Barefoot in the Park
When, why, and how to shed your shoes
By Christopher Percy Collier
AMC Outdoors, September/October 2009
Going barefoot in the outdoors may at first seem like a throwback to the Stone Age rather than a healthy fitness trend. But exercising without the support of traditional footwear appears to be increasing in popularity and could benefit outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. The goal? Reducing pain, discomfort—and even injury.
FANCY FOOTWORK “Shoes do the work that the muscles in your feet should be doing,” says George. The structure and support of traditional footwear comes at a price, possibly weakening the feet’s muscles. If they aren’t strong enough, you may experience foot discomfort and improper alignment up through your body, which can, in turn, lead to pain in the hamstrings, lower back, and knees, among other areas.
BAREFOOT WALKS Once your feet grow more accustomed to this less bridled environment, George recommends setting out for a weekly walk without shoes. Start with short jaunts of less than a mile on surfaces free of rocks and other hazards. “Barefoot walks on the sand will give you the greatest benefit with less risk of injuring your feet,” says George.
POINT AND FLEX Point your foot “like a ballerina,” then flex it to a right angle. “This movement works the muscles we use while we walk,” she says.
GIANT ANKLE CIRCLES Rotate your ankle clockwise then counter clockwise. Loosening these joints helps reduce injuries like a twisted ankle, but don’t overdo it: “Your ankles need to find a balance between strength and mobility,” she says.
FOOT CLENCH Simulate the act of clenching your fist, only with your feet. “This improves toe strength and works the muscles around the arch of your foot,” George says.
WINDSHIELD WIPERS Grab your big and pinky toes and spread them apart. Then move the middle three toes back and forth. “This strengthens the bottom of the foot and the arch,” she says.
FIRM FOOTING Once the feet have been strengthened, a longer hike without shoes can solidify the base you’ve built—and it needn’t be done without protection. Several manufacturers offer shoes that simulate being barefoot, with just a little extra padding.