We can thank shoes for many things: They keep our feet clean, comfortable and protected (and most importantly, they prevent stubbed toes). There is, however, something to be said about the glorious, godlike sensation of stepping outside barefooted every now and again. The sunbathed concrete warms your soles. The fluttering grass tickles your toes. The earth itself propels an ancient, unknown energy up into your legs. Okay, that last bit might be a stretch, but you get the point: Our feet appreciate a break from shoes every so often, and for good reason.
“The many nerve endings in the soles of our feet are starving for stimulation while inside shoes,” explains Ken Bob Saxton, pioneer of the modern barefoot running movement and founder of BarefootRunning.com (there are over 7,000 nerve endings in each foot). “These nerve endings let us know immediately, emphatically, and with each and every step how well we’re walking or running. They let us know if our feet are skidding, and allow our brains to make adjustments to the way we’re walking or running to prevent excess skidding (much like traction control in an automobile, except if the tires could actually feel the road directly). These nerves also help us adjust the way we walk to help prevent excess pounding. They also help us correct our posture.”
When asked about the positive sensations associated with being barefooted, Daniel Lieberman, a barefoot-running evolutionary biologist from Harvard, sends me a new paper from his laboratory, which supports what Saxton has to say about the abundance of nerve endings in our feet. The study shows that even those with especially thick calluses have an impressive amount of tactile sensitivity (or sensation) in their feet, which contributes to the massaging feeling of stepping outside barefooted.
Saxton even argues that this sensation is worth the loss of protection that comes with ditching your shoes. “Most barefooters have found the risks of occasional injury due to abrasion and puncture is far less than the benefits of near-constant pleasure they experience while barefoot (just be careful where you put your feet),” he says. “In my personal experience, my feet have suffered more abrasions and as many (but worse) punctures while wearing shoes. It was the shoes themselves that caused abrasions to my feet (on the tops, which don’t have that trouble while bare). And while barefoot, those same nerves in the soles of my feet allow me to respond more quickly to sharp objects and shift my weight off that foot before the object deeply punctures my foot, and often before there’s any puncture at all.”
Whether you agree or disagree, Saxton still promotes the occasional barefooted jaunt, even if only just outside your door. “It brings us an innocent, childlike feeling of freedom,” he emphasizes. “Instead of constant contact with socks and shoes smelling of fungus, we enjoy the feel of fresh air flowing over our feet, sunlight warming our skin, and a sole-ful massage from the earth.”