Sand between your toes on the beach, soft dew drops on the grass in the morning… Walking barefoot is wonderful in nature, but it’s not something you’d do in the streets. Anne Wesseling tried it anyway and got to know the city in a whole new way: through the soles of her feet.
The banks of the river IJ are covered with diamond plate, its small metal scallops sticking up. It’s a kind of anti-slip paving. I put my foot on gingerly. It looks like it might hurt…. Right? No, it’s not too bad. I can feel the ridges but I can walk on them, carefully, step by step. It makes my feet tingle a bit. It feels funny, really. Half an hour ago Ruth Langemeijer, a natural & barefoot running coach, gave me a mini session at the climbing gym in Amsterdam, explaining exactly what the best walking technique is if you want to go barefoot. ‘Pull, don’t push.’ Don’t land on your heel too hard, as you would in shoes with bouncy soles. Don’t push your body up from your feet or roll down your feet, but walk from the hips: lift your leg and set the foot down again gently. The pressure should be on the side of your foot. Let your heels carry your body weight as your big toes push into the ground for balance.
I walk around uncomfortably. Your steps become smaller automatically when you put your whole foot on the ground instead of just your heel. You can also hear the difference: it’s no longer thud, thud, thud, it’s a lot quieter. You walk with a straighter back almost naturally, but what strikes me most out in the street is the overwhelming number of impressions that the soles of my feet send up to my brain. We cross the pedestrian bridge towards Muziekgebouw. It’s covered in soft rubber, the kind of tiles they use in playgrounds. At the entrance there are smooth wooden planks with iron ridges, a fascinating combination of pleasant and nasty. ‘I can feel so much!’ I say to Ruth. She nods. She’s used to it. But going through town barefoot for the first time, it’s like having worn sunglasses for years and then suddenly seeing the world fully lit: it’s a whole extra added sense.
I look around me, but all the other people here have shoes on. Those ridges, the warm stones, the structure – can’t they feel any of that?
Walking barefoot puts you in mind of sandy beaches, vacation, freedom and bliss, contact with the earth, and all of that. Walk along the beach with the sand between your toes. Saunter in the grass barefoot, to feel grounded. But who would go out into the streets with no shoes on? Well, Ruth Langemeijer does. She was introduced to barefoot walking about six years ago, just after her doctor had told her that her serious sports injuries meant she had to give up endurance sports (‘a total disaster’). Just then she won a workshop barefoot running. ‘At first I wore those Vibram FiveFingers, shoes with separate toes, but I thought it looked absurd. I had walked in cowboy boots all my life, and now this.” After two sessions she ran five kilometres in her bare feet, with no pain. After six months she ran a marathon. She couldn’t understand it, read the book Born to Run (see box on page 94), started reading up on barefoot running and well, long story short: now she gives workshops and trainings. And she goes around barefoot in all seasons, not just when she runs, but also when she goes shopping and everything.
“If you always wear shoes with heels and cushioning, and you support the arches of your feet with insoles, your feet get lazy and the foundation becomes weak. A foot is such a wonderful system; all the bones, muscles and tendons work together. Your metatarsi, ankles, knees, hips and lower back act as shock absorbers, your tendons are a kind of elastic bands. People are natural runners. But if you walk in modern shoes, you don’t use that natural suspension. If you always set your heel down first, your body actually gets a shock with every step.” That was my experience too when a few months ago I bought a pair of minimal shoes out of curiosity. It feels like you’re barefoot. I went to Ruth for a reason: I felt I was walking very awkwardly in those shoes. But now I understand that’s normal. “All beginners stamp their feet at first.” I observe how Ruth walks: firmly, effortlessly, elegantly. The woman who wore cowboy boots all her life now walks like Pocahontas. And she has another tip for me: “Try putting your bare foot on a sheet of paper and draw the contour with a felt pen. Then put your shoe on that. 90% of the time you’ll find that the shoe is actually too small.” Tell me about it. I have wide feet. My toes are always squished.
The sense I talked about in the beginning has a name: proprioception. It’s your observation of yourself, your sense of where you are. It’s the sense that allows you to touch your nose with your eyes closed, but also to automatically set your foot down in such a way that you don’t crash your weight into the ground. I think all the information your feet give you contributes to that enormously. It’s not just that your toes become more flexible and your feet become stronger, but also that this sense develops and grows.
It’s hard to put into words, but after a while you notice it in the way your feet automatically correct things. They respond to where you walk, and sometimes it feels like they’re doing their own thing. You suddenly find yourself standing on pebbles instead of on smooth flagstones, and you won’t know why you went over there, but it feels like a free foot massage between times. My feet let themselves be gently tickled by tree roots and grass. When they sense something with an uneven, rough surface, they want to go there to feel it. And at the park they try not to make the gravel crunch, just for fun. They’re even looking forward to snow already. And I let them go, my feet, as often as possible. Because the world is so much more fun when you use this sense. It really makes you lighter on your feet.
Want to read more? This article is part of our issue 20, 2020 ‘Take Your Time’.
Text: Anne Wesseling