How To Walk, Barefoot Style!

When switching it out from conventional, overly cushioned and supportive footwear for a minimal shoe, most people need to make adjustments to their gait-- the way you walk.


In store we often give tips on gait adjustments based on our Katy Bowman books, personal experience, and other knowledgeable sources often brought up by customers. Now it's time to put these tips down on digital paper for everyone to access any time.


This post is inspired by a great video with simple tips for beginners from PT Keith Nunez on YouTube.


Heel Strike In Walking


It's easy in overly cushioned shoes to slam down on your heels when you land a step. This is encouraged by over-striding: when your steps cover too much ground you lose control of the landing. In minimal and barefoot shoes this will not be comfortable, and over the long term could lead to injury.


RES and LMT Lisa Flores pointed out to us recently another reason you might heel strike in conventional shoes: beyond just trying to walk faster, we subconsciously seek feedback from the ground for better navigation. When your shoes are masking groundfeel with cushioning, you need to walk harder to find that sensory information.


Of course in minimal shoes that have very little cushioning, crashing onto your heel on city sidewalks every step isn't going to feel good! So how do we adjust our gaits through transition to walk "properly"?


Stay in Control With Soft Steps


In everyday walking on flat ground, it's still natural for your heel to be the first point of contact with the ground. A shorter step will allow you to maintain control so that you're placing the heel down rather than slamming it.


Placing the heel down and then rolling through the rest of the foot smoothly allows the nervous system to use the sensory input you get through your thin and flexible minimal shoe soles to adjust as you land for any changes to the texture and incline of the ground.


Another way to think about walking with a shorter stride is that your step will land closer to your body's center of mass. You can use this mental cue to remind yourself while walking that the landing foot will touch the ground closer to underneath your body than before.


Gradually Increase your Duration


It takes time to get used to this new way of moving after decades of less sustainable styles of walking. From muscles and joints to neural patterns there are many changes occurring at once. Try practicing your intentionally barefoot style gait a little everyday and add duration as it starts to feel easier and natural.


This might look like wearing your new minimal shoes for a half hour of your daily walking and then wearing conventional shoes for the rest of your walking time that day to give your body rest, then over a few months increasing the minimal shoe portion of your day until it feels comfortable to wear them all day.


For others who are already wearing shoes that are almost minimal, such as pointy-toed flat shoes, you might wear your minimal shoes all day right away but practice walking by bringing your focus and attention to your movements over changing terrain. A daily walk in the park on grass (uneven and soft terrain) is usually the most accessible way to do this in the city.


In Order to Walk Well, You Have to Walk


For our time crunched folks, we recommend getting that walking time in as part of your existing habits, such as getting off a stop early in your commute. Carving out space in your life for walking in minimal shoes as a consistent part of your day will allow your gait to shift into a barefoot style of gait given time.


The time it takes to transition is different for everyone, ranging from weeks to months to years. Everyone has a unique starting point based on what you're used to and how you're already moving, and we all have different goals, too. Various stretches and exercises can be a part of your toolbox in progressing towards your goals, in addition to time walking in your minimal shoes. See a list of these at the bottom of this article.


As always, take transitioning to minimal shoes at your own pace and let us know if you have any questions. We may be able to answer ourselves, or give you directions to professional movement educators if that's more appropriate.


Running is Different!


A barefoot style of running is going to involve, on flat ground at least, your forefoot touching the ground first, like a sprinter. This is where we see the advice for "avoid heel strike" and "avoid landing on your heel at all" coming from: this common minimal and barefoot transition advice only applies to running.


Walking with a forefoot first strike like a ballet dancer is unnecessary in minimal shoes. This is also distinct from "toe-walking," which is a pathologized gait occurring in people with a variety of health conditions, and depending on the cause may improve with movement therapy or footwear that better aligns with the walker's sensory needs.


Terrain Changes Change Your Gait


Variety in terrain means variety in how you move. There are actually a few times when walking with a forefoot strike makes sense. It's normal to walk differently on uneven, rocky terrain compared to flat ground, and you probably know instinctively how to change up the way you move over different materials.


Walking through tall grass or water may mean picking your feet up a little higher. Walking on cobblestone will be different to walking on sand or sidewalk or mud or manicured grass. Walking with extra balance challenges (like using a fallen log to cross a stream) will change it up too. Walking on a hill will be different depending on the angle of the hill and which way you're going: up, down, or sideways.


You can get really technical here, but the important idea here is that when you add variety in terrain, let your body do its thing and adapt to those changes so that you're moving comfortably.


Takeaways and Transition Toolbox


If nothing else, keep these in mind:

  • Avoid pain and move comfortably
  • Try to use shorter, controlled steps
  • On flat ground, you don't need to land forefoot first
  • Allow your moving to adapt to different terrains
  • Time spent moving is good, and adding variety to how you're moving in that time is even better


Some great activities to enhance your transition:

  • Calf stretch every day! Any calf stretch you do every day is better than the ideal version once in a while, try for a minute per side. Foam half domes are great for your calf stretch and more!
  • Balancing Exercises: practice standing on one foot for a minute per side. Stand near a counter so you can catch yourself if you lose your balance. You can level this up with a foam half dome on its flat side or with the round side down for more challenge.
  • Pelvic Listing: An extension of your balancing exercise. Particularly helpful in learning sustainable ways of moving on hills.
  • Rolling your Feet: self massage using Yoga TuneUp Therapy Balls can help the tiny joints in your feet explore new positions by getting in those nooks and crannies.
  • Toe Yoga: try searching up toe exercises or toe yoga and choose one exercise to focus on to start with! Big toe adduction is a common place to start. Toe yoga helps the muscles of the feet get "smarter" as you increase your ability to control the movement of your feet volitionally, and stronger. Great for those looking to strengthen the arches.
  • Restore Hip Extension: better hip extension allows you to stay in control over your stride (bonus: unlock walking's butt strengthening potential). You can work on restoring hip extension with passive stretches like the Psoas Release, Iliacus Release, and Lunges from Move Your DNA.
  • Take the Pressure Off: hold your body weight closer to your heels rather than over your toes when standing by moving your pelvis back in space (taking your upper body with it). Practice taking the pressure off your forefoot whenever you remember, like when you're waiting in a queue.
  • Have Patience with your Body: it's never too late to start, and small improvements can have a big impact. When you mentally learn a new concept, that doesn't mean your body learns it right away. Give your body patience while you relearn walking, and if you're hungry for more mental learning, Katy has a whole roundup of walking and feet specific articles.