For me, paleo thinking is also about rediscovering everything what we used to do well and what we are doing wrong today that makes us not fully healthy. In this article I focus on our two legs. Animals and native peoples don’t wear shoes, at most rudimentary sandals, yet they don’t complain of patellofemoral pain, iliotibial band syndrome, tibial stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendon injuries, and other common running ailments. Copy them, if they are fine with the way nature made them, why do we want to rebel against universal laws also on this subject?
An analysis of the Tarahumara people of the Mexican highlands shows that it is possible to run ultra distances (from marathons to 100-200 km) barefoot or in simple sandals. The Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, winner of the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, also achieved his great success barefoot. He probably didn’t even know what shoes were since he was a child at home, and it was only natural for him to run without them.
The shoe manufacturers say that you have to wear all kinds of super impact-absorbing, stabilising footwear because otherwise your feet would be ruined. On the face of it, you can come to that conclusion, because you’ve been wearing shoes and playing sports since you were a kid, and without them you can easily overload your lower limbs. Is it possible that this is because some of your muscles are stabilised by the shoes, they become lazy, in other words, they become weak?
But if they are weak, it’s clear why you initially injure yourself barefoot. Something similar happens when you put your hand or leg in a plaster after a broken bone. You wear your muscles for weeks without doing anything, and they lose strength and size spectacularly. Something similar happens when you wear shoes, but on a smaller scale. There are tiny little muscles and ligaments in your feet that would like to be alive, but instead passively resign themselves to slavery, while your knees, hips and spine take the work instead.
This is a difficult concept to accept in today’s social and cultural norms, and certainly not everyone will be walking or playing sports barefoot tomorrow. There are degrees of how harmful footwear is in this respect.
The worst are the rigid-soled, ankle-stabilising, ski-boot-like products. Women can look extremely pretty in a high heel, but at a price, and it would be best to wear them only occasionaly. It’s a good guideline to at least choose something with a flexible sole, bending easily as the foot dictates when walking. You can still find such loose-fitting wear, even with the latest fashions.
The next step up is the ever-expanding range of footwear designed to be deliberately minimalist or five-fingered. These allow virtually complete freedom of movement of the toes, almost exclusively for protection against sharp objects. The slippers are on the limit, which can also make the muscles stiff (though still better than a highly stabilized shoe), but a more clever solution is a flexible-soled sandal. And with a little creativity and tinkering, you can create a minimalist shoe of your own design.
If you’re determined to get back into ’free-legged training’, the most important rule is gradualism! You need to re-strengthen your lazy muscles, relearn how to work them in subtle harmony. Among the primitive peoples, the Tarahumara, Maasai and most warm-climate native peoples walk barefoot without a problem, at most wearing rudimentary sandals to protect themselves from sharp landmarks. It’s an understandable point of view, you obviously wouldn’t be happy if you had to pull rusty nails and broken glass out of your feet, although that’s also more a result of modern man’s littering.
In the wild, they are not made for competitive sports, so if speed and performance sports are your goal, you will probably always need a special shoe, but as a hobby or supplement, it’s worth getting back into the ancient ways. Avoid asphalt at first and try grass and woodland terrain. If you give up to half an hour a day to this project, you’ll be able to acclimatise the newly used parts of your feet, including the plantar fascia, in 3-4 weeks.
For the transition period, it’s worth getting a sponge roller or tennis ball to loosen up the muscle blisters on the sole of the foot that have become fatigued from decades of wearing shoes. Simply roll the tool up and down the tired muscles with moderate force. It may hurt at first, but it will free up your little muscles. Barefooting does not mean immortality, obviously you can still pick up injuries from overuse at first, so careful re-education is crucial.
In the next section, I will examine the science behind the subject. Logically thinking, this is also not a big magic as diet, sleep and other ancient habits. So don’t wear out your soles if you don’t have to!
- Christopher McDougall: Born to run – A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen; Random House; 2011
- Erwan Le Corre: The practice of Natural Movement
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