My partner Andy and I love walking holidays and each year we try to walk from place to place for a week (or for however long office-slavery and family commitments would allow), with our loyal companions: rucksacks and hi-top walking boots. This year, I wanted to try something a little different…
The feat (well, a feat for my office-bound middle-aged-woman standards of course) came after years of listening to my body, thinking about my gait, exploring my aches and pains, and exchanging ideas with like-minded other women. We all seemed to have the tendency to wake up in the morning with an extraordinary variety of niggles.
No one believed I could make it - but I did it.
The what: walking from Cadaquez (North-East Spain) to Colloiure (South-East France), about 100 km in five days through the foothills of the Pyrenees, up and down hills and mountains, in rain and sun.
The how: leaving the boots at home and walking 100 km in my Vivobarefoot minimalist shoes, with just a 3 mm sole.
The why: just to experiment!
I won’t bore you with the details of the journey of discovery; I will just share the summary of my observations over the week. The experience for me was truly revealing, and perhaps there is someone out there that might find my list if not inspirational, at least vaguely interesting.
- My foot wasn’t constrained by the heavy sole of the walking boots and the toes could flex by 50 degrees or so (as the experts say they should), and the ankle could too. This meant that foot and ankle did some, if not most, of the work that if I were wearing boots would have been left to the muscles of the thigh and the lower back to do
- The feet felt literally ‘light’ (in fact I imagine their weight is proportional and appropriate to your body weight). This again contributed to a lesser strain of the muscles in the thighs and the lower back which were not forced to lift the abnormal weight of the boot; I felt this especially when going uphill
- The strain which now, with hindsight, I realise my muscles experience when walking in boots was replaced by a gentle internal massage; the pelvis gently rocking from side to side in sync with the swinging leg
- The ankle was clearly ‘not supported’ (as in a specialised mountain-walking shop you would be told with a frown), and I felt every single stone under the sole of my feet. However, because of this, I was ten times more careful and fully aware of where I was putting my foot, always making sure it landed lightly and – consequently – without shock to the joints.
The beauty of all this is that it was completely effortless: I was unconsciously more aware, unconsciously lighter on my feet and unconsciously careful to choose precisely the right spot where to land my foot. I felt light and I could have walked forever. There was no need to apply any ‘technique’ but it just happened. All I did was observe it.
Watching Andy in his heavy hi-top walking boots was interesting too:
- Going downhill, he was throwing his swinging leg forward and landing it heavily on whatever happened to be there - the walking boot then was essential for him in order to absorb the shock in the joints, while the foot and ankle were doing barely any work
- Going uphill, he was pulling his heavy leg up each stone and step, contracting the thigh and the lower back muscles.
Obviously walking in barefoot shoes means sacrificing speed; you are a lot slower and your companions will notice it!
I won’t linger then on how unnoticeable it was to slip out of the light shoes at the end of the day, or on the lack of drama in having to put them back on the next morning (unlike Andy)! Admittedly, the soles of the feet were a bit sore for the first couple of days, but soon the skin hardened and it was fine.
On the whole, I can summarize the entire experience just by saying that for the first time I felt the body having its own intelligence; I just needed to let it work and do its stuff, and trust that this would have been the right thing to do, which it turned out to be.
One last observation, but this is very much blue-sky thinking: perhaps tarmac roads are wrong for us too. The beauty of trekking in barefoot shoes for me came ultimately from the different types of motion the terrain was forcing on me; I felt that it was this variety to prevent any strain due to unnatural repetition, as well as giving me the lovely sense of massage through the fascia and the muscles. Of course I can control the shoes I wear, I cannot control what verges and roads are made of!
Finally, a couple of ‘must reads’ if you are interested in the subject:
- Christopher McDougal - Born to run (2010) (in my top 5 books list)
- James Earls - Born to walk (2014) which I haven’t finished reading yet, but so far very interesting indeed!