Winter Barefoot Walking

I wouldn’t be stupid & walk in snowy sub-zero temperatures for long, but I’ve been Christmas shopping in temperatures of -6°C in a city with dry pavements without any problems.

For two winters in a row I’ve hiked barefoot in snow at just under freezing for about one & a half hours without any problems. What was lovely was walking through running streams where the water felt quite warm in contrast to the snow & ice on the ground. I would add that the snow was hard packed , rather than powder snow. I have found it easier to tolerate walking in dry cold conditions than in wet and cold combined. In fact I’ve found it easier to walk in sub-zero temperatures than just above freezing where the ground is also wet. There are added risks of cold injury when walking in powder snow coming from the powder snow kicking up onto the top of one’s feet and melting. Cold and wet conditions tend to conduct heat away from the feet very quickly, and can easily lead to damage of the skin and soft tissues and should only be attempted with caution. I tend to find walking in wet conditions up to 7-8 degrees Celcius okay, but lower than that can quickly become intolerable if also walking on very rough abrasive surfaces like crushed granite chippings or other aggregate. It is in these situations that I use thin Huarache sandals or Vibram FiveFingers.

The secret is to build up the tolerance of the feet to cold temperatures by acclimatising to increasingly colder temperatures through autumn.

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There are a combination of anatomical & physiological adaptions which enable humans to cope with extreme temperatures for short time periods.

Winter Barefoot Walking is not for the unprepared!

The main thing is to keep the rest of your body toasty warm by wearing thick insulated warm clothing & a hat.

It is also important to keep your legs and ankles warm, perhaps with leggings etc.

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The foot needs time & gradual stimulation over months to adapt & acclimatise to the cold.

Firstly, after walking and running barefoot for a few months during warmer weather, the soles of the foot develop thick, flexible, insulating & protective layers of skin which keep out most of the cold from ground contact.

Another adaption for the cold is that blood flow is increased by unrestricted foot movement & therefore a stronger blood pumping action is achieved than is possible in constrictive footwear.

Also increased muscle activity (due to the foot muscles needing to work harder without the support of footwear) generates heat within the foot itself thus keeping it warm.

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The next two points are conjecture as to how our bodies adapt to cope with cold.

Some people think the blood supply increases just due to cold exposure in order to keep the feet warm to protect them from the potential freezing effect of the cold. Of course this wouldn’t happen if the core body temperature drops which would then drain the peripheries of blood to protect the vital organs to the detriment of the feet & hands. So it’s vital to keep the rest of the body toasty warm.

Another possible adaption is that the nerve endings which would normally react painfully to the cold, do adapt by moderating the sensation so that you don’t feel intense pain. This could work in the same way as nerve endings adapt to the initially painful sensation of touch on rough surfaces. It is possible that the only reason we feel intense pain from cold is that we are not used to feeling that particular sensation, so the nerve endings are at first ‘dazzled’ by the over-abundance of sensory nerve sensation, but moderate with continued gradual increase in exposure till the sensation normalises.

It is possible to cope with temperatures below freezing as long as you are careful.

It is especially important to “keep moving!” Otherwise the increase in blood flow & increase in muscle-generated heat will not occur.

I only have limited experience, of three winters, but apart from just a couple of times where I wore sandals for insulation & once my FiveFingers, I managed most of the winters comfortably barefoot.

I did regularly hike through winter for up to an hour & half even on snow & ice at around freezing point or just below with only one experience of mild freeze injury to the skin, which resulted in slight skin sloughing later. The mild freeze injury occurred in my first winter where I had only been totally barefoot for six months. Now, after over three & a half years barefoot I’m finding easier as my skin is tougher and my feet have adapted more.

The other important point is that everyone is different & respond differently to cold so may be it’s not possible for everyone to go barefoot in winter.

Some people have circulatory disorders, including Raynauds disease for example, which could preclude them from ever attempting barefoot walking in winter.

Being sensible is the key to avoiding serious injuries.

A key point to make as a podiatrist is that winter barefoot walking should always be enjoyable and comfortable & never seen as an endurance challenge. When one’s foot health is at risk it is far more sensible to protect your feet than end up in my clinic with a problem.

As my good friend Julie Hanson (National Trust Barefoot Ranger) says, “going barefoot should be seen as a way to improve one’s health, not endanger it.”

So I encourage everyone to take off their shoes and enjoy the feet nature gave us whilst enhancing our health.

Wishing you all a wonderful barefoot winter season.

Steve

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How Do Barefeet Cope With Gravel & Sharp Stones, or Worse?

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What a great question!

It love it when people ask me questions which allow me to explain the wonders of barefoot walking.

Interestingly, it’s only a question in our minds because we’ve worn shoes outside for most of our lives. As citizens in the developed world we’ve forgotten what our feet are & how to use them.

Before I went barefoot outside I never imagined I could do it. In fact it never occurred to me to even try!

But what’s interesting is our bodies are designed for it. Let’s face it, our feet were not designed for shoes. Admittedly, we now have modern surfaces which can be abrasive & glass which can cut, but with care these small risks can be managed.

In fact, having been a podiatrist for 28 years & barefoot for over three years, I’d say the risks of foot problems come far more from shoes than barefoot. The scientific, clinical & observational evidence from around the world over the last 100 years has clearly shown our feet are far more likely to be injured by shoes (any shoes) than from living a barefoot lifestyle.

Back to the question, how do our feet cope outside?

The skin on our feet & palms is uniquely capable of reinforcing itself into several millimetres thick tough layers which can withstand most rough surfaces & sharp objects. It is six times more abrasion resistant than the skin of our thighs. It’s not like pathogical callous which grows as a result of shoe wearing, but is pliable like soft leather. Of course it takes time to grow more resilient skin, but this gradually increases with use. Also, when our skin presses onto a sharp object the skin folds up away from the object as an indentation because when barefooted the skin is flexible & not held tightly bound, as in a shoe, so is less likely to be penetrated.

The other natural protection is our nervous system which has upto 200,000 nerve endings in each foot ready to feel the textures, temperature & safe placement of the feet & we can react in a split second by removing our foot or adjusting our pressure distribution away from the potentially unsafe surface. This nervous system adaption takes time too. Initially the nerve endings are ‘dazzled’ by the sudden cacophony of sensory nerve stimulation, which gradually moderates & allows us to differentiate between different textures etc & just like in our hands helps us make sense of the surfaces we touch.

Interestingly, this sudden reaction & weight redistribution is very helpful in training our core stability muscles as we constantly shift our bodies centre of mass.

The fact that we are barefoot is a motivator to more careful foot placement in itself. Just like when we are bare-handed, we subconsciously protect the delicate skin of our fingers from abrasion, paper cuts, staples, door jams etc without even being aware, this is true of our feet. We strangely, automatically become much more aware of our surroundings. Subconsciously we look ahead to plan our foot placements so as to avoid animal poop & dangerous objects.

It seems that all our senses are collectively & subconsciously enhanced by the synergy of working together, whereas when we cover the skin of the soles of our feet we actually cut off a very important area of sensory input to our brain. Without the skin sensation from my feet I can honestly say that I would now feel handicapped!

Since going barefoot these last 3 years I’ve noticed my balance has improved amazingly, the strength of my feet is superb, I no longer have the foot & leg pains I previously suffered from, my low-back pain has gone, & the wonderful, exhilarating feeling of connecting with nature is unimaginable.

Transition to Barefoot

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There are many adjustments for the body to make if shoes have been worn for many years.

Firstly, the tender skin on the soles of the foot needs to thicken and toughen up. The skin on the soles of our feet (and palms of our hands) is unique in that it has the ability to form protective layers. It responds over a period of weeks and months of gradual exposure to rough surfaces. It is best to walk barefoot in the house initially. Then starting outside with soft natural surfaces like sand, soil, leaves, moss and grass. Then increasing the roughness of the surface, including tarmac, and also try to increase the size of the gravel you walk on, till you can tolerate almost any surface.

Depending on how many years you have been in shoes your feet will vary in how long they take to adapt. Some people need to start with as little barefoot walking as five minutes, gradually increasing the time spent outside barefoot. The soles of your feet may tingle the morning after walking barefoot walking. This tingling should not persist for more than a couple of days. If it does, you know you are transitioning too fast.

Some people use skin emollients like Flexitol Heel Balm as a protection from dirt staining the skin and helping to keep the skin supple and avoid cracks.

Generally, although the skin thickens as a natural response to walking barefoot, it doesn’t become calloused. In fact it is more like soft leather. Some people may take up to two years to fully condition the skin to its true, natural, potential strength and thickness.

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Secondly, the muscles of the foot, leg, hips and back will gradually need to be strengthened, and sometimes stretched, to revert back to natural gait from the adaptions the body has made to shoes. This is particularly true of the muscles of the long arch of the foot. They are very often atrophied and very weak. It is believed this is due to the bracing effect which shoes have on feet, leading to wasting of these important supportive muscles.

Many people find that doing specific strength training exercises for these muscles makes a big difference to how well they can cope with walking barefoot.

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Some Strengthening Exercises for your feet

It’s like training any other part of our body. We should start gently, and slowly increase the load or effort involved so as to safely strengthen our muscles and prevent injury.

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Another important aspect of this transition is neurological adaption. There are up to 200,000 sensory nerve endings in the foot. When shoes are worn, tactile sensory perception is dulled. So, on walking barefoot, the nerve endings will give a sensation of pain as a result of a sudden increase in the level of sensation. And possibly due to the nerve pathways to the brain needing to be created to cope with the wider variety of different sensations the feet are now exposed to.

Over a period of time walking barefoot these painful sensations moderate and differentiate, so as you will be able to sense touch, texture, vibration, shearing stress, temperature, pressure and pain.

You will be able to feel a variety of textures and sensations just like your fingers and hands.

The gradual adaption of feet from being weak and needing support to being strong and able to support themselves is possible for most people who understand the process.

It is also a satisfying experience and achievement, bringing with it better foot health and improved posture.

Most people who walk barefoot have amazingly good balance and postural support. Which means they are less likely to fall.

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After just a few weeks of walking barefoot your sensory awareness will improve so that you will be more aware of your surroundings.

The big risk in transitioning is proceeding too quickly so as you experience problems before your feet and legs have properly strengthened to cope.

There are lots of benefits, but a slight increased potential risk of poor traction on wet, slippy and muddy surfaces.

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Some of this is compensated for by improved response time when starting to slip, due to more tactile sensory awareness and improved postural stability.

However, increased traction can be obtained from wearing minimalist shoes which have off-road traction soles. Like Vibram FiveFingers and Vivo Barefoot Shoes. They have increased sensory perception compared to normal shoes by using very thin soles and reduce the bracing effect of stiff shoes by being extremely flexible.

They are very much a compromise as they do not give all the benefits of barefoot walking, but do give increased traction.

With a little patience though you should find that your own skin will toughen and your sensory perception will be enhanced so that you are safe on most surfaces.

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Hope you find this helpful.
Kind regards
Steve

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

My website at NaturalFeet

The Barefoot Alliance

Society For Barefoot Living

The Society for Barefoot Living & my transition to a barefoot lifestyle

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As a Podiatrist & foot orthotic designer investigating the concept of natural gait in walking and running and being intrigued at the prospect of living a barefoot lifestyle I am really grateful for the support of the SBL membership!

http://www.barefooters.org/

Thank you for being such an inspiring, knowledgeable and helpful group of barefooters.

I only started to consider barefooting in March 2009 after initially reading ‘Born to Run’. After 4 months of gradual transition to a complete barefoot lifestyle using minimalist footwear, I am now barefoot 24/7.

During my transition I used Vivo Barefoot Aqua shoes, Vibram FiveFingers & Huarache sandals as my body gradually adapted to a different gait & posture, having worn customised foot orthotics for over 20 years and supportive footwear all 45 years of my life.

I went for several short barefoot walks on the local cliff paths every week, starting with a painful five minutes of barefoot walking on my first attempt, building up to full time barefoot walking in just four months.

The SBL was vital to building my confidence during those tentative first few barefoot hikes.

Richard Frazine’s wonderfully inspiring book ‘The Barefoot Hiker’ captured the romance of connecting to nature through barefoot hiking & further motivated me to help others enjoy the joy of barefoot hiking. This summer I organised the first public barefoot hike in our area, which was a great success.

I did a lot of reading on natural gait as I studied various medical research papers.

Then followed Daniel Howell’s amazing book (The Barefoot Book) which further consolidated my thoughts.

I’m now a massive barefoot (natural gait) convert & advocate a barefoot lifestyle, or as near as practical, to my patients.

I also lecture nationally (in the UK) & regionally on the benefits of natural gait to other medical professionals.

Since my conversion I’ve been invited by Michael Buttgen to serve on the advisory board of the Primalfoot Alliance with Daniel Howell & other keen barefooters, which I enjoy.

http://www.primalfootalliance.org/

Please keep inspiring other novice barefooters.

Many thanks,

Steve Bloor
Barefoot Podiatrist UK

Conflicting modification on November 20, 2011:

As a Podiatrist & foot orthotic designer investigating the concept of natural gait in walking and running and being intrigued at the prospect of living a barefoot lifestyle I am really grateful for the support of the SBL membership!

Thank you for being such an inspiring, knowledgeable and helpful group of barefooters.

I only started to consider barefooting in March 2009 after initially reading ‘Born to Run’. After 4 months of gradual transition to a complete barefoot lifestyle using minimalist footwear, I am now barefoot 24/7.

During my transition I used Vivo Barefoot Aqua shoes, Vibram FiveFingers & Huarache sandals as my body gradually adapted to a different gait & posture, having worn customised foot orthotics for over 20 years and supportive footwear all 45 years of my life.

I went for several short barefoot walks on the local cliff paths every week, starting with a painful five minutes of barefoot walking on my first attempt, building up to full time barefoot walking in just four months.

The SBL was vital to building my confidence during those tentative first few barefoot hikes.

Richard Frazine’s wonderfully inspiring book ‘The Barefoot Hiker’ captured the romance of connecting to nature through barefoot hiking & further motivated me to help others enjoy the joy of barefoot hiking. This summer I organised the first public barefoot hike in our area, which was a great success.

I did a lot of reading on natural gait as I studied various medical research papers.

Then followed Daniel Howell’s amazing book (The Barefoot Book) which further consolidated my thoughts.

I’m now a massive barefoot (natural gait) convert & advocate a barefoot lifestyle, or as near as practical, to my patients.

I also lecture nationally (in the UK) & regionally on the benefits of natural gait to other medical professionals.

Since my conversion I’ve been invited by Michael Buttgen to serve on the advisory board of the Primalfoot Alliance with Daniel Howell & other keen barefooters, which I enjoy.

http://www.primalfootalliance.org/

Please keep inspiring other novice barefooters.

Many thanks,

Steve Bloor
Barefoot Podiatrist UK

Making a Spectacle of Yourself in Frames With No Glass in Them is like Wearing Shoes When They Aren’t Needed!

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Fashion can be crazy!

Wearing spectacles with no glass?!

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203699404577044020959385832.html

A bit like wearing shoes! They’re not necessary. Most people’s feet work fine on their own.

But still people wear shoes as a fashion accessory or for social convention.

Most people really don’t need shoes for normal activities.

They think they do, partly because of social convention, which is effectively a fashion, & partly because having worn shoes for years their feet get tender & weak, so it hurts to go barefooted.

But I gave up shoes as an experiment about 20 months ago &, though initially uncomfortable, now my feet & legs are stronger than they’ve ever been. My balance is amazingly better. All the joint problems that stopped me running in shoes have gone.

My feet have become what nature intended them to be, strong & supportive!

And thousands of other people in the developed world are also rediscovering & regaining their feet.