Some of my earliest memories involve running around in a grass paddock in my bare feet. The feeling of liberation and excitement that comes with the lightness and freedom of shoeless movement and the sensation of the warm grass between my toes. I always felt I could run faster and further with nothing to separate me from the earth, and somehow more connected as well. Feet are the foundations of the physical body. We are an upright species, with almost all our movements beginning from these helpful and often neglected parts of the body. It’s time we recognised and respected our feet for what they are, where they take us, and how important a role they play in our ability to move freely and easily from toddler to maturity.
Many things in life start out simple and get complicated – shoes are a great example. The very first protective footwear was made of thin strips of animal hide or woven plant fibres. Just enough to protect the feet from getting thorns or torn on rough ground, no more than that. It stayed this way for millennia with shoes being more of a slipper than a rigid structure. Gradually cultural fashion trends evolved, and the modern shoe was born. No longer were the feet capable of doing their own thing, we needed to improve on evolution and create something we had managed to live without for all of human history – a thick cushioned sole. For better or worse, we ended up with cushioned, insulated, technologically advanced shoes. Great for walking on concrete and keeping our feet warm, well simultaneously being terrible for the development of the muscularity, proprioception, and mobility of our feet and ankles. We exchanged strong healthy feet for the comfort and artificial stability of shoes. Just as wearing a neck brace to protect a healthy neck from damage would weaken it over time and create dependency on the brace, we have become dependent on shoes.
When you don’t move a muscle what happens to it? It atrophies. In other words, use it or lose it. To adequately use the 29 muscles in your foot you need to test them on various types of terrain; through a combination of standing, walking, running, jumping, and actively engaging your toes. Most shoes not only insulate the foot, they also create a false arch that prevents the need for many of the structural synergistic muscles to engage, causing them to weaken. You can test this out by finding an area with lots of different shaped rocks and walking about on them in bare feet for a while. You’ll notice just how many muscles are activated when required to do so. An excellent practice for getting back in touch with your feet is to lower into a deep squat in bare feet until your heels are on the ground, then sit like this for two to five minutes. If this is difficult, find something to hold onto so you can get your heels down and build up to doing it free-squatting over a week or two. Your toes will have to engage to balance you from tipping over backwards and your ankles, calves, and the soles of your feet will get a wonderful stretch.
Feet need love and regular challenge. They like to feel the earth beneath them, to stretch and get strong. Free them regularly from the rubber prison of the shoe. Let them glide over the grass and burrow down into the dirt. Remember childlike joy. Feel more connected to nature. Develop integrated strength in your lower limbs. Liberate your feet.