The Barefoot Debate: A Chiropractor & Elite Athlete Weighs In

The Barefoot DebateIf you’re reading this post and missed out on my previous first two posts on going barefoot, you can find them here: My Personal Barefoot Experiment (and how it changed my life) and Going Barefoot: A Physiotherapist’s Perspective. 

When I went searching for “Barefoot” answers, I wanted information from those who had walked the walk. What use was a journal article preaching the pro’s or con’s of going barefoot, if the author hadn’t even given it a whirl? So, as always I set me sights high. What I wanted was someone who had not only tried barefoot training, but had done so under a variety of different circumstances and levels of intensity. Looking back, it sounds like a lot to ask, but hey, shoot for the stars right? Well, as fate would have it, I got all that AND more, all rolled into one. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Dr. Zachary O’Brien, Chiropractor and AFL Footballer for the Brisbane Lions football club. Today he gives his verdict on going Barefoot. 

Do you wear Barefoot Shoes? If so, when?

I do all my running with the Brisbane Lions in a pair of Nike Free 3.0’s. I find that that is the perfect shoe for me at this stage of my training life, as my body wouldn’t be able to handle running 30kms a week in a shoe like the Vivo Barefoot Shoes. This is due to the type and intensity of training.

I complete my weights and recovery walks in a pair of Vivo Barefoot shoes.

Warm downs are always done bare feet, it is a great injury prevention initiative that has been brought in by the strength and conditioning staff at the Brisbane Lions.

Walking around casually I will always wear thongs or my Nike Free 3.0.

The only occasion I will wear a stiff soled shoe is when I have to be dressed nice for an event like a wedding or birthday. 

In your opinion, what are the benefits of going barefoot? 

There are lots of benefits however, I have listed the benefits familiar to me below: 

  • Improves the structure of your feet and coincidently, your body posture. 
  • Improves the feet’s ability to splay the toes. This is closer to our natural state. 
  • Increases the strength and flexibility of the foot and ankle joints
  • Improves the proprioception (Proprioception is the process by which the body can vary muscle contraction in immediate response to incoming information from external forces, i.e. your reaction time) of the foot and ankle joints.
  • Injury prevention
  • Improves cadence when running. Cadence is how often your feet touch the ground when walking, running, moving etc. 
  • Strengthens the intrinsic muscles in the feet 

If you do go barefoot/wear barefoot shoes, have you noticed any changes in the structure of your foot or in your athletic performance? 

  • Since wearing minimalist shoes I have notice my foot go from size 10 US to size 11.5 US. 
  • My Achilles has lengthened (my knee to wall has gone from 15cm to 20cm in the space of 1 year)
  • My arches have increased in size. Before wearing minimalist shoes my foot was really quiet flat.
  • My big toe flexibility has improved significantly.
  • Athletically it is hard to measure as I didn’t do any test pre and post running in minimalist shoes. I would definitely say it has improved my running technique. I feel I am lighter on my feet and my cadence has improved which increases my ability to run during a game of football. I think my speed and agility has improved slightly also due to been lighter on my feet.

Would you recommend Barefoot shoes? 

Yes I would however, the transition to barefoot shoes should be slow and safe.

I believe that the most common shoe can restrict the way our foot is naturally suppose to move. Especially those that don’t allow for any pronation. A little bit of pronation is vital whilst running because it allows our big toe to exert force which coincidently is where a lot of your power comes from when we run. Minimalist shoes aren’t as restrictive and allow your foot to move freer.

I wouldn’t recommend that any of my patients, who slightly pronate or have weak or flat feet to wear solid immovable soled shoes or orthotics for the rest of their lives. Why? Let me pose this question to you: What part of the body if injured or weak would you block and brace and not do any rehab for the rest of your life? None. In essence that is what an orthotic or solid immovable shoe is doing to your foot. It holds the foot in “neutral“ and restricts its natural movement. Over time this weakens the foot, and when it comes time to remove the ‘brace’ the foot cannot cope without it. The patient then becomes reliant on it. The foot should be treated like every other part of the body. Yes it may need to be braced for a small period of time but there should be rehab and strengthening exercises to go with it so the patient can walk free of orthotics and have strong healthy moving feet.

How would you suggest people ‘prepare’ for going barefoot? 

This is a great question and the answer is going to be different for everyone. The one thing I would recommend everyone that is going barefoot is to do it slowly. If you over do it to early the chance of injury increases.

This is the way I introduced my body to barefoot shoes and I would recommend this to anyone trying convert;

  • Exercises to strengthen the feet, i.e Drawing an imaginary alphabet with your big toe, picking up marbles and pens off the ground with your toes, picking paper up from the ground with your toes and walking on your tippy toes and heels.
  • Walking for 1 hour 3 times a week for 3 weeks to start with.
  • Once your body adapts to that try going for short low intensity runs 10mins 3 times a week for 2 weeks.
  • As long as your body is adapting with the change then you can increase the frequency and length of your runs.
  • Whilst converting there will be changes that take place i.e my anterior compartment and plantar fascia tightened up with the extra load. Therefore I had to decrease my time in bare feet and increase my body maintenance and use foam rollers and trigger balls to release these structures.
  • Seeking the advice of a professional to help you with transition can help you navigate through these changes. 

A huge thank you to Dr. Zachary O’Brien for taking the time to answer these questions. Whilst Dr. Zac is busy playing for the Brisbane Lions, he has taken a step back from practicing, but you can follow him on Instagram here. 

The information on this post represents the interviewee’s own views, shaped by their own research. It should not be construed as professional advice and is not intended to replace consultation with an appropriately qualified professional. I hope this website inspires you to do your own research and always ask questions.