Barefoot Therapy: Part 2
How to fix your feet
The best place to begin is to have a structural healthcare professional, such as a skilled chiropractor, take a look at your feet and assess their function. The first step to fixing something is to determine what is wrong. Chiropractors are highly trained to be able to assess and correct the alignment, strength, function and old unhealed injuries of the foot and ankle. This is foundational to your future progress because it directly impacts the effectiveness of the barefoot therapy.
One of the tests I regularly perform in my chiropractic centre is called the shock absorber test. This is where I will test the strength of a hip muscle, such as the hip flexor. Assuming the muscle is strong I will then take the heel of my hand a firmly but comfortably thump the sole of the foot on the same leg. This stimulates the proprioceptive nerves of the foot and challenges the structural integrity of the arches, ligaments and bones of the foot. What commonly happens is that the hip muscle when retested a few seconds afterwards now becomes weak. This happens if there is a problem in the foot that when stimulated with pressure, (as would occur in walking, running or standing) sends negative or confused nerve signals up the leg through the lower back resulting in failure of the hip muscle to fire up properly. It is similar to a fuse box being tripped in your house, over load the circuit and something will give. The cause of these foot problems is often misalignment of tone or more of the 26 foot bones due to previous accidents and injuries, often going right back into child hood. You see the body is very good at compensating or painting over rust so to speak. Very often if an injury is not properly addressed at the time you body will simply find a way of working around it as best as it can. Meanwhile as a whole your structure is slightly less robust that it was before the injury. Layer too many of these compensations on top of each other and you can have some more chronic and difficult problems to deal with eventually. I will also test the strength of the muscles that stabilise the foot and ankle joints on all of my new patients. Again what I commonly find is weakness of these key supportive muscles due to unhealed old injuries. Having these important imbalances properly addressed is foundational to your long term success in living a barefoot barefoot lifestyle.
When it comes to rebuilding your feet the key is to not do too much too soon. Just as it takes many months to safely prepare for a marathon, it can take many months to strengthen your feet to handle a barefoot run or hike. There is no doubt that you will have many weakened and atrophied muscles and tendons that need to be rebuilt. Don’t risk failure and injury by rushing the process, you don’t want to overwhelm the tissues of your feet by doing too much too soon. Give your muscles and tendons a chance to adapt and recover and as the weeks and months roll by your feet will gradually strengthen and start to provide you with the enormous benefits that come from optimal kinesthetic sense and foot strength.
Steps to restoring foot strength and flexibility:
1. Take your shoes and socks off daily. For at least 10 minutes and walk around the house. Break the habit of putting socks, slippers and shoes on in the morning. Take your shoes off first thing when you get home. Try and spend as much time as you can standing, walking and otherwise being barefoot in your home, office and other indoor locations. It is better to use no socks at all but a thin pair will still produce good results. This is the first step to rehabilitating your feet. Don’t underestimate how effective this can be at starting to correct foot problems in the significant number of people who have had their feet in imprisoned in supportive damaging shoes for a lifetime. Do this for a couple of weeks, spending as much time as you can each day barefoot before progressing to the next step.
2. Walk outside barefoot. Take the plunge and head outside and walk around on different surfaces. The additional challenge and stimulation that this provides to the nerves and muscles of the foot is important in its rehabilitation. Initially you may wish to stick to smoother surfaces like the road or your driveway but don’t shy away from gravel or roughened concrete. The harsher surfaces really help to speed up the learning process of how to distribute your weight across the sole of your foot. Bending your knees a bit helps to make it more comfortable. Aim for ten minutes of outside barefoot walking (regardless of the time of year) as well as continuing with step one. After about a week you are ready to move on. The rougher the surface the better – you will appreciate this later once you start to do more advanced workouts since your natural technique will be so much better.
3. Start wearing minimal shoes most of the time. During the times when you cannot be truly barefoot, such as at work, running, shopping or socialising wear minimal shoes that provide conditions very close to the real thing. Build the length of time that you spend barefoot up to an hour or more daily. When you can spend a full hour barefoot your foot is probably strong enough to begin doing sports and more vigorous exercises barefoot or with minimal footwear. The good news is that today the minimal shoe market is really taking off. There is a definite trend toward people searching out these more natural ways of training and as a result there are now some really good options available to allow you to live the barefoot lifestyle most of the time.
Vibram FiveFingers shoes provide perhaps the closest experience possible to running without shoes. They are just a thin film of rubber that covers the sole of your foot and protects it from anything sharp or unsavoury that you may walk or run over. They are very light as well so you hardly notice that you are wearing them.
There are many other shoe companies like Skora, Merrel, New Balance, Saucony, Nike, Addidas to name but a few who have started to produce minimal shoes. The best approach is to go to a specialist running store and try a few different varieties. It doesn’t hurt to have more than one pair so experiment and find what works well for you and your feet.
When I first started transitioning to barefoot training I found that I could spend a certain amount of time in these minimalist shoes before my feet and calves started to ache. The best approach is to have some options available to you. Take your Vibram FiveFingers on your hike and wear them for 30 minutes at a time on the sections where the surface is gentle. If you end up on terrain that is rougher and rockier just switch back to your old shoes for some ‘added protection’. Over time your foot will really strengthen and you can wear minimalist shoes everywhere, most of the time. These days I run, play tennis, hike, do all of my workouts and spend my whole working day in minimalist shoes. When your foot becomes accustomed to ‘feeling’ the floor you will find this sort of sensation quite addictive. In fact if I wear dress shoes these days I experience what can only be described as foot stress – which not only effects my gait, posture and foot but also my mind. I find it mildly irritating to have my foot squeezed into a tight shoe. Foot sense and proprioception can be considered as being essential nutrients, or brain food!
4. Self care for your tired feet. Virtually anyone can start to add in these first four steps of barefoot therapy. As you get more and more active with barefoot living you may find that your feet start to get tired and achy. Foot massages can go a long way to helping speed your progress along at this point. Pay a professional or do it yourself at home by rolling the sole of your foot over a golf ball. Just explore your foot. It may be painful at first but that just means it’s working. Finding the sore pressure points and holding them until you feel a release. Try flexing, extending and moving your toes around as you roll over the tight spots. Lastly try to put your foot through every possible range and type of motion that it might experience in the real world. A few minutes of this each night can be very beneficial for your feet.
You may also find it beneficial to roll the calf muscles. For this you will require a foam roller which is easy to find and purchase online. Sit on the floor with your legs outstretched and place the foam roller under your calf. Move your leg back and forth over the roller until you hit a tight and tender spot and then hold for a few seconds. Flex and extend you ankle until the calf muscle starts to feel less tight. Rolling each calf everyday for about five to seven minutes will really help your progress.
5. Foot strengthening exercises. You should be able to easily stand on one leg. If you can only manage 10 seconds or less without falling it is likely that you have a foot imbalance that can be significantly improved with practice. By balancing on each foot you can gradually improve the communication between the brain and the feet. Over time this will lead to better overall balance throughout the whole body. An easy way to add this practice into your lifestyle is to hold one foot up to dry it whilst your balance on the other. Hold for as long as you can and do on the other leg as well. You can do something similar when you go to put your shoes on, or when you are waiting for the kettle to boil. This exercise can be made a lot more difficult by doing it with your eyes closed but do make sure that you are standing next to something you can hold onto when you get wobbly.
The following daily foot exercises will help to strengthen your feet and speed up your progress.
Toe Squeezes – Squeeze your toes together as firmly as you can and hold for a few seconds. Relax for a couple of seconds and repeat. Do two sets of twelve repetitions with each foot.
Toe spreads – Spread your toes as far and wide apart as you can by using your toe muscles. Flare them sideways in other words. Hold this position for a few seconds then relax. Do two sets of twelve repetitions per foot.
Foot pointers – Point your toes firmly towards the floor in front of you and hold the position for a few seconds. Then point your toes the opposite way towards your face and hold for a few seconds. Repeat the process twelve times with each foot.
Foot rolls – sit on the floor, bend your knee and grab ahold of the sides of your foot with both hands. Use your hand to lever the foot and turn it outwards and inwards, giving it a good strength in both directions. Repeat twelve times on each foot.
6. Barefoot sports and activities Within a few weeks of starting most people will be able to get to this final stage which is living the barefoot lifestyle. What I mean by this is that you are either bear foot or wearing minimal shoes for the majority of your days regardless of what activity you are doing. With the correct technique it is a natural progression from barefoot walking to running. Golf, tennis, bowls, hockey, in fact most sports have minimal footwear options available to you. When you reach this stage your foot will continue to strengthen and you will continue to gain the benefits of your hard work. The benefits very often include reduced injuries and much improved performance in your chosen sport due to enhanced foot sense and overall kinesthetic sense, body balance, function and a more efficient gait.
The barefoot lifestyle transition period
Transitioning to a barefoot lifestyle will not necessarily be easy. You can expect to experience a fair few ups and downs as you begin to recondition your feet back to full strength and function. Just like when the first tennis game of the season causes some soreness for a few days, the same will go for the muscles of your feet and calves. Time and a sensible graded approach to increasing the demands you place upon your feet is the solution to avoiding too much suffering. If you are anything like most people you will get a real buzz from going barefoot. All of a sudden there is a natural joy and ease to simple every day movements like walking and running. It becomes addictive. If you do too much too soon however you can expect to experience inflammation, tightening and stiffness for several days after. If you experience this, or worse, a strain of your calf or foot muscles please do not be disheartened. Firstly give you body a week to ten days to heal and then get back to your barefoot therapy. This time consider that your technique may need improving. If you are running barefoot it is essential to have someone critique your technique. Get a coach. Read some books. Make sure that you are doing things properly. Personally it took me nearly three years of trial, error and intermittent calf injuries to start really researching and applying proper barefoot running technique. I have not looked back ever since and enjoy my running more than ever.
To get your started with the core concepts here are the basic technique pointers to barefoot running as taught by probably the worlds foremost authority in barefoot running, Ken Bob Saxton.
1. Head neck and face: Keep them upright, with face forward (not down), to maintain efficient body balance, breathing and direction.
2. Torso: Keep it upright and relaxed for the same reasons.
3. Shoulders: Keep them relaxed so they can rotate on a vertical axis, counterbalancing opposing hip rotation.
4. Arms: Relax your arms and let them swing quickly and vertically to serve two functions; encouraging fast leg cadence and reducing excess ion torso sway.
5. Hips: Relax them and allow natural rotation on a vertical axis to keep the feet under the body’s centre of balance, so they land along a straight tine in the direction you are running.
6. Knees: Bend the knee before landing, t lift the foot and turn the legs into shock absorbing springs that reduce the impact and aid propulsion.
7. Calves: Relax them to unleash their power. If you keep them tense and loaded all the time they will hurt and cannot release their spring like energy, and eventually they may injure.
8. Feet: Lift them early and often, without pushing the feet into the ground, and curve the toes up. (So that they don;t land first). Aim for a bicycling-inspired cadence of 180 steps per minute in order to lessen the impact and muscles stress and improve performance.
9. Soles: Thins “1-2-3” and curve the toes. When the rest of the body is king all of the above the foot will land gently by touching down first on the ball, immediately followed by the toes and heel. Don’t run on you toes or land flat footed. To the untrained eye it may look as if the entire foot is landing flat at the same time, but it’s not.
10. Overall body movement: Let the hips and torso lead the way. The should feel a bit like falling forward: you will need to move the feet quickly under your hips to catch yourself, with each foot landing below – and not ahead of – your vertical body. (A foot-forward landing effectively puts on the brakes with each step, encourages a heel strike, and ratchets up shock and eventual damage to the hips and knees.)
As we go on the journey to restoring full health it is impossible to ignore the foundations upon which you stand. The human foot is a sensational piece of natural engineering able to support and carry a human frame for lifetime – if you look after them well.
Incidentally, when you go down this path towards restoring your foot health you will sooner or later realise why I call it foot stress. Once your foot is flexible and you are living the barefoot lifestyle, anytime you regress and wear modern tight shoes, you, like me, may well feel agitated, not yourself and somewhat disconnected from the world around you. As they say, ignorance is bliss.
Love, Light & Liberation,
Dr Richard Gliddon
Wellness Coach, Chiropractor, Mentor