Minimal Shoes and Biofeedback

Minimal Shoes: Pros and Cons

If our hunter-gatherer forebears wore simple hide foot coverings or, depending on the weather, went barefoot, wouldn’t shoes that are barely there be good for us too?

Well, not necessarily, because “we’ve paved paradise and put in a parking lot.” We walk on flat, smooth, unyielding surfaces, whereas our forebears walked on grass, dirt, sand and gravel. Natural surfaces yield a bit under foot. The ground gives, and your body gives, so the impact of walking is shared. On man-made surfaces, your body absorbs all the impact. (An exception would be a “sprung floor,” such as are found in dance studios.)

I love my Vibram FiveFingers shoes for trail walking. The shoes let me enjoy the partnership between my feet and the earth without hazard from burrs or bits of glass. And I can feel my legs, hips and spine in harmony with one another. But I can count on my fingers the number of times I've gone walking in the mountains in the past year. I suspect many readers’ lifestyles are similarly curtailed.  So on a recent morning I put on my Vibrams  to take a walk in my neighborhood.  I was determined to get some good out of those shoes.

Hard Surfaces Challenge Your Body's Resilience

Stepping out onto the concrete sidewalk, I immediately noticed the absence of the mild cushioning offered by my Nike Free shoes. I could feel the shock of the concrete against my knees, and right on up into my hips and sacrum. Furthermore, when I tried to get moving expansively enough to feel my fascia’s elastic rebound, that made the concrete feel harder than ever—way too much pounding on my feet.

I'm out now, I thought. It's hard enough to get the darn shoes on, so I might as well keep going.

Some Bio-feedback

Eventually I came to a part of the neighborhood where I could step off the sidewalk and walk on gravel or grass. It was a pain to keep stepping on and off the concrete driveways, but whenever I was on a natural surface, I could temporarily recover some fascial resilience.

Walking on grass demanded more articulation from my feet and ankles.  It felt great. After a while, though, I began to notice that I wasn’t activating the transverse arch on my left foot the way I was on my right. I needed to practice the exercise I teach to others: it’s a way to dome your foot up under the mid-foot and press down onto the pads of your toes. (On this podcast, I talk the interviewer through that exercise.) I'd had a surgery on a toe and was aware of compensatory guarding . But I hadn’t been aware of the degree to which I’d stopped activating that arch. There's always something new to learn about taking care of your body.

So wearing the FiveFingers shoes on this morning's walk, while not especially beneficial for my fascia, did give me feedback about the extent to which I’d been avoiding full articulation of my left foot. It also solved the mystery of callus build-up on the ball of that foot: the inactive transverse arch meant that I'd been putting too much pressure down onto the metarsal heads.

Consider the Trade-offs

It’s good to be aware of the trade-offs involved. If you choose minimal shoes, you have to consider what kind of terrain you're walking on, and how adaptable your whole body is both to the reduced cushioning of the shoes, and to the increased micro-movements that will be demanded from your whole body. Further, how acutely attuned is your body awareness? Can you feel the effect of the shoes, good or bad, through your whole tensegrity system?

Maybe that’s a good question to leave you with: can you feel the effect of whatever you’re doing on your body as a whole?

© 2015 Mary Bond