Nature in nature - barefoot walking and foot injuries

Jan 4, 2021

How can barefoot walking complement the prevention and rehabilitation of foot injuries?

If the human foot has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, it’s fair to ask the question - why do we need shoes? If we look at history, humans have been wearing footwear of some sort for perhaps 40,000 years. Whilst it’s impossible to have an accurate figure, it’s generally agreed it’s been a long time. So we have to assume at some stage, our ancestors worked out it was easier or more comfortable to walk with some kind of footwear, even if it was made of leather and wood! 

The biggest change in the past 100 years has been the surface we walk on. In the western world in particular, most people spend the vast majority of their day on hard, “spirit-level” flat surfaces. Think inside your home and work environment. But even when outside, whilst roads and footpaths have some angle for drainage, they are still generally flat. 

So what does this mean for your feet? Imagine your own walking pattern or gait as you walk barefoot in a straight line through your house. Now imagine walking barefoot across the soft sand at the beach. The major difference between the two is that walking through your house uses the same muscles and joints at the same time in the gait cycle, under the same load. When walking on the sand, you will use different muscles and joints at different times in the gait cycle, under different loads. 

As podiatrists, the vast majority of musculoskeletal foot complaints we see are chronic overuse. That is, using the same muscles and joints over and over again. We generally can’t change the surfaces we live and work on. What we can change is the biomechanics of our feet through footwear and orthotics. Indeed, when patients present with chronic overuse injuries, they have often already worked out that footwear - sometimes ANY footwear - makes walking easier and less painful than bare feet.

So where do bare feet fit into a prevention and rehabilitation program? The mantra I try to ingrain into my patients is Nature in Nature. And on the Sunshine Coast - nothing beats the beach!

If I have a patient who is not carrying any musculoskeletal lower limb issues, I often encourage them to incorporate some barefoot walking in nature, as it helps strengthen all those little muscles in our feet we don’t use when walking on flat surfaces in footwear. This can result in a stronger, healthier foot that may prevent future musculoskeletal breakdowns. 

If I have a patient who is rehabilitating from a lower limb issue, I make sure we have reached a certain level of improvement before we add this to the program. The timing on this decision can be difficult and is a team effort between patient and clinician. When we do introduce some barefoot walking in nature, it’s in small amounts to begin with and it’s really important to listen to your body to see how you pull up.

Many plantar fasciitis issues have been stirred up by walking too much on the beach. On the flip side, one of the most satisfying feelings is walking pain-free, barefoot on the beach after months of dealing with chronic pain! 

It's good for the soul and for the sole!!