Experiment Week: Baring My Sole

Liz West via Flickr Creative Commons

I feel bad about my feet.  Or, more precisely, I feel bad for my feet.  Whatever pain I may inflict on the rest of my body via cuts, burns, blisters, and bruises, it’s my soles that endure the worst abuse day in, day out.  Marathon running, cycling, hiking, standing around, and flat-out negligence have turned my feet gnarled and calloused over the past decade or so.  They sweat and peel during summer, then dry out and crack open every winter.  I’ll spare you the gory photographic evidence, but suffice to say: My feet would test any pedicurist’s mettle.  Fact: I only have 7 toenails.

Given that charming introduction, what I’m about to say next may seem borderline criminal to polite society.  For a few days, I decided to set my feet free.  That’s right: barefoot 24 hours a day, regardless of weather, convenience, or public setting.  Whether at work, at play, or at rest, I resolved to go everywhere sans footwear.  I would step on asphalt roads, sandstone trails, and metal stairs the same way I would a shag carpet: unfettered.

The idea didn’t come out of a sudden spiritual awakening or a need to make social commentary.  Barefootedness is having an extended cultural moment right now, kindled by a decade-long boom in minimalist running backed by biomechanic evidence that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by cramming our soles into shoes (each barefoot step “costs” 4% less energy, for example).  Human bipedalism, first recorded in the fossil record about 4 million years ago, evolved thanks to and because of a foot that is a highly efficient load-bearing, spring-loaded instrument.  Somewhere along the line, Western society ceded part of that advantage.  The Zulu, who almost never wear shoes, have the healthiest feet in the world, according to a 2007 study.

Our feet have some serious sensory abilities too!  The 7,000+ nerve endings in each foot can provide our brains as much environmental information as our hands can—just not when muffled with thick rubber-soled shoes.  Put a tennis shoe on your hand, then try to pick up a pencil, or text your friend, or do anything really, and you’ll see immediately the handicap that we subject our feet to.

Editor’s note: this experiment began and ended before the disastrous flash flooding of 9/11-9/13.

I know, I know: we all love shoes and everything they’ve done for us over the years, especially during, uh, winter.  But since early September brought continued warm days and peaceful nights to the foothills of Colorado, it seemed like I could stand to see what I’d been missing.  Maybe I would learn something about the world, or myself…?

Day 1.  9 to 5

The first morning doesn’t play out much differently than usual.  I’m plodding around the apartment on autopilot, in my bare feet.  At some point, I realize that my knowledge of my living space is based in large part on what I’ve been feeling with my feet: the annoying scratchiness of the living room carpet; the cold, oversized square tiles in the bathroom (much different than the small textured hexagons in the kitchen); the smooth concrete walkway leading out to the mailbox.

After a small pause for a habitual “where are my shoes?” moment at the front door, I hop in the car.  Driving barefoot is one of life’s small pleasures, right up there with zillion-thread-count hotel linens, Vin Scully’s voice, and lemonade poured from a glass pitcher.  And contrary to popular belief, operating a vehicle sans shoes is apparently not illegal (note the subtle semantic difference between “not illegal” and “legal”), according to an ad hoc survey of state motor vehicle departments.  I actually feel more in charge of the car, more in tune with the subtleties of the pedals.

Luxury turns to agony quickly, however.  At the office, I park close but not too close and walk across the rough asphalt parking lot.  Every one of my steps has to be a little more planned out than usual, and I keep my eyes cast downward to make sure I’m not about to step on anything pointed.  It doesn’t hurt, exactly, but it does take longer than usual to get across 50 yards.  If anyone was watching, I am sure he thought I had recently been in a debilitating accident.

Now that my feet are nice and tar-colored, it’s time to let them loose at work for 8 hours.  Exposing co-workers to your bare feet is considered a “don’t” in the world of corporate etiquette (someone had to state that in an article, I guess), so I was feeling a little self-conscious at this point.  In Manhattan, this little stunt of mine would not have gone over well, but in Boulder, in an office full of outdoor enthusiasts, it’s easier to fly under the radar.  To be honest, I doubt anybody really even noticed (or cared).   It was certainly liberating, and while there’s no real scientific way to measure if I actually got any more work down or not, I felt better.

After another wince-inducing walk through the parking lot (now super-heated from the sun), I headed home.  It was an easy first trial — home, work, and home again.  My feet were filthy, though.

The Verdict: If you can get away with going barefoot at work, then by all means.

Day 2.  Public Settings

You surely know the phrase: “No shoes, no shirt, no service.”  Well, I was about to flout that convention first thing in the morning.  Private businesses are free to deny service to anyone for any number of arbitrary reasons (excluding race, nationality, and sex).  “Health codes” are frequently cited as a reason for no bare feet, but there are apparently no laws on the books about it.  Stopping in at a local café to get coffee, I prepared myself to be tossed out by the first barista that caught sight of my toes.  The actual results?  Pure apathy.  The bored-looking girl could not seem to care less about what was on my feet so long as I had cash (no credit cards allowed).  Same thing when I stop for gas: no questions asked.  Small victories.

(I do, however, get a few stares at grocery store later.  Nobody says anything, but they’re thinking it.  Oh boy, are they thinking it.)

Let’s run over a little foot science, shall we?  Specifically, all the nasty things that can befall your feet when they’re exposed to the elements.  Did you know, for instance, that 90% of all foot puncture wounds requiring hospitalization come from nails?  (Wood, metal, glass, and animal bites split the remaining 10%.)  The cut might hurt, but the wound is vulnerable to infections from bacteria such as streptococci and staphylococcus, or “staph.”  Staph infections are nasty business, resistant to most antibiotics and the cause of more than 80,000 complications each year.  The infections are most prevalent in shared living areas, especially college dorms, military barracks, and locker rooms (two Tampa Bay Buccaneers football players fell victim earlier this month).

What does this have to do with cafes?  After all, plenty of people trod through them each day, so surely a barefoot person would carry a greater risk of catching something nasty?  Apparantly not.  CDC statistics show that the greatest percentage of staph infections occur in healthcare settings.  To the best of my knowledge, the link between barefootedness and infections is ill-supported by medical data.  Then again, that might change if everyone in society (and their open sores) were to go barefoot.  (Can barefootedness, then, only exist safely as a cultural minority?  Discuss.)

After an entire day of being aired out, so to speak, my feet were indeed feeling better than they had in weeks.  They seemed fresher for being out in the open instead of trapped inside clammy hiking shoes or well-used Birkenstocks.  Maybe it was just my imagination, but I also seemed to be walking more upright with less of a slouch.  Was this experiment becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, or was I just projecting my own biases on the results?

The Verdict: You have medical science and the law (sort of) on your side, but you may still get some looks.

Day 3.  The Trail Run

The moment of truth: barefoot running.  I wake up eager to take on the streets and trails without fancy footwear.  Ever since the 2005 book Born to Run, every runner out there has been expected to have an opinion on this fad and whether it’s crazy or crazy like a fox.  I certainly know fervent advocates on both sides.  Personally, I split the difference—minimalist shoes without the clunky cushioned heels that Nike and Adidas sold for decades.  By running “naked” (or in some cases, Vibram FiveFingers), the idea is that by running on the balls of your feet, you are running in a more natural motion by imitating a barefoot motion.  Barefoot is often proffered as the solution to athletic ailments, but amidst all of the glowing media coverage, there is a lot of junk science that is misrepresented and willfully misconstrued.   As in any new field of study, it’s still too soon to declare anything a panacea.

In theory, though, my body is supposed to like barefoot running.  And it does—at first.  I start out at a slow clip on the concrete sidewalk.  My feet scrape and sting a bit more than usual, which is to be expected.  I do feel a bit springier, though.  As I accelerate around two walkers, I pop out into the road for a moment, which grinds my soles a little bit more.  The bricks along the Pearl Street Mall make for a nice change — so smooth! — and I started composing a ranking system in my head for all the potential running terrains around town.

The problems begin when I switched to trail running.  As I duck into the woods, the ground grow slippery with roots and creek washes, making for bad footholds.  I slip up a few times on the narrow paths and have to switch to a much, much lower gear in order to stay on my feet.  You have to plan about 5 steps in advance, too, lest you miss a razor-sharp piece of rock.  I really don’t know how Tarzan did it all those years— are there no sharp sticks anywhere in his forest?

On the ascending slope, the trail turns to sharp gravel.  Try as I might to stay light on my feet, the rocks cut the pads of my feet.  Ow.  Ouch. OW.  Mother$#@^&*@!#&$#@%*#&$^#*&@$.  Ultimately, I don’t make it more than a quarter-mile.  I had finally found the outer limit this experiment, and it bled.

The Verdict: Don’t sell off your shoe company stock just yet.

My barefootedness ended later that evening, earlier than I’d planned.  Regardless, as I taped up my feet, I felt I’d learned a valuable lesson even from just this short trial.  Being barefoot is very pleasant in everyday settings that would have been completely foreign to our early ancestors, while ironically it was the more primal activities that hurt.  If I were to repeat this masochistic exercise more often, my plantars would probably harden into impenetrable callouses capable of tackling that mountain trail.  It could be done—it has been done.  But I probably won’t push it that far.  I’ll begrudgingly go back to minimalist footwear and leave the true barefoot running to the professionals.

Still, don’t be surprised if you catch me barefoot in unexpected places every now and then.  It’s less risky than you think, and I can’t shake the feeling that it’s good for the sole (soul?) too.

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