Your first Barefoot Shoes – Getting Ready

Looking forward to purchasing your first barefoot shoes but are worried if they are safe and worth it? Don’t fret, I’m here to clear all your doubts and have put forth all the information that you need to know. This guide also includes some of the problems that I encountered while trying to make that major transition and some of the solutions that helped me to smooth out that transition over the last couple of months.

Your first Barefoot Shoes - Getting Ready

Transitioning to barefoot shoes will definitely improve your foot health in the long run, provided you learn it the right way. You can walk, trek, and climb without causing any injury to your toes or feet irrespective of your age. Read till the end, but first take a deep breath!

“The foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” – Leonardo da Vinci

How are Barefoot Shoes Different from Regular Shoes?

Well, there are four differences between barefoot and regular shoes. The primary difference is that barefoot shoes are wider, unlike regular shoes. Secondly, they are flatter which means they offer less support. Thirdly, barefoot shoes are thin meaning they offer less protection. Lastly, they are zero drop or heel drop which means there is no difference between the heel height and the forefoot height. So, when you start wearing barefoot shoes, your body has to adapt to all four changes.

How to Transition to Barefoot Shoes

So, if you’re in your 20s like me and have been wearing regular/conventional shoes since the age of 2 or 3, that means you have adapted to wearing them for around 17 years. You’ve kind of punished your feet for so many years by wearing tight, restrictive, narrow shoes. So many people give up on barefoot shoes thinking it’s not working for them. Remember, adapting to barefoot minimal shoes is a process and won’t happen in a short span of time. Difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

I have put forth all the essential tips here that will help you to transition to your first barefoot shoes safely and quickly. Additionally, this section will also help you to avoid foot injuries that are caused due to accidents and many other reasons as well as avoid injuries that often come along while transitioning to barefoot shoes.

1. Getting Ready for Less Protection of Foot

Foot protection is absolutely necessary if you spend a lot of time on trails and mountains. Your feet need to be prepared to encounter all the rocks, roots, and other things along the way. Nobody wants to injure their feet or get wounded when hiking in the wilderness. So, when you decide to transition to barefoot shoes, you need to prepare yourself to receive less foot protection. Here’s what you can do; I have personally tried out these exercises and trust me it has worked like magic.

To help release those tight and weak muscles, you can use a trigger point ball regularly. You could also use a golf ball if you have one. Or, you can also use a broomstick at home. Personally, I was using a trigger point ball and sometimes a golf ball which is better. The idea behind this “ball under foot” technique is to place as much pressure on the ball comfortably with your foot, thereby, allowing the foot to drape over the ball. This allows the bones, muscles, ligaments, and fascia to move around.

Ball under Foot exercise - Getting Ready for Your first Barefoot shoes

Start by simply placing a little bit of pressure on the ball with the bottom of your foot. Just rolling up and down for one minute and then going side to side for another minute. As you keep doing this exercise, slowly start spending more time on trails and mountains wearing barefoot shoes. This combined process will help the bottom of your feet to become accustomed to those sensations and the pressure coming from anything. In fact, you’ll notice the pain getting reduced with time after implementing this exercise.

Note: The sensory information that we get from the bottom of our feet is actually crucial since this totally relates to how often you fall i.e. it helps you know whether you’ve got good body balance skills or not. Possessing this skill is extremely important if you’re a frequent hiker.

2. Support for Ankels

Imagine if you’re hiking alone, the last thing you would want is to sprain your ankle. If you just switched to barefoot shoes a few days back and go hiking, then there is a strong possibility you might hurt your feet since you’re a beginner. After all, you have worn regular shoes with ankle support and arch support for decades. To combat this problem, there are a couple of things we can do which will make barefoot shoes your best friend.

  • Workout Barefoot

Firstly, try to stay barefoot for most of your exercise sessions. Integrating this into your physical activity and workout sessions is the first step and will automatically smoothen the process as you progress with other exercises.  

  • Foot Doming Exercise

To get used to barefoot shoes, your feet need to reorganize themself to form their own arch. This concept is known as foot doming exercise also known as short foot where you actively create your own arch using the muscular structure of your legs and in particular the deep frontal line (the line of fascia that runs from your pelvic floor all the way down to your big toe).

Foot Doming Exercise (Short Foot)

In order to do this correctly, start with your feet directly under your hips and press those long flexors of your toes lightly into the floor thereby anchoring the toes to the ground. It’s like generating torque from the hips. To make this easier, imagine there’s a crack in the ground between your two feet and you’re trying to externally rotate your feet and really spread apart that crack in the ground. That’s how your position should be. Simultaneously, you need to exhale and lift your pelvic floor up.

To be honest, you won’t notice the change directly. But, over time with practice and reintegration, you will notice the medial arch in your foot lifting. This indicates that you have successfully recreated your own arch and it will extend to your first metatarsal. So, the big bone at the front of your foot will actually be off the ground.

  • Other exercises with arch

Once you have successfully implemented the foot doming (short foot) exercise, you can try out other exercises with an arch. For instance, you can squat using the short foot technique. You can also deadlift and lunge using the same. Additionally, you can stand and do a knee drive which is proven to be one of the best exercises for bulletproofing the knee. It also helps to boost ankle mobility.

Knee drive exercise

How does all this contribute to hiking, walking, and climbing? Well, creating an arch in your feet enables it to fulfill its natural intended purpose. Firstly, you will spend less energy. Secondly, your knees will have less pressure and thirdly you will hike more efficiently because your feet will act like a spring. Believe me, everything gets much easier from that point if you develop a good strong arch.

Knee drive in standing position
  • Self-Massage the Bottom of your Feet

When your muscles are tight and weak, they hurt when pressure is applied. On the other hand, muscles that are strong and supple don’t hurt when you apply pressure. Therefore, if you are experiencing pain from the bottom of the feet when you wear any type of footwear, it is likely that the muscles present in the bottom are weak and stiff and need to be released for optimal foot health. Simply condition the bottom of your feet over time so that it gets more accustomed to getting pressure from below. Practising foam rolling, tissue work, as well as self-massage, is crucial.

3. Toes Spreading Naturally

Barefoot shoes are my personal favourite since they are wide and enable the toes to spread out naturally unlike skinny restrictive shoes that trap your toes within. Honestly, regular shoes are designed to look appealing rather than being functional and are often responsible for causing toe injuries and ingrown toenails.

  • Toe Spreaders

You should definitely try out toe spreaders. By separating the toes, toe spreaders promote healthy toe splay. They help to restore the natural shape and function of the feet by keeping your toes in a natural position. Toe spreaders are made of gel or silicon and prevent your toes from rubbing on your shoes (friction), thereby keeping blisters away.

Toe spreaders
  • Toe Glove exercise

Another thing that you can incorporate is the toe glove exercise and trust me it is very simple. All you need to do is try and integrate your hand (fingers) into your toes. If you’ve been wearing tight shoes for a prolonged time, you will find this exercise a little uncomfortable initially. But keep trying as this exercise is a saviour and will get easier as you do it. Simply slide your fingers in between the toes so that the webbing matches.

From there you can begin to mobilize. Next, grab the toes and move them around in all directions. Ensure you’re not experiencing any pain after getting used to this exercise. If you’re not experiencing pain or discomfort, then it is completely safe to do. Else, avoid it. Another thing I do almost every night is mobilising my toes. This is a treat to your toes since they need more love and care, a little bit of massage, and support especially if you walk or hike extra large miles.

4. Zero Drop

Lastly, let’s discuss zero drop (heel drop). A higher heel forces more weight into the forefoot. Unfortunately, this can lead to all kinds of problems, the key problem is it shortens the tissues over time. The posterior chain explains why so many people can’t touch their toes because of tight hamstrings and tight calves. Generally, what tends to happen is your feet will externally rotate out to the side to enable the heel to pass over.

Also, you will notice the big toe pointing laterally. This means it’s getting squashed as you are rolling internally rather than walking with your feet straight. This is the ultimate test to check your ankle mobility. The next time you are walking, simply check your gait (pattern of walking) by watching your feet, especially your big toe. Keep track to see if your feet are pointing directly straight. Note that if one foot is out laterally or if both your feet are out laterally that means you’ve got limited ankle mobility.

How do we tackle ankle mobility? Well, because of the complex nature of the foot and the role that other muscles play in ankle dorsiflexion, it requires some experimenting, considerate effort and time, and some learning and adjusting. However, if you aim for 35° of dorsiflexion in the ankle every single day, that will help you to boost your ankle mobility over time. This is necessary for functional human movement, especially hiking, walking, and running and will benefit you in the long run. All thanks to zero drop.

I won’t deny the fact that the process was very uncomfortable initially, but with time and patience, my journey of transitioning to barefoot shoes was finally successful.

Experience the Power of Minimalistic!

One of the best things about wearing minimal footwear is the increase in proprioception and balance which eventually leads to fewer falls and fewer accidents. Don’t ever take your feet for granted thinking they are capable of putting up with negligence. And don’t wait for symptoms like plantar fasciitis or other foot/knee ailments to occur. This could impact your time in the mountains and also during other activities. Prevention is better than cure! Your first barefoot shoes are just a step away.

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