Walking, hiking and running barefoot present very little danger to one’s feet. In fact, performing these activities barefoot may actually strengthen your feet and help to improve your posture and general kinematics. Fears of puncture wounds, lacerations, simple cuts and infections surround the practice of barefoot exercise but are largely unfounded. People often ask: “Aren’t you afraid you will step on some glass?” Barefoot runners get this question a lot. I’m much more concerned about stepping in dog, deer or bear poop than broken glass. Glass shards (which are quite rare due to the high use of plastics) on the street are usually lying flat and it’s actually quite difficult to slice the sole of your foot when running or walking properly. If you are shuffling along barefoot through a field of broken glass bottles, that’s another story. I have been hiking and running barefoot for over 5 years and have never sustained a debris injury. The skin on the plantar surface (sole) of the foot gets thicker the more time you spend exercising barefoot. It is also much more resistant to abrasions than the rest of your skin.
A study done in 1948 in the “The Journal of the National Association of Chiropodists“ looked at 118 Chinese rickshaw coolies (guys who pull people sitting/relaxing in a chariot like device), all of whom trotted all day every day on hard pavement pulling a rickshaw with bare feet. Aside from some temporary pain and swelling when they began their careers, none reported any foot problems. The study concluded: “Shoes are not necessary for healthy feet and are the cause of most foot troubles…” But don’t throw out all your shoes just yet. Shoes do serve some useful purposes:
- They protect the foot against extreme heat and cold
- Specialized boots protect against toxic environments and falling objects
- Your boss requires you wear them
- They complete your outfit and make a fashion statement
- They protect you from a clumsy partner while dancing (me)
- You might need speical shoes if you suffer foot damage from years of wearing shoes.
- They are a must have if you plan to hike around bullet ants or scorpions
The other main concern people have about going barefoot is the fear of picking up germs. Fact: walking/running barefoot will not likely expose and/or infect your foot with pathogenic bacterias. Even if you happen to pick up some bacteria while barefoot the likelihood of infection is low. Comparatively, your hands come into contact with much higher amounts of germs throughout the day which you then proceed to rub your eye, mouth or nose. And yet you are still here. We should, in fact, all be more concerned with the fungus and bacteria that proliferate in our shoes like athlete’s foot, staph, and erythrasma. The warm, dark and damp environment inside your shoes is an ideal incubator for microbial growth. This bacteria and fungal growth is not existent in habitually barefoot populations but remains the leading cause of foot infections in the shoe wearing world. Shoes are less hygienic than bare feet.
What about stepping on the ubiquitous rusty nail? Everyone is afraid of that. It turns out it’s better to step on a nail barefoot than while wearing shoes. Why? Because shoes are a hornet’s nest of bacteria and there’s a good chance the dangerous microbes inside your shoe will clinging onto the nail as it passes through your footwear and into your body. The soles of most shoes are no match for the 300 to 900 pounds of force you use while stepping down. Shod or unshod, if the rusty nail is sturdy enough, you will get punctured. Either way, it’s bad, but you will have a lower chance of contracting extra bacterial infections if you do it barefoot. Keep your eyes wide open for upright nails, scorpions, snakes, wasp nests and poop while running/hiking/walking barefoot and you will be just fine!
Barefooting is not for everyone. If you have foot abnormalities and/or dysfunctions you may not benefit. Or perhaps you are one of the few lucky individuals who are injury free and enjoy the feel of shoes. If that’s the case, stick with what works. For all others who are interested in running or hiking barefoot, you will need to follow a micro-progression schedule and slowly re-learn the skill of baring your soles. It’s a great feeling.by