My office-casual shoes have been collecting dust ever since my workplace went remote over four months ago. Now, when I work from home, I stand barefoot on a wobble cushion to allow for movement and stretching throughout the day.
When I step outside in the backyard to check on the gardens I typically go barefoot. It is partly because I’m always leaving my sandals at the front door when I’m going out the backdoor, or at the backdoor when I’m going out the front door.
Going barefoot outside is also how I get my daily dose of earthing. (There is a great study on the psychological and physiological benefits of earthing if you’re not familiar.)
It is a simple way of connecting our bodies with the earth’s vast supply of electrons. Our modern lifestyles largely cut us off from physical contact with the earth so it takes deliberate action to rekindle that connection.
That and, of course, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as the feeling of mud squishing up between your toes.
My outings are limited due to the pandemic but even when I go out to a store I usually slip on a pair of thin-soled flip-flops.
So when I wanted to start running again, it felt a bit odd and even cumbersome to put on an actual pair of shoes, with arch supports, and thick soles. They felt uncomfortable. I’m used to running and the minor soreness that comes when first starting up again after a long break. This felt different.
Between standing all day long for work and spending weeks at a time barefoot, my feet had become accustomed to a shoe-less word. A standard-issue running shoe was suddenly met with all sorts of discomfort. This was problematic for my newfound desire to start running again.
Zero Drop Shoes and Barefoot Running
I’ve always been a strong heel striker (landing on my heel when my foot swings forward) and struggle with shin splints as a result. Last year I tried to adopt more of a forefoot strike (landing slightly on the balls of my feet or gently on the mid-foot) but had a difficult time making it a habit. I would always default to my old heel-striking habit after the first ten minutes of running. I didn’t realize that a big part of the problem was my shoes.
I started doing a lot of research on running form and kept coming across mentions of zero drop shoes. This was a relatively new term to me.
Most shoes have a differential in height between the heel and the toe. The sole of the shoe is thicker in the back than in the front. A zero drop shoe has no differential between the front and back. The sole of the shoe is the same height throughout — flat.
This, of course, is what it is like to be barefoot. There is no heel to toe differential. Your foot is just flat on the ground.
I also started to notice that when I ran around barefoot with my kids outside, I ran much differently barefoot than I did with shoes. I naturally and instinctively ran on my forefoot — never on my heel. That is when it clicked for me. The problem had to be with my shoes.
The more research I did about forefoot or mid-foot striking, the more references I found of zero drop shoes or barefoot simulating shoes. I realized that the running shoes I had been using had quite a drastic heel to toe differential. That meant I was working against myself when trying to adopt a forefoot strike. If I was going to significantly change the way I ran, I had to ditch the thick-soled shoes.
I bought a $35 pair of barefoot simulating running shoes. I was expecting the typical shoe-box to come in the mail but instead received one of those envelope packages. It didn’t look like it couldn’t possibly contain a pair of shoes. But, sure enough, they were in there — just a thin pair of rubber soles with an even thinner top. They looked more like a pair of water shoes. I instantly regretted buying them upon first glance.
The idea behind barefoot simulating shoes is to provide just enough of a sole to protect your feet from small rocks, roots, or sharp objects. They are slightly wider in the front to give your toes room to spread out. The elastic fabric on the top is as thin as it needs to be to lace up the shoes and keep them on your foot. It is as close to barefoot as you can get without actually being barefoot.
I gave them a try despite my initial hesitation. To my surprise, they did mimic the way I ran around the backyard barefoot. My forefoot strike came naturally and wasn’t something I had to work so hard for.
Instead of my heel, knees, and hips taking all the force of my foot striking the ground, that force was more gently absorbed into the springiness of my Achilles tendon and calf muscles. The thinner soles weren’t a problem because my form was different. I felt lighter and more nimble. And, so far, no issues with shin splints.
Who would have thought that the cheapest and thinnest shoes I ever bought would be the best thing for my running life?
The World At My Feet
According to Tim Hartford in his podcast Cautionary Tales, “Galileo tried to teach us that adding more and more layers to a system intended to avert disaster often makes catastrophe all the more likely to happen.”
I’ve tried all sorts of things to improve my experience of running over the years from custom orthotics, arch supports, to working on my running form, to running on different surfaces, and so on. For me, none of these things helped. The answer was in removing all the unnecessary layers and embracing the bare necessities — my bare feet.
The weird thing is that I only really came to this conclusion because the pandemic forced me to work from home. Working from home meant that I largely stopped wearing shoes. Not wearing shoes has allowed me to reconnect more with the earth and with my own body. Reconnecting with the earth and my own body has grounded me and granted me a new sense of freedom.
To me, having the world at my feet does not mean acquiring things and gaining the admiration of others. It means having the awareness that so much of what I need in life is already within reach and often right before my eyes. Having the world at my feet is to acknowledge that my health and wellness are largely rooted in a physical connection with the earth — be it through electrons, grass, or mud.
I’m always adding new layers in my search for what I want in life, but I sometimes think these layers only further remove me from what I’ve had all along. How much of my life’s efforts have been grossly over-complicating what is simple and obvious?
In what other areas of my life do I need to metaphorically remove my shoes and embrace the earth beneath my toes?