Since I’ve been on the Mississippi Gulf Coast these last few months, I’ve hardly worn any shoes. The only shoes I do wear are my Okabashi flip-flops. The only time I wear them is when I have to walk on hot concrete and asphalt or go into a public spot, like a store or restaurant. This morning it occurred to me how much more aware I am of where I place my feet since I’ve been barefoot so much.
I was out for one of my beach runs, but I was on a stretch of the beach I hadn’t run on before. Some of the obstacles on this new stretch of beach were the same as on my usual stretch–dead marine animals, sharp bones, broken glass, reeds, the odd household item. Other obstacles were different–holes made by marine birds going after something tasty hiding in the sand, shifty spots and miniature cliffs in the sand, remnants of sand castles annihilated by their creators. I realized how running barefoot on a beach requires different levels of attention and proprioception. How profoundly does this impact the body? Can it affect mental health as well?
I have to use my eyes to see what’s way ahead of me. Am I heading toward the wet sand close to the water? Am I in the tracks of one of the ATVs or trucks that prowl the beach? What is that big object ahead? Whatever it is, I need to go around it.
I also have to use my eyes to see what I am about to step on. What’s a vinyl record album doing out here? Right, Katrina. Dead crabs, even the little ones, are sharp. Fish vertebrae and bones are extremely sharp too. Ok, don’t want to trip on that hole. What lives in it? What if it comes out? Seaweed, eeuuhh, slimy.
In between what my eyes see just in front of me and out in the distance is the changing landscape of sand textures. Wet sand is more firm, except where’s really loose. Dry sand is shifty, except where it’s packed down. Some areas slant at large degrees toward the waves. Other areas remain flat. Based on visual perception of the upcoming surface, my body prepares to make the necessary adjustments to stabilize itself.
What my eyes miss, my feet certainly do not. If am about to put my foot down on something potentially sharp, then my body shifts so I do not put the force of my full weight on it. The message from foot to brain is so quite and my body’s reaction so involuntary that I only realize what happened afterward.
My feet capture the attention of my whole body. When I think I might step on something unpleasant my gut tightens and I move more slowly. When I move through soft, cool sand, my shoulders relax and I move more playfully.
My run this morning has certainly peaked my curiosity. I want to see if there is any research on barefoot running and its affect on brain function, proprioception, or even stress management. Maybe the experts speaking at the New York City Barefoot Run on September 24 would have some insight.
If you are curious but not up for a full-on barefoot run, try going without shoes and socks, as you walk around your home. Notice what you can sense with your feet. How hard or soft is the surface? What temperature is it? Does it move as you put your weight on it? Then notice if this changes your attitude or what you think about.
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