While I was still wearing sandals like a fool. While I was still wearing sandals like a fool. While I was still wearing sandals like a fool. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

Indigenous tribesmen inspired me to go barefoot

While I was living in the Amazon, the Waorani showed me why shoes are overrated.

The Waorani indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest often go barefoot. I know that because I spent two weeks with them. After watching them easily make their way around the jungle without strapping rubber to their feet, I decided to try it out myself.

Dirt pressed up against my arches pleasantly, supporting my often uncomfortable flat feet. My skin stuck better to the ground than my hiking boots. I was much quieter barefoot; it was suddenly possible for me to go to the bathroom at night without creaking the floorboards and waking up my roommate. I ended up leaving my shoes in my luggage for most of the trip.

He must have been the happiest kid in the world.He must have been the happiest kid in the world. Probably because no one was making him put on shoes. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

It makes sense that I'd like being shoeless so much; human feet are designed for pressing against soft ground, rather than hard shoe soles. Going barefoot is a popular trend around the world – even professional athletes are trying it out. Israeli marathon runner Ran Pergamin told Israeli media that about 2,000 marathon runners in his country are now barefoot runners.

“Israelis are attracted to minimalist running because people here are taking sport seriously; they’re curious about the gear and equipment,” said Pergamin.

After I came back to New York, people were surprised to hear about my barefoot adventures.

"What if you'd stepped on a sharp stick?" they all asked as one.

Sure, it would have been possible for me to injure my feet. But I don't think it was as likely as people imagine, especially since I wasn't in a city full of pavement and broken glass.

In the jungle, I stepped on rocks and twigs without getting hurt, as did the Waorani, whose feet were tougher than mine thanks to years of practice. I even saw an old Waorani man quietly stalk and hunt a wild pig barefoot (both the man and the pig were barefoot).

My feet were covered in mud the whole time. The Waoranis' feet were totally clean. I did not understand.My feet were covered in mud the whole time. The Waoranis' feet were totally clean. I did not understand. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

Plus, going barefoot made me much less likely to fall over. When I first arrived in the jungle, I slipped and stumbled up a muddy path to the village. When I left, I took my shoes off and climbed easily down. Feet are just better at gripping the ground than shoes are. They're also much more flexible. They can feel the earth shift beneath them and respond accordingly. Shoes, by contrast, just don't have nerve endings.

A couple years ago, a group of scientists from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Ghent University in Belgium analyzed barefoot running. They reviewed 84 scientific journal articles on the subject.

“There are notable differences in gait and other parameters between barefoot and shod running,” wrote the authors. “Based on these findings, along with much anecdotal information, one could conclude that barefoot runners should have fewer injuries, better performance, or both."

She'd pick leaves, pull out the threads, dry them, dye them and turn them into baskets. She'd hold leaves down with her bare feet and pull out the threads to make baskets. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

The scientists said they didn't have enough evidence to make any sure statements on the matter, but concluded, "It seems that barefoot running may be an acceptable training method for athletes and coaches, as it may minimize the risks of injury.”

The jury may still be out when it comes to definitive conclusions on going barefoot. But next time you catch me walking down a grassy path in warm weather, you won't see shoes on my feet.

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