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Barefoot walking: where should your foot strike?

by (7709) Updated August 15, 2013 at 4:41 PM Created June 15, 2010 at 5:53 PM

As I've gone through the questions related to barefooting, I've found a lot about barefoot running but not so much about barefoot walking. Everyone seems to concur that running should be fore/midfoot, but walking doesn't appear to have a consensus (though there appears to be some evidenece for heel-striking).

In October 09 I started either going barefoot or wearing moccasins with super-thin soles. This successfully cleared up some weak arch problems I've had since high school (win!). I also noticed that on just about any surface except grass or something manmade (and clean) walking heel first seems to be worse than forefooting. Placing the pad of my foot down gives me a chance to deload the leg if there's something sharp that I didn't see, whereas putting down my heel on a rock is much harder to recover from.

A really simple case is when I check the mail. It's maybe a hundred foot walk on asphalt. If I try to heel strike my way there, the little bits of gravel that I step on cause a ton of pain. If I forefoot strike my way there, stepping on a bit of gravel is much less painful, because I can adjust my foot before my weight gets there.

A more complicated case is a long hike. There I REALLY have to forefoot strike or else I might cut my foot open.

Since many barefooters have basically said, "Take off your shoes and your feet will teach you", I'm wondering why my feet are teaching me to fox-walk rather than heel-strike, if heel-striking is the most optimal way to walk.

So my question is: what is the best way to walk barefoot? What evidence do you use to support your argument? How do you go about recovering from the inevitable stepping on a rock heel-first? I'll upvote any well-supported and constructed argument regardless of what the argument is on this, since I'm not sure there necessarily is a right answer. :)

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17 Replies

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68 · June 17, 2010 at 2:36 AM

I think you might find the following article interesting:
http://tobyspeople.com/anthropik/2007/06/learning-to-walk/

It is quite a good quite nicely with solid physics, including an experimental test.

When your foot touches the ground, the force it experiences will be proportional its kinetic energy and inversely proportional to the stopping distance. From Newtonian mechanics:

Force = Energy / Distance

When you heel-strike, you try to stop you foot and body over a very short distance (only a few mm) and you often have to stop a lot of kinetic energy. When you fox walk, you stop your foot over a much longer distance (about 80mm). This leads to a much lower impact force on your foot. Stalking takes this even further by reducing the kinetic energy on impact, reducing impact force to almost nothing.

When you walk, you will naturally respond the the forces on your feet. When walking barefoot, you will naturally start to fox-walk after a while, correctly minimizing the impact to your foot. We tend to thing of heel-walking as correct because shoes (being somewhat restrictive) exert extra forces on our feet, causing us to settle into heel striking. This way of walking only works in shoes, and will eventually destroy them (this happens a lot with running shoes).

You felt pain when heel-striking in the gravel because of the enormous impact forces, which our feet can't take on such a surface. You were quite correct to start fox-walking as it reduces the impact force to safe levels.

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1208 · June 15, 2010 at 10:58 PM

I have spent most of my time barefoot for the past 3 years (since my first son was born and I have transitioned from work outside the home), and wearing nothing other than FiveFingers or thin moccasins when I do need shoes. My observation is that where my foot strikes depends entirely on the type and speed of my gait; the faster I am going, the further forward my strike. For instance, when sprinting, my foot strikes at the front of my forefoot, and my heel never even touches the ground. When ambling slowly with toddlers, my heel will touch first, though very lightly. This feels natural to me, though I am sure that everyone is slightly different.

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10170 · June 15, 2010 at 7:53 PM

An interesting link on walking here:

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-02/uou-tco020310.php

I've done some very primitive research: looking on youtube for hunter-gatherers (or other barefoot people) and watching how they move. And sure, if you find footage where they run, it is mid/forefoot strike. But I've never seen footage of people walking with forefoot strike. Nor have I ever seen somebody do it when I was travelling in Africa (mainly youngsters though).

Again, this is 'primitive' research, but the link above seems to support it.

What I have noticed however, is the 'grace' (for lack of a better word) people walk with. And they tend to walk a narrow path.

Possibly the problems you encounter are related to senstivity of your sole. I've experienced the same thing. Now my feet/soles are used to things like gravel.

I'm really interested in seeing other responses to this interesting question.

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4059 · June 15, 2010 at 9:34 PM

I've found that I tend to walk midfoot in Vibrams, and definitely forefoot when barefoot. I find that it's a sole sensitivity thing. Although my feet are harder and stronger than they were, they're still plenty tender, and walking barefoot on gravel isn't comfortable.

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21258 · February 15, 2012 at 2:25 AM

I still slightly heel-strike regardless of what shoe I am wearing. However, I do seem to land mid-foot when all my weight is shifted.

A good way to "practice" the midfoot strike is to walk down stairs, as you naturally step toe-heel down steps...

I have noticed when hunting and stalking, that a midfoot strike is substantially quieter than a heel-toe strike. This is probably why you instinctively "tip-toe" when sneaking.

Also, I had forced myself to learn a more confident gait (long, striding steps with a pronounced heel-to-toe) as a young man as I felt it gave me confidence. Unlearning this has been a PITA, but short, choppy steps are much more "natural" when barefoot.

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15831 · June 15, 2010 at 6:10 PM

i actually thought foxwalking was the optimal way to walk, both when barefoot and not. I have been fozwalking while barefoot for the last month or so and it feels pretty good. Wonder if ive been on the wrong path. Heelstriking just seems so much more shocking or jarring to the leg and the body as a whole. The foxwalking seems to me to be more like using a shock absorber on a car. -ben

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273 · August 15, 2013 at 4:41 PM

Great Questions.

It's hard to find information on barefoot walking patterns, most of the information out there is about running and sprinting. I actually wrote a post about this. Check it out. It even has some evidence for support of the benefits for using a minimalist shoe for non running activities.

http://www.thebarefootgolfer.com/2013/04/29/barefoot-shoes-supporting-evidence-for-us-minimalist-shoe-advocates/

My walking pattern is a mid foot, slightly later strike. Where I then role the foot flat over to the big toe for the push off to the next step.

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55 · August 15, 2013 at 2:22 AM

From my personal experience (when barefoot or with vibrams), I tend to land on mid-foot when consciously restricting stride length.

I'm tall at 6.1-6.2 and have got accustomed to longer stride due to growing up with bigger heel-ed slippers and shoes and so I tend to have prominent heel-strike with longer strides.

Barefoot or vibrams have not changed this behavior with heel-strike but just that I tend to land lighter on the ground when heel-striking barefoot than when heel-striking with conventional shoes.

If we assume an average angle of 90* between the lower leg and the feet, then to avoid the heel first touching the ground we must obviously push forward our body and CoG (like the natural posture in running). But walking is usually casual and laid back with the leading leg in front of the body and at an angle to the ground, and so this seems to suggest that heel-strike is the natural behavior, unless our stride-lengths are small. Remember that humans evolved to walk on grass, sand or even hardened mud but never on concrete - so keep it slow when walking and heel-strike shouldn't matter.

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0 · August 15, 2013 at 1:18 AM

There is no right answer. From my experience of doing at least 2 miles of barefoot cross country walking every day for 3 years I find my footfall is entirely dependant on terrain and conditions. On soft woodland surfaces and aphsalt I generally use more of the sole of the foot. Rolling the foot from back to front. On more challenging surfaces such as sharp rocks, stream beds and loose gravel I tend to walk slower and use the balls of my feet. No matter how tough your feet may be and how used to barefoot you are a large stone in the arch of your foot is ouchy! Speed and awareness are just as important as footfall. I guess that I am saying that once you have passed the " tenderfoot" stage you naturally develop your technique. When I first started I must have looked rather comical because I had to consciously control each step. Now the transition between different surfaces has become instinctive and the change in walking styles automatic.

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10 · April 12, 2013 at 4:08 AM

hi im an osteopath with 15 years experience in biomechanics and 5 years special interest in barefoot. when you are walking you will explore the full length of the foot ie heel strike all the way to toe off from the great toe. this will shift to become a more midfoot/forefoot strike when running to load the achilles "spring" therefore using elastic recoil rather than muscular effort.

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40692 · April 11, 2013 at 11:09 PM

I walk with a rollstep. Not sure if that's natural or just years of marching band training that I haven't forgotten.

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0 · April 11, 2013 at 10:58 PM

Maybe it relates to how different people are built - the geometry of my legs and feet (forefoot equinus) require heels in shoes. Now that I know and have mostly unravelled, I am excited by the prospect of once again feeling grass beneath my feet, although it will have to be heels-up or it will all go to hell in a handbasket.

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5323 · August 15, 2012 at 3:05 AM

My answer, as a long time, actual barefoot walker (not barefoot shoes) - Neither.

There is no striking in barefoot walking. Its a "roll". From heel, round gently to forefoot. Thats why the heel is round IMO.

Its not exaggerated like shoe walking, or "clumpy", its an elegant gentle roll from heel to forefoot (kinda subtle actually)

When I brought my vivobarefoot neos, this was my one complaint : the heel is still square. I couldnt roll my heel like I was used to doing with true barefoot. The heels on barefoot shoes should be round like our actual heel IMO, for "barefoot" walking.

So this is something I have thought about a bit, noticed dramatically when I swtiched from not wearing shoes basically ever (even in winter, or on hard concreate, or gravel), to using the neos. They are absolutely great better than any other shoe ive owned, but no heel roll sadly...

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0 · August 15, 2012 at 1:10 AM

Forefoot walking requires more brain power. The brain must respond to many more sensors from the forefoot than the heel.

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0 · February 15, 2012 at 2:12 AM

I've been walking around in a pair of vibram five fingers for about a month now. I personally find it a lot more comfortable to land on the forefoot when walking. It seems nature to swing my foot more in the center of my body making my walking pattern much more slim, also making my foot land on the outside of my forefoot or midfoot and rolling towards the big toe then eventually letting my heel hit softly. I have been wondering if I was just so eager to learn to walk in the natural way that I would forefoot strike on purpose but in fact even during unconscious walking ill catch myself walking with a forefoot strike. This lets me know that my body likes it and it is probably easier on my body. I have back pain from a slip disk and a knee that is in pain but since wearing the vibrams I have had a lot less pain, witch backs up my opinion that walking with a forefoot strike is easier on the body. Putting aside my personal experience I have been watching a lot of videos on barefoot running for two or three months. I have noticed that after the runners stop running and they start to walk and talk about the vibrams or their techniques of running they still land on their forefoot. Witch I find interesting because they aren't thinking about their foot strike in that moment. Leading me to believe that a forefoot strike while walking is probably the proper most nature way to walk.

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592 · March 20, 2011 at 1:22 PM

I wore some really "good" New Balance athletic shoes in Hawaii to go walking a couple months ago. I live in Indiana and am used to FLAT roads. We walked up and down steep mountainous roads. After 8 miles my shins were killing me. I could not wear flip flops or any shoe without intense pain. I switched to my Vibrams and a forefront strike...The pain was GONE. I climbed a volcano, and hiked to a water fall the same day. No pain. I land on the outer edge of my foot and then my foot rolls in toward the instep, naturally. If I tried to switch back to the New balance or flip flops, the pain was intense again. Barefoot felt fine.

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376 · June 15, 2010 at 7:40 PM

You're right, there isn't a concrete answer that works universally work for everyone; it's arbitrary. In my experience walking with a forefoot strike led to a strained achilles tendon, so I had to adjust accordingly. Maybe it's because I have size 13 feet, maybe it isn't. The most important thing is you stay aware of what your body is telling you, and that you continue to experiment until you find what suits your individual needs best.

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