Lee Saxbee is the world’s leading expert on barefoot running and founder of the ‘Functional Foot Map’. He’s a key figure in the natural/barefoot movement, compounding 25 years of biomechanics study, athletic training and evolution biology. He also spent around 15 years coaching barefoot running techniques. Best-selling author Christopher McDougall (“Born to run”) as well as barefoot professor Daniel E. Liebermann (Harvard University) were able to regain their natural athletic abilities through Lee’s coaching. Currently Lee works closely together with functional footwear brand Joe Nimble.

I personally started barefoot running long after the hype of McDougall’s book. Happily unaware of any risks that come with running without shoes, I’ve made almost every rookie mistake possible. Kicking things off with a barefoot running course, I quickly found my enthusiasm for running back after almost 30 years not running. Making a transition to minimal footwear made me ramp up distances in preparation for a 51k ultra in the Swiss mountains.

Barefoot Running is NOT for Everyone

Until recently my idea of barefoot running was to keep putting in the effort and practice to improve natural form, little did I know that proper ‘hardware’ is of equal importance to keep things running smoothly. Going barefoot can do great things for posture and performance but only if foot function hasn’t been compromised too much. Assessment of the hardware is often times overlooked so people end up hurt or injured. Thanks to our new certification as Functional Foot Map practitioner, we can now opt for a more sensible approach to going barefoot. Here are some key learnings from our training with Lee Saxbee.

“You can run like a hunter-gatherer,
if you have a foot like a hunter-gatherer.”
Lee Saxbee

Lee Saxbee: “Start from biology, not beliefs”

There are a lot of misconceptions about barefoot running. Most come from opposing beliefs instead of looking at biology. After a steep rise in popularity starting around 2010, the barefoot running trend died down only a few years later. Why? Because a lot of people got injured! Turns out just taking off your shoes and reading a book won’t make you a Tarahumara. If you’ve worn restrictive shoes all your life, chances are your foot function has been compromised. Majority of shoes focus on fancy looks, molding your foot into shoe-shape, whilst ruining your foot-shape.

Based on evolutionary theory and the principles of ‘biological design’, the structure and form of the human foot should reflect the mechanical and energetic requirements placed upon it, and the compromise between its ‘static’ role (standing and squatting) and its ‘dynamic’ role (walking, running and jumping). In other words if you’ve lost your natural foot-shape your foot cannot function like a foot should. Since your feet are your base of support, any change in their structure/position will lead to changes in posture and can cause movement related pain.

Form follows function

Studies that compared habitually-unshod with habitually-shod populations consistently show wider feet (particularly at the front) in unshod populations. Habitually-barefoot populations also demonstrate the benefits of a wide base of support in the form of more uniform distribution of pressure through the entire plantar surface during walking, and reduced peak pressure and pressure-time integral under the forefoot in running.

The function of the big toe, the hallux, is of special importance. The hallux controls and directs the path of the body weight in the sagittal plane. When it’s unable to function properly (i.e. hallux valgus) motions transfer into the transverse and frontal planes, possibly leading to pain and compensation patterns in other parts of the body. The knee joint in particular might be at risk, given its small capacity for non-sagittal-plane movement.

Footwear and foot function

From an evolutionary perspective, footwear makes sense, given the range of environments in which we live nowadays. However, the mechanics and evolution of the foot dictate that footwear should be anatomically shaped to allow natural-hallux position and function, and also be flat and flexible enough to allow free movement of the foot and toes during locomotion.

Shoe shape versus foot shape in functional footwear ©Lee Saxbee & Dr. Mick Wilkinson

Habitual use of restricting footwear from early childhood has shown to influence the shape, and therefore the function of the foot. As more and more shoe brands neglect function completely in favor of looks, one might wonder if we are all just practicing a variation on the ancient art of Chinese foot binding. Unfortunately, highly cushioned, narrow, stiff-soled and toe-sprung trainers/running shoes are just as bad for foot structure and function as Manolo Blahniks are. In many cases metatarsal heads will form a rounded forefoot structure instead of being flat. As a result the foot becomes unstable on level grounds and can easily be rocked sideways (pronation, supination).

Luckily frequent barefoot walking can help to preserve natural foot function. But when the environment does not allow for barefoot movement, footwear should be worn that protects the foot from injury. What we’re looking for are unrestrictive shoes, enabling the foot to function as much as possible as it were completely barefoot.

Lee Saxbee on a Functional Foot, Hardware and Software

Lee Saxbee Functional Foot Map ©www.thesole.showSo what is a functional foot? It’s a foot that operates as designed and is ‘fit for purpose’. It should provide stability, shock absorption, propulsion and sensory roles. In an upright biped, the purpose of the foot is to support and control the direction of the body weight as it falls forwards during the stance phase of locomotion. With this and fundamental physics in mind, a larger base of support, that is widest at the front, would serve its purpose best.

Of course we have to look at the whole person to asses proper functioning of the feet. A quick scan of certain physical characteristics like height and weight, movement history, range of motion combined with a footprint-check can provide detailed information of the hardware status (your feet) and effectiveness of a software update (brain/sensory training and exercises).

Most feet should probably not be running a software update based on going barefoot all day everyday. Reason is majority of people have mistreated their feet almost all their life. It is key to know when to stimulate the sensory input and when to ease off. The amount of stimulation will be different for everyone in order for it to be helpful.

Restoring foot health

Now you know footwear can be destructive or restorative to foot function. Barefoot and minimal shoes are good for you as long as they’re a functional fit. The level of functionality depends on the current form of your feet and footwear history. As there are non-negotiable and negotiable parts in functional shoes, it’s the same with exercises that promote foot health. Before training intrinsic-foot musculature we need to assess foot shape, pressure points and possible malalignment first, then we can apply training and technique.