Most People seem to agree that we cannot and do not want to go back to the past, but the reason given is often wrong; that time has moved on and what was can never be again. The truth is that we cannot go back to what we never left. Our home is the earth, our time the Pleistocene Ice Ages. The past is the formula for our being.
(Paul Shepard)

Monday, 4 November 2013

Barefoot believer

...or re-wilding your feet.
A small selection

Yes!I am a barefoot believer.  How I wish I had a story of back or knee pain gone or ligament damage reversed but I don't, that said I also don't have any stories about having to get my feet to adjust or vicing shin pain etc.
 Anecdotally I can offer more surefootedness when I run or walk but that is about it. I'm not dead yet so who knows where it will lead, surefootedness however is no minor consideration as in my conventional running shoes (asics) I frequently rolled my ankles which was bound to lead to trouble. I run far less now than in the past, due mostly to changes in my life. I will note that my feet hurt if I do a lot of jumping or skipping on hard surfaces. It is possibly better that the soles of my feet hurt stopping me exercising and  preventing me from placing a damging load on my joints. 
 (Pre) Historically footwear has long been an issue and as T.J Elpel noted that this probably prompted many native peoples to go barefoot much of the time. He illustrates this nicely with a story of Native American climbing a scree slope and wearing out several pairs of moccasins. Native Americans also used to spend evenings repairing their footwear.
Brain tan Moccasins and a modern take on Highland Currans
 In Europe, in Britain barefoot was a definite option until fairly recent times, Scots Highlanders, Irish and Welsh all famously went barefoot as have many other mountain peoples. Even shod, European foot wear resembled moccasins (the word itself derives from "mo chasan, my footwear" in Gaelic) until around the 16th century when manufacturing techniques and fashion gave us the heeled footwear of the gentry and wanna-be gentry. Along with ruffs and other immobilising silliness, heels were discarded when training for martial arts or indeed in combat."“cut away the timber-heeles of their bootes, that they might not trippe, but stand firme in their play.”"The triumph of God's revenge" (1621). A glimpse through any historical fencing manual will show uniformly thin, light shoes akin to slippers or indeed moccasins. Highland officers in the eighteenth century abandoned their buckled shoes for traditional hide currans when on campaign as did the highlanders of the British army in North America. Sailors rarely wore footwear in Nelson's navy thought the maritime officer of Regia Anglorum said that so far their period correct (early medieval) footwear has not produced any issues. He did note that they do not sail in adverse weather.
 I am yet to find a paleolithic or Mesolithic trackway that was made by anything other than bare feet. Even the trackways in the caves were made by well formed bare feet. While offering some protection moccasin type foot wear is pretty slick in wet conditions and requires premium parts of animal hide such as Elk (Alces alces) neck they also wear out in short order. Early medieval waste sites show many hundreds of discarded shoes.Indeed it might be thought that the most useful aspect of a leather shoe would be the fact that it will protect any sock or other insulation. Oetzi's shoes were essentially a net for keeping dried grass next to his feet.
Oetzi's shoe
  Some foot protection "must" have been worn by early hominids in Europe to avoid frostbite so the wearing of foot garments probably has a very long pre-history. certainly longer than proposed in this paper. I suspect the authors have not actually worn moccasins I'm not sure how much anatomical change could be wrought from soft, well tailored shoes.
 For modern folk walking barefoot is something of a challenge, German Soldiers in the first world war commented that Europeans would never be able to walk barefoot as Africans who were born to it could. Modern folk also have to contend with litter and continually changing surfaces as we move through our lives, recreationally a barefoot walk in the woods can become a soberingly painful experience when we meet with a cinder path. Even well cared for woods in South East England contain agricultural relics like barbed wire and rather wonderfully in my friends woods a V2 wreck.
 My friends tried walking barefoot as the !kung do in the Kalahari but said the sand was far too hot. Footwear appears optional in the kalahari but the Hadza almost universally wear shoes made from tyres. Suggesting that perhaps culture and different environmental factors will dictate whether
Chauvet footprint
footwear is worn or not. Protection is very much not optional in the sagebrush of the American West as I found out the gard way!
 Walking barefoot is not so much of an option for modern people living in something of a more  dangerous environment., though I have known more than one country eccentric person who walks, or rather walked barefoot on a more or less permanent basis. For most of us however we will need to be walking in some form of footwear. Thankfully over the past few years the barefoot running phenomenon has led to the companies that make barefoot shoes moving into other areas of footwear.
 Barefoot shoes are more than just shoes with a zero drop. Some sport manufacturers have been making zero drop shoes, or rather did not start adding padding to their shoes, for sometime. Converse springs most easily to mind. There are other types of shoes for women that have more or less flat soles. Barefoot shoes are more than just zero-drop however and have a flexible sole that is more or less puncture proof they also have a much wider toe box. Both of these features allow your foot to move in the manner which it has evolved over millions of years to do. The toe box is particularly useful to me as I have wide feet and have had problems buying shoes for years.
 In fact, thinking about it, it is a sign of how mental our society has become that barefoot shoes are a niche and are not the default or "null hypothesis" of shoe manufacture. Many years ago I talked to a physiotherapist who told me that the human body was poorly designed. I told her that it was probably less likely poor-design but more sitting on chairs and other abuses we pile on our savannah-living frame. I may as well have spoken Hungarian. I've seen the same face on doctors and dentists. The assumption is that we are born wrong because the needs of culture cause us problems, not that culture places demands that our biology (and I would argue, psychology) cannot accommodate.
There are plenty of other sites and blogs dealing with pro-prioception and the anatomical advantages of walking in barefoot footwear and I don't really want to go over this here. I really just want to relate my experiences of having worn barefoot shoes for a few years.
One of my methods for teaching silent movement and tracking skills is to get the students to try a simple skill such as carving or laying a fire but with boxing gloves on. This is a pretty effective demonstration of how wrapping up a sensitive appendage in padding makes it , yes safer, but also insensitive and clumsy. Being a wind bag I will also make a quick point about predation, in that animals with insensitive/less sensitive feet such as deer and horses are prey while the predators, especially cats, have very sensitive feet. This doesn't hold up across mammalia but is a pretty good general rule and makes a nice story. In addition most people who take courses wear the "traditional" countryside footwear which makes them look like they have Challenger tanks on their feet.
To paraphrase Mick Dodge, your feet don't toughen going barefoot they get more sensitive. The foot changes,  and this is one of the challenges of wearing barefoot shoes after a while going back to conventional shoes  becomes a very unattractive prospect and indeed when wearing conventional shoes I trip and stumble in a way that alerts me to how infrequent that is when in contact with the ground. It is a bit like wearing sunglasses on a dull day, or maybe like wearing boxing gloves! In addition one's foot widens and conventional shoes feel very restrictive, my wife has noted that her normal shoes now feel very tight. She also relates how the way she moves has changed especially running as some movements are impossible without the cushioning effect of a padded heel. Another barefoot convertee told me that his knees now hurt in conventional shoes as they "correct" the natural walking pattern of his foot. I often think the rolling, dominating slobbish gait of many people would be completely impossible without paving and padded footwear.
Human tracks
 There are very few companies that make suitable footwear. As I have mentioned above, zero drop is only part of the picture and for some activities such as hiking or gardening even that is unavailable outside specialist manufacturers. In the UK Merrel offer an increasing range of minimalist shoes, Vibram offer their five finger range but in very few outlets and Vivio barefoot offer a large range but again this is few a few outlets. I have no idea why but shoes vary in size even with the same manufacturer and ordering through the Internet is not exactly ideal. All manufactures charge a great deal for their product and for some reason design really quite unpleasantly garish shoes. I very much liked the idea of five fingers however this article really put me off. As it seemed like they were little more than smelly and impractical gimmicks. I did find an outlet and tried them on and found them to be pretty uncomfortable too, being both garish and expensive to boot. They do appear to be pretty hard wearing as a few boxers I know wear them for training and they have had them for some time, boxing is very hard on shoes because of the twisting off the foot when punching. 
Boxing lesson!
 Vivo offer a good range and in styles other companies don't do. My daughter has barefoot wellies which for some reason are not offered for adults. I have the hiking boots which are fantastic and the hiking shoes which are truly dire. The problem is that like clothing manufacturers they change their styles every season. The first pair of vivos I bought were and remain the finest shoes I have ever owned. I would be very happy to never have bought another style of shoes ever again. Naturally they discontinued this line. One day I may forgive them!
 Nearly always comfortable, vivo shoes are quite inconsistent in terms of durability and many of the styles are really pretty ugly. They can also be pretty pricey. The company is really sketchy and the 13-14 winter range has been postponed again, not such a problem for me but for retailers I know a major annoyance. I have tried changing shoes with them which has been hard and their store in Brighton stocked shoes for giants and midgets and no-one else. I am also reliably informed that their women's shoes are horrible and I'm not too keen on their men's designs either. The designs are very inconsistent in their durability. Some shoes last for a long time in good condition whereas the expensive hiking shoes started to split within hours of being worn. They  are very stiff and cut my feet if I don't wear very thick socks. I have been told that the boot version of this style have the same problems. Not very impressive at over a hundred pounds.
 You can't go back. Basically I am waiting for other shoe companies to try and get a piece of the barefoot action or better for some of the manufacturers to be bought out by bigger companies and professionalised. A running coach was telling me that most of the mainstream shoe companies are minimalising their lines which is something of a move in the right direction.
 Until Vivo and the other minimalist manufacturers get some real competition  we are going to be stuck with shoe companies that don;t actually seem to have the courage of their own convictions and seem to make shoes designed to be flimsy fashion items for yuppies rather than practical utilitarian footwear for real people, yes I am a real person.
 That said their kids shoes are really top notch........ah the problems of the first world!



3 comments:

  1. Yep, I'm a fan of the humble dessie boot! They are basic in design - my current ones look like they've been dug up at Jorvik ( smell like it to at times when wet) Apart from the rubber soles which hardly have a heel at all they are pretty much a cheap minimalist shoe. I bought a pair of Karrimor Orkney walking boots recently - ones whch I had years ago and thought well of - but although fairly light weight they now feel like deep sea diving boots. I can't get used to them and prefer my old Hunter wellies instead. For running I'm a fan of Walsh fell shoes. Worn with no socks they feel pretty much like a mocassin and not far off barefoot which is something I often do when hill running. Only trouble is they are a little tight fitting but if you make sure you get a size or two above your usual they are fine. I'm with you on the toed shoe things - a good idea i'm sure but apart from being pricey and ghastly colours I couldn't keep a straight face wearing gloves on my feet.

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  2. The woodlore instructors wore an interesting desert boot that was very flexible
    http://www.raymears.com/Bushcraft_Product/649-Rogue-RDB-1-Desert-Boots/
    pretty pricey though. Those Fell shoes look great.

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    Replies
    1. Well I wore some conventional hiking boots yesterday for the first time in a long time. I had pains in my legs all night and some inuries I had totally forgotten about in have come back to visit. Painful but interesting.

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