An accessory to the fashion trend called The Paleo Diet is The Barefoot Shoe. Just as every upstanding Neanderthal watched his or her carbs, sprinted once a week, and made bone broth, so did the health-conscious cave-woman, man and child wear the latest barefoot shoes from Vibram. I discovered this when I became interested in The Paleo Diet about 14 years ago. It made sense. Just as modern food is ill-suited to our genes, so is modern footwear ill-fitting to our feet. Modern agriculture made it too easy to get and ingest lots of manipulated food that would be unrecognizable to our hirsute ancestors, and modern footwear technology made it too easy to walk around on roads, sidewalks, and floors rather than running barefoot for our lives through the mud as we should be doing. And so, because we have lost touch with our ancestors of several hundred generations ago, we are sick, weak, fat, dumb, bunyoned, and tender-footed.
Just as our bodies are supposed to ingest only animals, pre-agricultural plants, nuts, seeds, fruits, and dirt, our feet are supposed to tread unshod upon every earthly surface; soles are to feel, toes are to splay, heels are to toughen, arches are to bow. Makes sense. Just as we’ve lost the value behind running for our lives lest we become dinner, the taste of a dirty tiny foraged tuber, and the regenerative power of skipping nine meals in a row due to poor hunting conditions, so have we lost the value of an impressive space between great and second toe, ankles of steel, and soles of leather.
I bought my first pair of Vivobarefoot shoes, The Gobi, in 2009. I believed feet should be free, but I also believed that shoes should not look incredibly dorkie. I felt the Vivobarefoot vibe was ok, unlike lots of other barefoot shoes cropping up and looking like someone from the 1950s’ idea of what someone from the future might wear.
I eventually found some barefoot shoes that I think look good and fairly normal.
The point of the paleo diet is that we are eating real food and not junk food, which our bodies expect and on which our genetics have been based for hundreds of generations. This makes sense. The point with barefoot shoes is that, unlike with standard footwear, your toes have room to spread, your heel is not constantly elevated, and the sole of your foot is allowed to flex, feel and move. These features allow your feet to reconnect with the world and work the way your feet are supposed to work. This also makes sense.
But here’s the other thing: you can’t really take it too far. To some extent, you have to live in the present world. The paleo diet works, but it works mainly because of the extent to which you are able to adhere to it and consume real food rather than junk. Any diet works if it has you staying away from junk; it’s the adherence that’s the problem. The paleo diet worked for me, but it also had me avoiding legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils) and grains like the plague, because those are Neolithic foods. But if I don’t have a specific condition related to these foods, must I avoid them? Could it be harmful to be too concerned about restricting what I eat to adhere to a philosophy?
I have worn barefoot shoes exclusively for about eight years now. I don’t recall the transition too well other than to say that walking on hard surfaces was unpleasant but after I got used to the new feel, I really liked it and it felt like my feet were finally “getting into shape” after not exercising for a long time. After I was fully used to them I recall putting on “normal” shoes a few times and my feet feeling like they were in prison. But I must admit that even after wearing barefoot shoes exclusively for years, my feet would still feel “battered” from time to time when walking on hard surfaces.
Over the years of wearing barefoot shoes I recall a few times getting a very painful tendonitis on the top of my left foot. I was never able to connect these bouts with any specific activity or injury, and they usually went away after a few days of rest and ice. I hadn’t thought much more about it until recently.
I’ve never been much of a walker. That is to say, I don’t like walking for distance or for exercise. Most of my walking is purposeful and for the sake of transportation. But a few months ago I started walking for a half hour every morning with my daughter, as she was fulfilling her requirements for summer P.E. class and wanted company. We eventually worked up to an hour a day. Most of our walking was on paved bike trails. After a couple of weeks of this, I started to feel a dull pain on the top of my left foot. I continued to walk with her, as the pain was not bad and did not increase with more walking. One morning I woke up and the pain was intense and my foot was red and swollen. I stopped walking (I wouldn’t have been able to anyway) and started the ice and rest. It went away after a couple of days as it had done before.
I resumed walking with my daughter after the pain went away and after a few more days of walking, the condition returned. I went through the cycle again and then finally saw a podiatrist. X-rays revealed no fractures and she said it was likely tendon and/or ligament strain. She gave me a stabilizing shoe and told me to rest until the pain and redness went away.
It is now about four weeks later and I have been unable to break the cycle. When the foot returns to something close to normal, any kind of walking that is beyond a 5000 or so step day puts me back into extreme pain, swelling and redness. At its worst I really can’t walk on the foot at all. I have to hop from the bed to the bathroom.
I’ve been seeing a sports physical therapist three times a week. In addition to the exercises and (very painful) manipulation, she advised a shoe with “support”. She meant a shoe with a thick sole that does not bend much. I dug through my old shoes and found a pair of running shoes with far more sole than I’m used to but still far less than the physical therapist had in mind. Wearing these shoes helped quite a bit with the pain but when my foot was at its worst, I still was not able to walk far without intense pain and pronounced limping.
Recently and rather out of desperation, I drove to the mall and hobbled to the nearest store that sells shoes. It happened to be LL Bean. I grabbed a pair of work boots with a very thick and stiff sole. I put them on and walked around the store. Although they felt like cinder blocks on my feet, I was able to walk without limping and with only a small amount of pain. I kept the shoes on my feet, paid for them, strolled out to my car like an uninjured person, and made my way home.
I’m wearing the cinder blocks exclusively now until the pain goes away and stays away, even after high steppin’ days.
So what is the moral of this story? That barefoot shoes were a big mistake, they’re a ruse, and I never should have made the switch? No, I don’t think so. I think the point is valid that our feet were meant to breathe and move and feel and that modern footwear largely prevents this. But modern life is also largely paved, and that’s hard to avoid, particularly when taking a long walk. And it appears to be the case, for me anyway, that a steady diet of pavement and hardwood is just too much for my ambitious caveman wannabe feet to handle.
Barefoot shoes are great, but not all the time, and definitely not on long walks on hard surfaces. For me, anyway. Just as a diverse diet is good for the microbiome, I’m thinking maybe diversity might be a good thing for feet as well. Maybe it would be best for my feet to learn to deal with all sorts of combinations of footwear, padding, support and terrain.
If you want to make the transition to barefoot shoes, by all means go for it, but take it slow, and tread lightly.