How to walk barefoot - Xero Shoes

How to walk barefoot

I expect (and kind of hope) that many people reading the title of this section will think, “Uh, I don’t need instruction about how to walk. I’ve been doing it all my life.”

I also expect (and definitely hope) that others will read the title and think, “Finally, the answer to my most burning question! I’ve been worried that I’m walking wrong.”

For those of you in the first group, let me ask you this: Do tribal women in Africa with water jugs balanced on their heads walk in the same way that Olympic race walkers do? And, do either of those people walk the way you do?

I’d bet that the answer you found for both of those questions is No.

That’s because walking isn’t just walking. There are ways of walking that are more or less effective, more or less efficient, more or less healthy and strong.

And if you accept that premise, that could put you in the second group.

Now, for those of you in the second group, I have what could seem like bad news. There is no one answer to “How do I walk.”

This article will not reveal the hidden secret of locomotion that only wisened Tibetan lamas from the Drepung monastery have taught to their senior disciples, or the geometrical relationships between your lower extremity joints that is optimal for effortless, pain-free walking, or the best footwear you can use for carrying a 200 pound pack on a 1,000 mile hike over broken glass.

It’ll actually do something better.

It’ll show you how to become your own best teacher and discover your own secrets for walking efficiently, enjoyably, and easily.

Before we can discuss walking, lets review of the premises behind, and arguments supporting barefoot running: Landing on your heel, especially with the ankle forward of the knee and the knee almost straight, sends shock through the joints — the ankle, the knee, the hip, and up the spine.

This isn’t good.

Running barefoot reduces the likelihood that you’ll land on your heel… because it hurts.

Landing on the forefoot or midfoot, with a bent knee and the ankle not front of the knee, reduces the force going through your joints, allowing you to use the muscles, ligaments, and tendons as natural springs and shock absorbers.

So, what does all this have to do with walking?

Well, the whole conversation about foot-strike rarely came up prior to the barefoot running boom. Now it’s practically dinner party conversation, where the barefoot gang looks down their noses in disgust at shoe-wearing heel-strikers. And the increase in the volume of the foot-strike conversation has led to another question, which probably nobody asked prior to the publication of Born To Run. This is a question I’m emailed almost daily, namely, “How should my foot strike when I walk?”

It sounds like a reasonable question.

If there is some optimal way for your foot to land when you run, there must be a “right” way for it to land when you walk, right?

Well, there’s debate among the barefoot running research community about whether a forefoot strike is better/worse than a midfoot strike, or whether foot strike is idiosyncratic and different for different runners. There’s even an argument about whether heel striking is as evil as as most barefoot runners take it to be.

How can this be?

Simple. Because heel strike is the effect of other aspects of your biomechanics, not the cause.

Think about it. The only way you can change how your foot lands on the ground is what you do with your ankle, your hip, and your knee.

To not land on your heel when you run, you probably need to bend your knee more than you usually do. But that alone could cause you to trip over your toes, so you also need to bend your hip a bit more. And then you may relax your ankle a little rather than pulling your toes towards your knee.

So “land on your forefoot” is really just a cue for “bend the hip and knee and relax the ankle,” but if you told someone to change their hip, knee and ankle joint angles, they’d be too confused to even take a step.

Well, it’s similar with walking. Where your foot lands isn’t the issue. How you move your foot through space is.

When you walk, your foot can land in one of three ways: touching the forefoot first, followed by the heel dropping to the ground; landing basically flat-footed, probably touching the midfoot first, or; touching/rolling over the heel… which is sort of still a flat-footed landing but with the heel contacting first.

Which one of these happens is a function of how fast/slow you’re walking, whether you’re walking up/down hill, and what kind of surface you’re on.

Really, there’s no need to worry about foot-strike. It’ll take care of itself… if you pay attention to this next thing.

First, you’ll want to be barefoot, or as close to barefoot as possible.

Why? Because there’s value in being able to articulate the foot and to letting the nerves in your feet actually feel the ground.

Many podiatrists recommend barefoot walking as a cure for plantar fasciitis. Many chiropractors and orthopedic physicians recommend barefoot walking to cure lower back pain.

Being barefoot can help with plantar fasciitis because, when you’re out of shoes, especially on uneven surfaces, you’ll use your feet in a way that “pre-loads” the plantar fascia, putting them in a strong position when you need them.

Being barefoot can help with lower back pain because… well let’s take a look at that one more closely.

Imagine standing on one leg.

If I asked you to start walking, most people would basically swing their free leg out in front of them and, at the right moment, push off the toes of the back leg to pivot over the front foot, which has landed on the heel way out in front of you.

You basically walk “behind your feet.” One interesting thing about walking behind your feet is that you’re never really off balance. We’ll come back to that idea in a moment.

Now, imagine being on one foot again. If I asked you to contract whatever muscle or muscles you can think of that would move you forward, which one(s) would you tighten. Remember I said “move you forward.” Falling forward doesn’t count, so the answer is not “ankle” (leaning) or “abs” (as in, bending forward until you fall).

The answer is the muscles that are referred to as the “prime movers” in our body: The glutes and hamstrings.

Tighten the glutes and hamstrings and you’ll actually MOVE forward.

And stronger glutes and hamstrings protect the lower back.

But after you tighten your glutes and hamstring you will eventually get off balance and fall on your face… unless… you put your other foot down to stop you.

And here’s where it gets cool.

If you simply place your foot down where it’ll stop you from falling (rather than swinging it out in front of you like you usually do), it’ll land closer to your center of mass, more flat-footed, with a slightly bent hip and knee, and with the now front leg in a biomechanically stronger position. You will have planted your foot.

If you repeat this — using your glutes and hips to move you forward, and placing your foot instead of swinging your leg forward — you’ll be supporting your lower back… and your knees, and your hips, and even your ankles.

Your foot-strike will take care of itself.

You’ll feel like you’re walking “on top of your feet” rather than behind them.

And this makes you stronger, whether you’re going for a stroll or carrying a 50 pound pack on a trail (which, by the way, will be easier because your engaged glutes and hamstrings support your lower back).

When think about staying on top of your feet, and using your glutes and hamstrings, you’ll naturally discover the easy and efficient ways to walk in any situation. You’ll understand it from the inside out, from your own experience, not from some guidebook about how many inches behind your knee you should have your ankle when you’re walking up a 10 degree incline in 50 degree weather on a Thursday.

Combine this with feeling the world because you’re barefoot or in some truly minimalist footwear (be warned, most major shoe companies claim their product is “barefoot” when it’s about as close to barefoot as a pair of stilts), and I guarantee that your next walk or hike will be a revelation… and a lot of fun.

  • Scott

    Another great form of feedback is walking on icy roads/sidewalks. I’ve found that since I switched to minimalist shoes, 2-1/2 years ago, I can comfortably walk on ice (at least moderately level roads/walkways) with great confidence where as heel striking is almost guaranteed to put you on your butt. I know instantly if my form gets sloppy because my foot will slip. If I keep my feet landing beneath me and on mid/forefoot I can move along at a normal (for me) walking pace. My wife and I do regular hour long power walks on our unsalted country road in the Northern WI winter with confidence. In the past we had to wear those spiky shoe covers to keep us upright.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      That’s a great one, Scott.

      You’ll love this video that shows someone running across ice. The video shows that, at full speed, most of the force is vertical an not horizontal, because if it were horizontal force you would slip and slide.

      http://www.bearpowered.com/resources/videos/iceman/iceman.html

  • Tyler M

    Honestly probably the best articles I’ve ever read regarding barefoot walking. The difference in forcing your foot in front of you and using your glutes is subtle but significant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/endurancefitness.uk Endurance Fitnessuk

    Nicely written piece there Steven.

  • http://twitter.com/royhanson roy hansonc

    minimalist shoes..yeah, Avia & other major manufacturers who make expensive shoes in Vietnam. Walk barefoot..just do it. it takes awhile to get used to barefoot, but ohhh, it feels nice. you sleep better.

  • marguerite (Osler) van der Mer

    I have a pair of Xeros for joy, and Vivobarefoot minimalist shoes. I am a teacher of The Alexander Technique which is the initial impetus for the whole Barefoot Running Movement ( 20 yrs ago or some such). Your advice re Walking barefoot ( or any other way) is insane, impossible, and does NOT conform to the natural human walking pattern. Suggest you contact RICHARD BRENNAN , trainer The Alexander Technique, (Ireland) or myself , or read THE ART OF WALKING author Marguerite Osler.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Can you be more specific? Which part is “insane”? Which part isn’t “natural”?

    • t b

      “everything I do is perfect in every way, nothing you do is acceptable, Stephen.” “Buy my book and shut up, you nitwit…”

      • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

        Ah, NOW I understand ;-)

      • dada

        One thing is for sure: what you just described is by far the most *elegant* way of walking – a high-heels kind of look in a natural and harmless way. Cheers!

  • laurence

    I don’t understand a word of this. I’m dyslexic. If I stand on one leg, nothing moves. If I contract muscles I’m still standing on one leg. Please explain step one, step 2 , etc for dummies. (BTW THE spiralling of the torso seems to have more to do with correct mechanics than thinking about the legs)

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      I’m not sure what dyslexia has to do with it… but if you only contracted your glutes and hamstrings, they would shorten which would push you forward just enough to initiate walking.

      The gist is: don’t sit back over your feet; don’t just swing your leg out in front of you, plant it, and push yourself over it.

      • laurence

        OK. I’m standing on one leg. The other leg is suspended in the air. Now what??|
        Are YOu saying to contract the glutes and hamstrings of the standing leg? All that happens now is I fire up my core.
        Do You mean fire the muscles of the suspended leg? Can’t do it.

        So you must have something elso in mind.

        It Helps me to have instructions like. “StaND On one leg. Place the other foot behind , resting on heel, then….”

        PLEASE describe EXACTLTY WHAT you do, including every placement, focus, intention for one complete step cycle, including what should be noticed when doing it correctly.
        PLeaSE start with this, thanks
        “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
        Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
        -Rumi

        • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

          Yes, I mean the leg that’s planted on the ground.

          It is possible to contract the glutes and hamstrings without firing the core (in the same way you can isolate any muscle).

          But try it upside down… TRY to move forward while standing on one leg, without leaning forward (from the ankle) or bending forward (from the hips).

          The only way you can do that is with a contraction of the posterior chain, the prime movers, a.k.a. the glutes and hamstrings.

          • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

            Let me add… it’s not like contracting the posterior chain THROWS you forward. What it does it that it makes a minor change in the position of your hips, which moves your center of gravity SLIGHTLY forward… enough that if you did nothing else (like put your other foot down), would cause you to fall forward.

            And it’s not like you do a HARD contraction when you walk.

            For some, this is really more of a “cue” to get you “on top of your feet”. And for people who haven’t really used their glutes in a while it may be that you need to do things in reverse: Position yourself so that you’re “on top of your feet” and walk with that posture and you may feel your glutes firing in a way they haven’t in a long, long time.

          • laurence

            Stephen-Let’s start again. What do you mean walk “on top of your feet”? What is NOT WALKing on top of your feet. Maybe somebody else can explain this in step by step child language for someone completely ignorant of the subject.(Show your replies to a ten year old and see what his response would be)

          • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

            “On top of your feet” was something that customers of ours used as a description.

            It has to do with where your center of mass is as you move. If you lean back slightly as you walk, your feet are sort of out in front of you… you’re “behind your feet.”

            If, when you walk, your front foot lands under your center of mass, it feels like you’re “over your feet” (comparatively).

            Perhaps a video will help. I’ll try to make one soon.

            Here’s another image that can help, especially with the glute/ham contraction thing:

            Either lie face down on the ground or imagine doing so.

            By contracting your glutes on the right side (not by arching your back, that is), raise your right leg a TINY bit off the ground. Then notice that you can actually use your glutes more and raise your leg even more.

            When walking, many of us only do the smallest extension of the leg behind us. We don’t use the glutes to push us forward. And the glutes/hamstrings are at their strongest when we use them that way (muscles are strongest in the final degrees of their range of motion, when they’re more fully contracted).

            So, back to the standing on one leg thing… if, while standing on one leg, try to “raise” that standing leg behind you like when you were lying on the ground (which you do by contracting the glutes/hamstrings), it propels you forward.

            If you relax the other leg, but use it to keep you from falling on your face, you’ll probably find that you simply place it (perhaps a bit flat-footed), under your body rather than reaching out in front of you. Then “raise” that leg behind you and repeat.

            Again, many people describe this as feeling as walking “over their feet” because of where their feet land in relation to their center of mass.

            Fingers crossed that I’ve done a slightly better job with that description.

            As an aside: For people familiar with running biomechanics, what I’m describing is the difference between front-side and back-side mechanics in walking. Just as distance runners have more backside mechanics, that’s a smoother, more efficient way of walking as well.

          • o

            Look’s like he’s pushing you into doubt by picking at the weaknesses in the language of bio-mechanical theory. Not anyone can take a theoretical explanation of something as particular to the individual as walking and easily apply it to practice. Certainly, even the most astute of minds will not completely comprehend your aim. In any case, this is one of the best articles I have read on the subject, but it may easily confound the masses.

  • http://twitter.com/DonBahn1 Don Bahn

    When done correctly a person moves faster and looks like they are loafing along.

  • travelingrandma

    I tried it in my living room just now, and it was so easy I wonder if this is what you mean. I found myself taking shorter steps and kind of shuffling along, with my feet much closer to the floor. It felt good. In general, my hips hurt (arthritis-type thing), so I am going to try this way of walking outside to see if it makes them hurt less.

  • Narek Bayanduryan

    Can you please .ake the video? I still have no idea how to do it after reading the article and comments many times :( When I stand on one leg I can’t move forward. It’s like a reflex to stay balanced and not let myself fall. Idk what to do.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Hi Narek,

      I’ll try to get that video up as soon as the Shark Tank effect slows down ;-)

      And, of course you can move forward on one leg… the whole point is that you’ll put your other foot down so that you WON’T fall. And when you do, you’ll put it closer to your body rather than kicking it out in front of you.

  • Nancy

    This was great! Thanks for the clear — and engaging — explanation.

  • http://www.myrunningtips.com/ andy-1967

    Great Article – Thank you! I’m a BFRunner and JUST started to worry about how I should be walking in my vibrams or barefoot. This clears things up nicely. Cheers again!

    Andy from
    http://www.myrunningtips.com

  • http://www.abruzzopassion.com/ Fabiani – Abruzzo Walking

    Great and informative article, we have been practicing bare foot walkingrunning for a few years now, and lately combining Barefoot & Breathwalk …. results are amazing in terms of stamina, mental clarity, physical wellbeing, focus, creativity… rejuvenation…. it is a WOW match made in heaven :)
    http://www.abruzzopassion.com/BreathWalk.html

  • Charles

    Steven,

    Like Laurence I also fail to understand the idea of moving forward while standing on one foot. You say not to bend either at the ankle or hips, so to my way of thinking that leaves no possibility whatsoever for movement. Am I missing something? Everyone else here seems to get it, but I (and Laurence) sure don’t.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      You’re missing something ;-)

      To be technical, you’re going to put the hip into extension. Think about driving your heel backwards (while it’s still on the ground). To do this, you’re using your glutes and hamstrings.

      • Mike C

        I too am having trouble understanding the walking technique. I can stand on my left right leg and contract my right glute and hamstring. My left (suspended leg) moves forward maybe a quarter of an inch. I can place my left leg down and raise my right leg. Contracting my left (support) glute and hamstring moves my right leg maybe a quarter inch. I can’t imagine getting anywhere only a quarter inch at a time. I tried laying down like you suggested to Laurence. Contracting one glute does shift my hips significantly but I think that is more because my “rear” has changed shape and essentially pushed back against the floor to shift my hip.

        • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

          Try this cue instead:

          Push the heel of your standing leg backwards, while keeping it on the ground.

          (What allows you to do this is contracting your glute/ham)

          • Mike C

            I can contract my glute just fine. It just barely moves my opposite leg though. I feel as though in order to get any distance in my stride, I need to move the lower half (I.e. Below the knee) of my suspended leg out and away from my body a bit.

          • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

            Contracting your glutes has no effect on the opposite leg, nor is it supposed to.

            Driving your heel back is what MOVES you forward. Your opposite leg does very little (which is why this as an efficient way to walk).

            And you don’t need ta create distance in your stride by reaching out. Try using the distance that takes the least effort. It may be shorter than you’re used to.

          • Mike C

            Hmmm. I was just thinking… Let’s go back a step to help understand. There are a couple ways to pick up a leg to be on one foot which produce very different effects. The thigh bone in a normal standing position is perpendicular to the ground. I can pick up a leg by moving my thigh bone up in front of my body and making it parallel to the ground. If I do this, I can have my lower leg either very relaxed which puts my elevated foot almost next to my support knee or I can have my lower leg contracted such that I am making a near right angle from my upper to my lower leg and my foot is going to be in front of me. I can also lift up my leg such that my thigh bone stays nearly still and remains near perpendicular to the ground but my lower leg moves back and my foot goes behind my body. When you first talk about standing on one foot, which of the three methods are you referring to? (Or do you mean a fourth?)

          • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

            I actually was not talking about the non-weighted leg with the cue I gave.

            And there are different stages of the gait where you’re doing different things with the non-weighted leg.

            The simplest answer I can give: Do as little as possible. Relax as much as you can. Don’t reach out with the non-weighted foot, but let it drop under your center of mass so you don’t fall on your face ;-)

            What I’ve seen is that if you focus on the weighted leg, the non-weighted leg usually takes care of itself.

            For the sake of this experiment, though, to START walking, I just flex my hip and relax the rest of my leg. And I flex so that my toes are about an inch off the ground. Again, that changes with the 2nd step since the foot that’s about to become non-weighted will be behind you… so go back to “relax and focus on the weighted leg.”

  • Dismayed

    Didn’t fully understand until I stood up and tried it. Fantastic!

  • Lisa Nalder

    You provided a great explanation for barefoot walking. I just gave it a try. It was a more graceful way for walking with MUCH less shock to the body.

  • Litaliscous

    I’m not sure where to post this question, but this seems like as good a place as any. It seems to me after wearing these shoes for about a week, that they are super awesome if you are walking or running on the Earth (grass, dirt, etc) but that they are not so awesome on pavement or other hard surfaces. In fact, when I have worn them around town where I was walking on concrete, my legs and feet hurt quite a lot after even an hour or two. Am I just really sensitive or have other people experienced this? Obviously I would prefer that so much of the world was NOT paved and we could walk on soft surfaces all the time, but unfortunately that is not the case. How do you other barefoot fans deal with the concrete issue?

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Funny you should say that… my wife and I just came home from a 2 hour walk on pavement. ;-)

      If you look at http://xeroshoes.com/barefoot-running-tips/how-to-run-barefoot/ you’ll see that one of the first tips is: run on a HARD surface. The reason: it gives you the most feedback about your form.

      I don’t know if you’re “sensitive”, but it sounds like your form isn’t yet adapted to harder surfaces. That is, you don’t need to get stronger to handle hard surfaces, but you may find that as your form adjusts, you use less effort and muscular force.

      For now, use the same advice we give for getting started with running: START SLOWLY. Do a little at a time and build up your time based on how good you’re feeling.

  • Emilie

    I’ve been using my xeros for over a month now, and have no problems at all except…
    I always seem to develop a blister on the side of my right heel whenever I spend more than about 45min in them.
    I’m pretty sure I heel spike a bitbut even trying these the closest I seem to get is more like a stomp.
    Any advice would be great :)

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Emilie, take a look at http://www.xeroshoes.com/blister — the simplest thing I can say is: if you’re getting a blister on your heel, you’re not only heel striking, but adding EXTRA horizontal force on that spot.

      The only “advice” is to experiment with your gait and stop doing what causes the problem. If you use the instructions on this page, you *should* land more flat-footed and then have less horizontal force on the ground.

      • Emilie

        Will give it a shot. Thanks

  • bluesman33

    Great article. My previous comment got lost somewhere. I recommend an outline or bullet chart as a lead in to keep people focused on the whole process. if the big picture is seen first the details will sink in.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Great idea. I’ll get to work on it when I have some time.

  • Guest

    I’m working a retail job for the holidays and how I wish I could get my (mostly) just standing form and footwear down so my back (from my neck down) wouldn’t hurt so much.

  • Glenda S

    I am working retail for the holidays. I’m trying to get my (mostly) standing form and footwear down to relieve the back pain. Four days in various (as close to barefoot as I’ve got ) shoes and none seem to be any different. Not sure how to “get away with” wearing my xero shoes.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Add REALLY contrasting socks so you’re not hiding them! ;-) Or, get green soles and red laces to blend in for the holidays (or red soles and green laces).

      BTW, the reason being barefoot should help with your back is that when you can’t use your feet to balance you, that job goes “upstream” to your knees, hips and back… which aren’t built for that job. Let your feet work correctly and they can take the stress off your back.

      • Glenda S

        Thanks so much! Maybe Xmas socks with Xero shoes will be upcoming in attire!

  • Mike Johnson

    Wearing-bearing movement, such as walking or using the elliptical, with a
    more minimalist shoe Begin to incorporate short intervals (seconds
    to minutes) of barefoot walking around the house while continuing to use minimal shoes walking or on the elliptical..

    http://www.footsolutions.com/store/bethesda

  • joey

    walking like this makes me feel like a dinosaur

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Smooth it out and use a bit less effort and you’ll find a way that feels natural (because it IS a natural way to walk ;-) ).

  • Hubert

    How about a video? :$

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Even though I’ve vowed not to make a “how to run barefoot” video (so as not to encourage people to think there’s ONE way to run), I may do a walking video. Once it warms up here in Colorado, I’ll see what I can do!

      • Hubert

        Good. Looking forwad. It would be nice to see the exercises ’cause something can be missed in translation…
        I missed the webminar, and I was so going to ask about walking.

  • Kimberly Ilene Osborne

    This reminds me of chai walking. It could almost be described as falling forward and catching yourself although not really. That kind of walking leaves less of a foot print which to me says less harsh impact.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Agreed on all counts!

Loading... Processing, just a few more seconds