Barefoot in the park, or on the beach, is taking a runner back to basics
By Miles Davis, Western Morning News – Tuesday, March 22, 2011
There is a quiet revolution taking place in the Westcountry as walkers and runners plagued by repetitive injuries discover the joy of going barefoot and the benefits it can bring. They are realising that going back to a more natural style of movement can massively reduce the strain that we put on joints and backs when out pounding the roads and trails.
Steve Bloor is spreading the word from his practice tucked away in Helston, West Cornwall, with an evangelical vigour. As one of the country’s leading foot doctors and a designer of orthotics, the corrective inlays for shoes, he underwent a quasi-religious conversion to become the UK’s principal proponent of going barefoot.
“As a podiatrist with 25 years experience my professional inclination was to consider barefoot running to be dangerous, but it is the most natural thing to do,” he said. “I was incapable of running without pain and I never dreamed that I would be able to run again. I started off walking barefoot and now I can run with no pain in any of the areas where I suffered before.”
We have about 200,000 nerve endings in our feet and, as Mr Bloor points out, they are not there just so you can be tickled. Every part of the body is affected by the feet in that they are the foundations of the body.
Repetitive injuries in runners and walkers are thought to have increased as running shoes have become more and more cushioned. While this cushioning is supposed to protect our feet, Mr Bloor believes that the opposite is the case. A cushioned heel encourages the runner to increase the impact when hitting the ground which can have negative consequences on your knees, joints and back. Barefoot running, on the other hand, naturally promotes landing towards the mid or front section of the foot with less impact and therefore far less chance of injury.
For those who blanch at the idea of going completely barefoot, a whole new industry of minimalist footwear is springing up. Ranging from low-heeled trainers to a thin strip of rubber with laces to bind to the feet, there is something for everyone.
The results are winning converts over to Mr Bloor’s way of thinking. He cites the case of one patient who has saved his career as well as rediscovering pain-free running. He said: “I had a patient who could not run, who was threatened with losing his job if he couldn’t pass a fitness test. Having started to run barefoot on the beach he is now able to run for an hour and a half without any injuries. You should see him smiling now.”
Mr Bloor’s view of the human foot has now become much more optimistic about the state of people’s feet in general. “I previously believed that 80 per cent of people were born with problems with their feet and needed orthotics to optimise their feet and leg function. Never once did we consider that the human foot could cope on its own.”
The epiphany came when he read about the Tarahumara Indians, Ethiopian and Kenyan runners who ran without shoes or with minimal footwear. “I now believe very strongly that most feet, given a chance, can support themselves and that feet function best without the hindrance of shoes,” he said.
The podiatrist certainly practices what he preaches. He has gone barefoot in everyday life since July last year –only donning shoes when essential for protection or when going to church so as not to offend the minister.
As he puts it: “I believe footwear should play an important but infrequent role in our lives for protection just like we use gloves for our hands. “And just like gloves we should remove the footwear as soon as the purpose for them has been achieved.”
The switch from our normal shoe-wearing lives should not be rushed as a new way of moving uses different muscles which need to be gently introduced to new levels of exertion. “I warn patients to be cautious about getting carried away with enthusiasm and advise a slow, careful transition into barefoot activities by going for short walks at first and gradually increasing the time spent barefoot walking,” said Mr Bloor.
In the Westcountry we are surrounded by a fantastic coastline that provides the perfect training ground for those who want to get started. Mr Bloor prescribes barefoot beach walking and running to strengthen weak foot and leg muscles and to mobilise stiff joints –for the more adventurous, coastal paths provide ideal routes for people wanting to go barefoot trekking or hiking.
More and more people are taking up the challenge, often with miraculous results. As Mr Bloor says: “For the first time in my 25-year career I feel I really understand the cause of foot problems and now have a tool to cure people. The future is exciting for barefooters.”