonderful way!
When I first started wearing them I couldn’t believe just how hard the ground felt and it took a little while for me to get used to them as my body adjusted. It certainly wouldn’t be very sensible to suddenly swap your big padded affairs for these sleek little beauties and go for a long run on concrete. That would be asking for an injury and perhaps indicate a lack of commonsense.
Interestingly enough from what I have observed it seems that most foot problems come from an imbalance throughout the whole body structure that normally emanates from the restricted hip mobility and weak legs that is so common in our modern world (we sit down too much). For many of us then with ‘foot problems’ adding arch support is a like treating the symptoms and not the cause and therefore not very sustainable.
Of course different things suit different people but for me I would never go back to wearing normal shoes all the time. Now when I put on my smart boots my first feeling is that my feet do not have enough room to move naturally which is quite funny because I used to find them so comfortable. So most of the time I stick with being barefoot at home and wear my Vibrams when I’m out teaching or training in the park. What’s more is that people often come up to me with a quizzical look on their face and say: “I have to ask you about your feet!”. It’s a great way to meet people!