I love revealing the unlimited ways being barefoot, especially outdoors rejuvenates your feet and how chronic dependence on motion control, stability, thickly cushioned running shoes may reduce the foot’s muscle, soft tissue, tendon and bone strength which in turn may not only contribute to flattened arches, but may alter your mechanics by causing abnormal foot postures, balance and postural instabilities, reduced joint position sense, all of which may add up to injury. This is why, in the context of running, the effectiveness of cushioned running shoes is very questionable for injury prevention as injury rates continue to remain incredibly high among runners who wear conventional running shoes.
More important, a wide array of research during the past few decades has shown that those who increased barefoot activity had the largest improvements in foot functional strength and arch-height profile as well as better dynamic balance and postural control.
It’s important to come away from the universal way of thinking that the feet are incredibly ‘sensitive, fragile and delicate’ and are therefore a liability to running. The feet can sufficiently function independent of external support and they have history of doing so ~remember, humans evolved as an endurance, barefoot running species and that humans evolved a certain set of mechanical traits (forefoot strike) that may have helped them run barefoot to avoid injury. Knowing this makes it obvious that being barefoot may be crucial for developing parts of the feet that are dedicated to balance control, impact absorption, enhanced spring energy management and other motor skills that lead to more functional movements patterns. Anyways, lets get back to exactly how being barefoot makes the feet stronger.
As a basic principle, increases in muscle activity in the feet directly stimulates increases in foot muscle growth, thus muscle activation is needed to enable the muscles to strengthen. But how do you get increases in muscle activation in the feet? Most muscle activation in the foot is stimulus-driven or sensory-driven whereby going barefoot gives the best collection of raw sensory stimulation that directly causes rapid-firing of the nerves in the feet which in turn directly switches on widespread muscle activation, leading to positive changes in strength and function in the feet.
- Being barefoot is the best portal for accelerated foot strength because the dramatic increases in underfoot nerve activity when barefoot is harnessed to do work on the muscles in the foot which is a key intervening variable that produces positive changes in foot muscle volume and functional strength.
This explains why when individuals adopt a more barefoot or minimalistic lifestyle, their feet become stronger and healthier and appear less bony and frail.
Even better, when you’re barefoot, the rapid uptick in underfoot nerve activity is continuous, meaning the foot’s nerves are constantly firing and repeatedly talking to other nerves in the ankle-joint, knee-joint, hip-joint, spinal cord and the brain! What good does all this do?
You get a better integration of sensory information flowing through the body, especially the brain, which has more influence on continually improving reflexive, postural and muscular control as well as your sense of joint velocity and position, all of which go into forming the mechanical components for low impact movements which can help you move better with more stable footsteps AND gives your legs the ability to cope with higher miles. This is how increased barefoot activity can not only weaponize your feet with improved functional strength, but can rapidly advance improvements in mobility health.
How Traditional Running Shoes Weakens the Feet
Susceptibility to foot weakness and discomfort as well as poor balance and postural control can arise from repressed or limited underfoot sensory conditions, such as wearing thick cushioned running shoes. This is because underfoot cushion thickness may disrupt the orderly flow and conversion of sensory stimulation to functional strength development in the feet. Basically, the thicker the sole of shoes, the more you step down in sensory input voltage, the weaker your foot’s muscles become over time.
- The complete lack of sensory stimulation which results in a disintegration of nerve stimulation and muscle activity in thickly cushioned, rigid running shoes is largely to blame for the loss of muscle volume and functional strength in the feet.
Even worse, cushioned running shoes may disrupt the flow or transfer of oxygen within the foot which may also decline foot functional strength much faster.
Its believed that changes in nerve stimulation and activation may lead to changes in nutrient-rich blood flow and oxygenation levels.
- When the nerves are highly active or stimulated, they consume more oxygen which is pulled out of the blood flowing in nearby capillaries. In this capacity, more nourishment gets delivered to the soft tissues and muscles within the foot.
Its for this reason that you want to be barefoot as much as possible because of its capacity to maintain high levels of plantar (foot) nerve stimulation and thus more blood, more oxygen and overall, more nourishment floods the feet, speeding up the process of getting stronger feet!
It’s for all these reasons why experts and coaches are warming up to the idea that increased barefoot activity works for being the basic building block for building stronger, resilient, more tolerant feet and that stronger feet can really be a clearinghouse for many injuries.
If you’ve enjoyed this content, you’ll love my content over at my YouTube, here, where I talk in more detail about the more ways barefoot running improves running form as well as the advantages of forefoot running over heel strike running.
P.S. Don’t forget to check out my Run Forefoot Facebook page here! It’s a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I’m always happy to help!
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BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
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