I've been getting increasingly daring about going barefoot on trails and streets. Yesterday I took a long barefoot walk on some dirt trails in a city park, and though I saw some small glass shards here and there decided to keep going sans sandals. Should I trust that my sense of touch and reflexes can help me avoid these things most of the time? Or, should I maintain a healthy fear of sharp objects like glass and nails, and still opt for the Vibrams when the purity of the terrain is in question?
Go for it--city or country. It took me nearly a year to gather the courage to go barefoot in NYC, and what helped put me over was a talk by Barefoot Ken Bob, then meeting Petur at MovNat, who goes everywhere barefoot in Iceland, as well as when he is in NYC.
Contrary to popular belief, there is a real dearth of used syringes lying on NYC streets. There is plenty of broken glass, but unless you've got a really bad running gait (difficult when barefoot!), you will land on it without any "sliding" action, then be on your merry way. With really tiny bits of glass, I think I've gotten 1-2 of these in dozens of miles walked/run, but I pulled them out with no bleeding and kept on keeping on.
I would save the pure barefoot for more wild areas. There are worse things than glass in a city or near a city, like used syringes for example.
If you really want advice about going barefoot, you might want to ask people who actually do it. Barefoot Runner's Society. Barefoot Ken Bob. Barefoot Ted's huarache Google Group.
The fear of glass, etc. is way, way overblown. There are people who regularly run barefoot in New York City, among other major metropolitan areas. There are people who run ultramarathons barefoot.
Yes, you do need to look at the ground and pay attention to where you are going. After your feet become leathery, you don't particularly even feel grass. I have one friend who just stepped on a piece of barbed wire and it didn't even puncture his skin. (This takes time, mind you, if you've worn shoes all your life.)
If you want to be barefoot, the risks are certainly no greater than being shod and may be far fewer.
My $0.02, I would never go barefoot in an urban area, not just for the glass and sharp objects, but the industrial grime and pollution. The idea of pounding the waste from thousands of cars, millions of people, pets, cigarettes, buildings, etc. into the bottom of my feet is pretty gross. Then the idea of getting a cut on my foot with all of that junk on there thus admitting it to my bloodstream is somewhat terrifying,
I totally get the barefoot thing and when in safer areas I always try to go sans shoes, and enjoy toughening up my feet and going au naturale. However, human feet weren't designed to handle the worst of New York City's streets.
While you are more likely to avoid sharp/dangerous objects by virtue of the fact that you have more sensation barefoot (think of how quickly most of us react if we step on something sharp or even unusual) it isn't really worth in artificial settings where broken glass, nails, and other unnatural and dangerous objects are common place.
An infected foot doesn't seem worth it in my opinion, and I would recommend a pair of vibrams or some other barefoot-style footwear for city walking, running, etc.
Of course, if you find some nice natural areas (parks, trails, creeks, etc.) and want to go barefoot, I say go for it. If we look at things from an evolutionary perspective, we should be more than capable of avoiding injury from roots, rocks, pinecones, and other natural objects, especially with practice, adaptation (i.e. callouses), and awareness.
I would say it makes a major difference whether you are walking or running. Walking you can usually see soon enough what is in front of you in order to avoid stepping on it but in running it's a little tougher to adjust in time. That said, if you are walking (and not being totally preoccupied by something or someone), then I don't see why it should be a problem. You can just as easily puncture your skin on a sharp branch, root or piece of gravel as on a nail or glass and the result is the same.
I walk barefoot now whenever possible on all types of terrain and I have never had a problem (except on some blacktop/concrete - this IS Florida in the summer after all). Last night I saw a broken bottle on the sidewalk and just stopped to pick up the pieces before some kid or dog could step on it. I mean, realistically, do you really think you are going to step directly on a syringe on the ground?
I think some of this is still a reaction to old conditioning that says, "nature good, nature clean - city bad, city dirty". Frankly, I might worry a little more about hookworms, etc., in the soil along that trail than glass on the sidewalk. (And in my case, I have to watch out for dog AND goose poo where I walk most. LOL)
(EDIT) And just as a side note, going barefoot as much as possible (probably 90%) over the last month has made a HUGE difference in the pain from my severe knee osteoarthritis. That right there has made me a believer. VFFs don't fit me right, that "rocker" ridge behind the toes on the Merrells drove me nuts AND they didn't allow my toes to spread properly. I do wear Invisible Shoe huaraches when I am required to wear something because they are the least confining thing I can find that satisfies the occasional need.
I do not trust modern man! I LOVE LOVE LOVE my Merrell Trail Gloves. They are like the five fingers, only without the funny toes.
I loved them so much I bought a pair of Merrell Tough Gloves. They have a casual shoe appearance that lets me go "barefoot" no matter what I am wearing.
Follow-up story: I was out a couple of days ago in the woods playing a game where we try to hop from boulder to boulder without touching the ground. We were a few feet from a trail that led to a tourist site frequented by a lot of random folks. I leaped onto a rock and my foot came down HARD directly on a broken bottle base, sharp edges up, that had been hidden by a low leafy branch. Yikes! fortunately I was wearing VFFs which were uncompromised, unpoked, unperturbed. Don't think I would have been up for these antics in bare feet yet anyway (it was a very slippery day) but was very glad to be wearing foot protection at that moment.
Moral to the story is I guess to wear the VFFs if you're too dumb to look where you leap... :)
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