February 14, 2023 Comments Off on Foot conditioning
Winter is a time when everything gets out of shape, especially my feet. In summer they are rough and callused. I can walk most anywhere, and do. Last summer I did the bulk of a 16-mile hike unshod over rough terrain.
It doesn’t take long for foot fitness to go away, like any other fitness. The mDNA get instructions that no more extra foot skin is needed when you start wearing shoes and bam, the mDNA stops producing it. So now my feet are soft and tender and they hurt when I walk on sharp gravel. There is a lot of sharp gravel in the yard. It’s either a perfect training ground or hell.
Walking barefoot is great for your brain. It improves cognition and memory. It also improves sensory awareness of eyes and ears, especially eyes. When you are getting started with your calluses you can hear your brain analyzing everything beneath your feet. Is it sharp? Is it soft? Hard? Warm? Cold? Cool? Hot? Rough? Smooth? Spiky? Bendy? These are all crucial things your brain has to sort out as you walk barefoot.
As your brain catalogues things as pain-inducing or not, you then lose awareness of them. It’s synapse building-as-you-go.
Calluses don’t take away feeling. They protect the skin from cuts and punctures. Studies comparing the feet of flabby-footed Westerners with villagers who never wear shoes show that the villagers’ feet are every bit as sensitive as the flabby-footed folks. But the villagers’ feet aren’t damaged by walking, a novel idea, and the habitually barefoot have a much more sophisticated ability to discriminate between painful and non-painful sensations.
It’s almost as if people evolved to walk without shoes, almost.
Once you’ve spent the better part of a year walking shoeless, it doesn’t take long for the calluses to build back up. Like other kinds of fitness, having done it in the past makes it easier to do it in the future as long as too much time hasn’t gone by.
It is a very nice feeling, getting in touch with Mother Earth this way. You feel so much more, literally and figuratively, when your skin is in contact with the unpaved surface of the world. And since you stare at the ground a lot, you notice more. You notice little things fighting for life, just the same as you. Little flowers. Tiny shoots of green. Extra-tiny bugs scurrying here and there on important missions, just as important as yours.
We can learn a lot from bugs, none of whom wear shoes, and from dogs for that matter, who generally go bare-pawed. Snykes has extraordinary proprioception. He rarely misplaces a paw, and his rear paws never hit sharp things. How does he do that? His rear paws are behind him. Maybe he memorizes everything in front and then his brain calculates where his rear paws need to land to avoid the ouchies.
It has to be more complicated than it looks, and it looks darned complicated.
By the time April rolls around my calluses should be back, along with my foot muscles. I have told people that walking barefoot is easier than walking shod because in fact your foot muscles do all the work when you walk, not the calves/thighs/glutes. It seems counterintuitive but it isn’t. Your feet are evolved to make you walk with maximal efficiency, and barefoot walking builds up the arches, ankles, and the hundred-plus ligaments/tendons/muscles in the foot itself. The larger muscles in your leg evolved to stabilize and support the weight of the upper limbs and body.
Cover the foot up with a shoe and the foot muscles atrophy, and since they’re constricted and can’t flex, the work shifts to the bigger, less efficient muscles in the legs. Shoes are the reason that even runners can have fat feet with weak connective tissue. And people who don’t even run, like most cyclists and the population at large, simply have flabby and inert feet.
It takes a long time to build up your feet, but when they finally get strong they start to look fundamentally different. The muscles and tendons become pronounced and the foot itself gets skinny and elongated. Your arches start to raise and your toes splay out. And you find that you can walk so much farther with so much less effort.
We still have some cold, therefore shoe weather ahead, but spring foot training has begun.