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.
But first, the benefits of running barefoot
Before we can discuss walking, let’s review of the premises behind, and arguments supporting barefoot running, which will be important when we get back to talking about walking:
Landing on your heel, especially with a foot position in front of the knee and the knee almost straight, sends a shock through the joints — the ankle, the knee, the hip, and up the spine.
When you wear typical running shoes with padded, elevated heels, the elevation makes it more likely that you’ll land heel-first, and the padding makes it harder to get the feedback that you need to not put this extra force into your body.
And, research shows that the padding doesn’t actually reduce the impact forces.
This isn’t good.
Running barefoot reduces the likelihood that you’ll land on your heel… because, frankly, it hurts. Instead, what people naturally do is start landing on their forefoot or midfoot, with a bent knee and the ankle not in front of the knee. This reduces the force going through your joints, allowing you to use the muscles, ligaments, and tendons the way they’re meant to be used, as natural springs, shock absorbers, and joint protectors.
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 this conversation has led to another question, which probably nobody asked prior to the publication of the book Born To Run, the book that kicked off the barefoot boom. This is a question I’m emailed almost daily, namely,
“How should my foot land when I am walking?”
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 walking, right?
Well, among the barefoot running research community there’s debate 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 most barefoot runners take it to be.
How can this be? And how does this apply to walking?
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.” For most people It’s a change in your whole posture of running. 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 front of the foot 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, whether you’re accelerating or slowing down, 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.
Here’s How to Walk Naturally
First, you’ll want to be barefoot, or as close to barefoot as possible. (In other words, if you don’t want to walk in bare feet, avoid a cushioned shoe and pick a pair of barefoot-inspired, or minimalist, shoes instead.)
Why? Because there’s value in being able to fully articulate your foot and in letting the nerves in your feet actually feel the ground.
If I then 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.
Try this instead: Lift your left foot about an inch off the ground and imagine the motion you might see in roller skating or ice skating. When you’re skating, you push yourself forward with the back leg, driving the heel backwards, which engages the glutes and the hamstrings.
In fact, If you can feel your glutes and hamstrings, tightening them will drive your heel back and move you forward. (“Drive the heel back” and “tighten your glutes” are two cues referring to the same thing.)
When you do this – driving the heel back and using your glutes and hamstrings – don’t worry about doing anything with your left leg (which is slightly off the ground). Don’t move it forward. Let it just hang there and use it to catch you from falling on your face.
As your weight shifts onto your left leg, don’t actively swing your right leg out in from of you. Just lift it an inch or so off the ground and repeat the motion I just described, driving your left heel backwards and using your right leg to catch you so you don’t face-plant.
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 feet instead of swinging your legs 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.
This motion may feel a bit robotic at first, but as you practice and relax, it’ll get smooth, comfortable, and efficient.
The Health Benefits of Walking Barefoot
Many podiatrists grasp the benefits of walking barefoot and recommend it as a cure for plantar fasciitis. Many chiropractors and orthopedic physicians recommend walking barefoot to cure lower back pain.
Being barefoot can help with plantar fasciitis because, when you walk barefoot, 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 it helps you walk naturally, the way human beings are built to walk. When you do that, as we saw above, you use your glutes and hamstrings as the prime movers. Using them makes them stronger, and stronger glutes and hamstrings support your lower back.
And using these big muscles is what can support you, 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 you 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.
I’m still working on a video to demonstrate what I mean, but in the meantime, check out this video from Dr. Justin Lin, which makes the points I made above:
A Few Common Questions about Walking Barefoot
Can I walk barefoot on hard surfaces?
People often assume walking barefoot is really only possible on soft surfaces like grass or sand. This isn’t true.
If you learn to move the way we described above, which running or walking barefoot teaches you to do, you can handle hard surfaces just fine.
Note, though, that there is a time for shoes. Sometimes surfaces are too hot, sometimes there are sharp objects around that can pose a risk of injuries, sometimes you want to go into a restaurant. More on that in the next question…
Can minimalist shoes give me the same health benefits as walking barefoot?
I realize walking barefoot isn’t for everyone (and isn’t the best thing on all occasions, as I noted above). That’s why we created Xero Shoes, to give you an experience as close as possible to running or walking barefoot while still having shoes on your feet.
Xero Shoes are designed with a thin, flexible sole and a roomy toe box that let your feet move naturally. You can get the same kinds of health benefits (for instance, strengthening the muscles of your feet, as one study found) and other benefits, like greater feedback from your environment.
We make minimalist shoes, sandals, and even boots, that you can wear anywhere from the office to the trail.
Intrigued? Find your perfect pair here.
The content of this post does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your health or a medical condition.