Q8: Should I walk differently when barefoot?
No, not necessarily. But it kind of depends.
Normally, the way humans walk is, one foot or the other is always in contact with the ground (unlike running, when both feet are completely off the ground between each step), with the most natural and efficient way to move forward being an initial heel contact, with an immediate roll forward of the body weight to the front part of the foot just prior to stepping down with the other foot. This is sometimes referred to as a “heel strike,” though the word “strike” is a little misleading, since the contact is usually not hard or forceful when barefoot.
In spite of what we may have read or heard from other sources about how someone is “supposed to” walk barefoot, initial contact with the heel is the most natural and efficient way for a human to walk, based on the way the human foot is designed. This natural gait follows the basic plantigrade design of the human foot, which involves using the whole foot – heel to toes – when walking (as opposed to the digitigrade foot design of many animals, such as dogs and cats, who walk touching only the front part of their feet).
Additional information about that can be found in the Wikipedia article on “Comparative Foot Morphology.” Scroll down to “Human foot.” Additionally, more specific information about plantigrade walking can be found in the article “Plantigrade.”
With that said, however, we should also keep in mind that the human foot is very versatile and was not necessarily meant to always walk or make initial contact in exactly the same way at all times or on all surfaces or under all conditions. The foot was designed for and is capable of making subtle adjustments to accommodate varying surfaces – which means that using other areas of the foot to make initial contact when stepping may be the most stable, as well as comfortable at various times. If the surface is rough or gravelly, or sloping, an initial contact with the forefoot (ball of foot) or a flatfooted step (both heel and forefoot touching down simultaneously) may be the most stable and comfortable way to step.
Most hiking trails, or other areas away from urban areas, are generally pretty rough, with rocks, gravel, roots, and various things that could be very uncomfortable for the tender sole of a relative beginner. The fact is, if our feet aren’t pretty tough and well conditioned, the most comfortable way to walk on rough ground with gravel, etc., is indeed to let our forefoot touch down first, and thus more easily absorb – kind of wrap around – any rough or sharp rocks we might be stepping on. It’s not the most efficient way to walk, based on how the human foot was designed – but in those circumstances, it’s the most comfortable way for most beginners, as well as for many experienced barefooters.
Another thing to keep in mind when walking barefoot is, always step down, never sliding or shuffling our feet on the ground or other surface. In that way, if we do happen to step on something uncomfortable or sharp, we have a much better chance of feeling it and avoiding it before we place our full weight down. Also, as that foot steps down, lift the back foot up completely off the ground before bringing it forward for the next step. In that way, it’s much less likely to get snagged or get a toe stubbed on some rock or root sticking up.
To summarize: Walking barefoot with a gentle heel initial contact on relatively smooth flat surfaces is the natural and most efficient way for humans to walk; walking barefoot with a forefoot initial contact or a flatfooted step on rough or uneven surfaces may be more comfortable and stable in some situations.