The Barefoot Debate: A Chiropractor & Elite Athlete Weighs In Posted on February 11, 2015

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. 

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Written by Alyse Co-cliff

Alyse Co-cliff

Holistic health coach, author, speaker and passionate whole-foodie committed to helping others nourish their body from the inside out.
"It's all about simple and effective advice, coupled with real time solutions for the busy individual. Good health doesn't have to be hard work" Alyse x



10 thoughts on “The Barefoot Debate: A Chiropractor & Elite Athlete Weighs In

  1. Shaun

    Which of the above mentioned benefits have been supported by good quality research?

    There is more than one way to skin a cat. Posted shoes/foot orthoses work well for some people, minimalist shoes also work well for some people. I’m yet to see or hear of a type of shoe/running technique that works for everyone, and don’t expect to anytime soon.

    Regards,

    Shaun
    Podiatrist

  2. Alyse Post author

    Hi Shaun,

    Thanks for your comments. I totally agree with you re: ‘not one size fits all’. This blog series (and blog in general) is about discussing (and discussing only) the various options out there, especially those that some people may not be aware of.

    When it comes to presenting research articles, I am sure you will find a number of cases that prove and disprove any argument (especially in the field of health and wellbeing) and as such, this post was a mere discussion and reflection on the individuals personal journey. I hope this post inspires others to do their own research and always, always ask questions.

    If I were to reflect on my own personal journey, of which included appointments with two podiatrists; I found the real benefits came about when all health practitioners started working together to achieve the best result for the client (not strictly one way or another), effectively keeping an open mind. It was here, I developed some incredible relationships, felt empowered and really came into my own. I guess you could say it was health care at it’s very best.

    Thanks for taking the time to reply, I really do appreciate it. Alyse x

  3. Alex Willis

    It’s great to see your promoting this without any sort of evidence to back up your claims?

    The author commenting on orthotics putting the foot to neutral, has been dis-proven, it is not how they achieves its success.

    Vibram are being sued for millions of dollars for out making outrageous claims. You should be so careful.

  4. Alyse Post author

    Hi Alex,
    Thanks for your comments. Whilst we wait for Dr. Zachary O’Brien to reply to your comments, I wanted to let you know that the purpose of this series was in no way to provide a blanket approach to anyone and everyone, it was purely to discuss options that others may not have been aware of.
    Again, like anything in life (and in particular within the field of health and wellness), there will always be research proving and disproving one’s views. This post was merely a story of one’s own personal journey and opinion. As always this blog and blog posts are designed to inspire others to do your their own research and always, always ask questions.
    Thanks for taking the time to reply. Alyse x

  5. Jared MacBride

    Question for Dr. O’Brien:

    Would your recommendations, especially about the exercises to prepare one for going barefoot, be any different for a person 50+?

    Thank you.

  6. Zac O'Brien

    Hey Ben, I wear Adidas boots. Mainly the Predators and the Adipures as i find them to be beneficial for my feet. 🙂

  7. Zac

    Hey Jared! thanks for the question, it’s never to late to start mate. Just be really aware of your body and how you are pulling up from the transition. If you over do it to early the chance of injury increases no matter your age.
    I hope this helps! goodluck

  8. Zac

    Hey Shaun, thanks for your feedback. This article was written based on my journey. I mention the benefits minimalist shoes have had on my professional career to date. Your right everybody is different, this is a technique that has worked for me.
    Thanks Zac

  9. Zac

    Alex! Thanks for your feedback mate. The response is going to be pretty similar to the one i gave Shaun and that is the article was based on my experience with minimalist shoes. Everyone is different so what works for me might not work for others. Minimalist shoes are great for me from a strength, movement and recovery aspect and that is the main reason i wear them.
    Thanks Zac

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