In addition to hanging out with my sister's 37 kids while on vacation, I also hiked my butt off. In California, people don't tend to be hikers in the way people in Oregon or Colorado are hikers. In fact, one of my favorite authors Pam Houston, sums the reason up quite nicely, saying that “when hiking alone in Colorado, about one out of a hundred encounters makes me nervous, and when hiking alone in California, that number is one in three.” Amen. Especially when most of those encounters have four wheels and 300 horsepower.
Being a pseudo hunter-gatherer, I attempted to wear my Vibram Five Fingers (shoe-less shoes) throughout my entire vacation, something that was going quite smoothly until my Most Fit Friend suggested a 12-mile hike up behind the Columbia River. I was totally in. What a great chance to take my VFF into the rough.
This wasn't my first time wearing my non-shoes, in fact, I had already logged hundreds of "shoe-less" urban miles on the asphalt and concrete of city sidewalks. That's why I was completely unprepared for the fact I had to tap out around Mile 4. Starting off on the trail my flexible feet felt awesome. I felt so healthy. So biomechanical. So...smug. My feet were mobile while walking, just as they were designed to be, and I could feel every lump of dirt, pebble, and ow...SLATE, jabbing into my foot. I toughed it out until I realized that while I had slightly increased the flexibility of my foot over the last year by minimizing shoe use, my intrinsic muscles (muscles between the bones of the feet) hadn't really worked due to the artificially flat and debris-free surfaces I frequent.
The mobility of the foot is extremely complex. The foot's 33 joints allow the foot 8.6 X 10^36 unique positions. Just in case math isn't your thing, this means that there are more than a zillion (really!) motor programs you foot could have, each one needing additional brain/body communication. Our current biomechanical, medical, anatomical, and podiatric texts identify three motions. That's how stiff our feet have become. Just to be clear, you have the potential for billions and billions of unique foot motions, but we typically talk about three. Wow. That's a low bar.
I teach the physics and biomechanics of the foot because of its enormous responsibility to whole-body well-being. Think of it in this way -- the foot's ability to deform is a method of data collection for the body. The way the foot deforms to a surface creates a picture of what is underneath the foot. A healthy foot creates an "image" in the brain (very similar to sonar) that helps the body's center of mass position itself *perfectly* over the surface's contours for optimal balance. When the feet are stiff and tight (and constantly in shoes) the center of mass (in the pelvis) also becomes stiff and immobile. The center of mass is never being told where to go by the feet. Eventually you get lumbering, lurching, and unbalanced movements reminiscent of an old or injured body -- which essentially the body has become, due to minimal sensory input.
I know all of these things in an academic kind of way, but what I hadn't really experienced was taking my new foot muscles (new because they had never been over so many rocks for such a long distance) on a three-mile off-road hike that challenged the sensory input of my feet. My feet were baby feet. These muscles had never been used and were experiencing fatigue. You wouldn't take a newborn on a three mile hike, but that's what I did. I almost wanted to cry as each step pushed into tired and sore muscles. My solution? Putting shoes (still super-flexible, light, and no heel) back on to finish the hike. I brought my trusty GOLD Earth sandals (really, they are metallic gold with little faux diamonds on them) and finished 9 more miles, no sweat. My ankles and regularly used foot muscles were fine, it was just the little guys in between my foot bones that were tired!
Through the rest of my 10-day trip, I hiked miles in the Olympic mountains and walked tons all around town. There was a huge difference in the muscles used on urban terrain (flat and hard) as compared to natural terrain with rocks, uneven ground. If you can't tell if you're "in nature," just use comedian Demetri Martin's definition, "Hiking is just walking...where you can pee." Oh, and P.S. I peed A LOT in the woods, just because I could. Love, love, LOVE those squats! Other notable mentions were my post-walk Super-Open Hips and Hamstrings (I didn't do any stretching, but let the natural movements be my program and unwind my fascia under the clear-blue sky), and I had ZERO menstrual cramps. Hello, open pelvis!
There is a very large barefoot movement happening now, which is a wonderful thing, however, we Westerners have a habit of picking a "natural" habit and jamming it into our unnatural lives, i.e. long distances on cements and asphalt. This takes a good thing (natural foot movement) and creates an unnatural vibrational that leads to fractures in over-loaded foot bones. Train smart. Be logical. If you want natural foot movements for optimal health, walk in natural environments. Shoes have been protecting us from our over-rigid environment for some time and it takes time (years, even) to restore function. I also strongly suggest a plan to move toward increasing foot health via increasing range of motion and function of the intrinsic foot musculature.
1. Start by daily stretching and massage of the heels, mid-foot, forefoot, and toes.
2. Do your foot exercises. Try these from my DVD Fix Your Feet.
3. Understand that the position of the foot is maintained by the muscles of the hips and make sure you optimize lateral hip (IT Band), hamstring, gluteal, and adductor (inner thigh) strength with full range of motion. Tight hips limit foot function.
4. Get a super-flexible shoe with minimal (or better yet, no) heel.
5. Before jumping into non-shoe shoes, deal with your whole body alignment and gait mechanics. Podiatrists are seeing a huge increase in forefoot fractures from people (even highly-experienced runners!) who land with excessive force on the front of the foot. Walking should be heel to toe, not landing on the front of the foot. Running should be done on natural surfaces with body weight stacked correctly (without the torso leaning forward.)
6. If you get non-shoe shoes, be a walker. But if you do choose to run, build up your walking mileage for a year before even considering running in them.
7. Log your miles on a natural surface, with elevation changes and rocky obstacles. The urban jungle is not a natural walking surface, and the friction and traction of this surface coupled with the lack of its yield can be quite damaging to the human body.
Hiking in minimal shoes can yield amazing results. For all of you body nerds out there, this is the way to tap into a greater portion of your brain/body connection. Do the work!