On Callouses and Barefooting

I’m currently enjoying a few days to myself on the Oregon Coast. Being back on the beach reminds me of my MovNat trip to Costa Rica, partly because even though it was over two months ago, the beach sand abrasions are still fresh on my mind. But I headed down to the beach this morning for some mobility movements, balancing, jumping, and log wrestling, and once I got there, I couldn’t wait to take my shoes off. My feet must be free!

I encountered soft sand, firmer sand, pebbly sand, old logs, dry dune grass, and various shells, stones, and twigs underfoot. And it reminded me of how when I talk about barefooting, people inevitably always say, “I’d have to build up my callouses first.”

Folks? Tell me now, tell me straight. Do these look like the heavily calloused hooves you’d expect from a barefooter?

My bare feet.Never you mind those sturdy ankles…

No, those smooth, sand-exfoliated feet are not the image people have in their minds of what a barefooter’s feet look like. And I’m going to explain why.

It has nothing to do with callouses. How do I know? Let’s think about this.

In order for a callous to develop somewhere, what has to happen first? A message to your brain must get sent that something is occurring over and over again. All a callous is is your body’s response to a stimulus. How else would your skin know to toughen up? The nerves in your feet send a message to your brain and your brain responds because it wants to help you do what you’re telling it you want to do.

If you wimp out and stop doing something new, something scary or hard or risky, then you won’t progress. This is true of any physical pursuit, whether we’re talking about push-ups, pull-ups, running, or whatever. Of course we all have limitations. For example, I will never be a great distance runner. But can I be a “better” runner? Faster? Safer? More engaged, awake, alive runner? YES.

In those initial scary moments of trying something new and challenging, your brain will try to make you stop. It will whine, “I’m not comfortable.” It’s smart. It wants to keep you safe and happy. But there is such a thing as too safe and so happy that you slide into complacency and are no longer happy but you just don’t know it yet.

An elk's hoofprints next to my bare footprints.

An elk’s hoofprints next to my bare footprints.

Often we believe that success in physical endeavors has to do with physical preparedness and ability. This is partly true. But what we’re really talking about is that your brain has gotten the message that what you’re doing is okay. You have to lay the physical groundwork to get your brain to relax into whatever you want to do. If you’ve never rock climbed before, your brain will freak the eff out because it can’t trust that your grip strength is good enough. If you try a maneuver and your body isn’t strong enough to handle it, your brain will tell you because it doesn’t want you injured. When injury happens, it’s because we ain’t listening.

In MovNat, we talk about the risk vs. danger ratio. I’ll give you their definitions:

Risk — The chance that you are unsuccessful in the completion of a particular physical action and potentially exposed to danger. Risk mostly depends on individual competence, as well as physical and mental state at the moment when the physical action is performed.

Danger — The physical danger that is present if a given risk occurs.

So for example, walking across a 2-foot wide beam on the ground presents almost no risk or danger. Walking across that same beam 20 feet above the ground has added some danger, but not as much risk because most of us could still walk comfortably across it if we needed to. Make that beam 4 inches wide and 20 feet above the ground, and now you’ve got a recipe for risk and danger.

In order to progress, you have to nudge these boundaries. Recently, I was doing my usual MovNatty thing in a local park. I decided the time was right to bear crawl across the railing, about 6 inches wide, of a bridge set 15 feet over the creek. And I was right. My brain was able to handle the challenge, but I was still exhilarated when I got to the other side, the sweet spot of being ready to push your limits.

And so it is with being barefoot for running and workouts. Just. Keep. Doing it. I promise it will work out in the end. There is no secret, there are no callouses. Believing you need something special before getting started is simply an obstacle we put before ourselves.

Start with baby steps, be responsible—but keep pushing! When you hear your brain resisting, tell it, “Yes.” And it will say, “Are you sure?” And then you’ll keep doing it, in essence telling your brain, “Yes, this is what I want to do.” And it’ll say, “Okay! Just checking!” And then it will reward you by opening up into new possibilities.

There is simply no other way to learn. To progress. To live.

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  1. On Callouses and Barefooting | Paleo Digest - 06/21/2013

    […] Paleo Periodical / Posted on: June 21, 2013The Paleo Periodical – I’m currently enjoying a few days to myself on the Oregon Coast. Being back on the […]

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