When barefooting becomes a virus

My original starting point as a barefoot runner and barefoot hiker has been explained in a previous post. The interesting part is that over the past year of barefoot life, barefooting is becoming like a virus, infecting my friends with the desire to start experiencing the same freedom and fun.

Hong Kong, a positive attitude to barefooting

It must be said that the generally positive attitude encountered on hiking trails when they see you barefooting in Hong Kong is quite encouraging. So far, I have yet to encounter a negative response to barefoot hiking or running.

Most of the accounts coming from Europe or the US talk about the social stigma associated with walking or being barefoot. In Hong Kong, on the contrary, and it is probably linked to the Chinese culture of reflexology, there is an acute awareness of the benefits of barefooting.

We were stopped by an older man (shod) who gave us a little pep talk which went like this:

We all know how good barefooting is for our health. Yet, very few of us go out of our comfort zone and do it”.

Old man on the trail

Those thoughts sum up the cringe or instinctive response to barefooting in a nutshell. When you dare go out of your comfort zone for the first time, everything else becomes so liberating.

This positive response, heard on the trails, plays as an encouragement and positive reinforcement for those who start barefooting.

Barefoot hike on Jat's incline.
Capture of our barefoot hike with Matthew on Jat’s incline.

When it transmits like a virus!

The fact that you are capable of barefooting along great distances can act as an incentive to friends who might take the step more easily. Often, people are scared of barefooting if they are alone (“comfort zone” again). When they are in a group, it becomes more “acceptable”, as the group shields the individual from directly facing the eyes of the others…

At any rate, the virus of barefooting has slowly transmitted to my friends.

We started first with Matthew, going out for barefoot runs together, then for barefoot hikes

Later, my other friend, Bailey, got also convinced to do a barefoot hiking, especially as he saw me targeting one after the other, the most challenging places such as Suicide Cliff, or Lantau Peak.

Hiking barefoot in group

So, in the end, we agreed to meet up and start a barefoot hike together, including his mother, Linda. Linda has been also barefoot hiking for quite a while and is an experienced barefooter. We chose to take the trail from Shatin to Kowloon peak, as it is an easy trail acceptable for a beginner.

Pro and beginner barefooters
Linda, the pro barefooter and Bailey, the beginner…

It was thus that on the path, Linda kept progressing at a quick rate, Bailey instead huffing and puffing, as the rough terrain was taking a toll on his unconditioned feet. Nevertheless, he managed to hike all the way without wearing his shoes!

Barefooting on the trails…

The beauty of hiking barefoot is that you can dip your feet in any small stream, or wet them to refresh them.

Fresh water on bare feet
Bailey and Linda enjoying fresh water on bare feet

The beauty of keeping fit

Incredibly, Linda showed us quite some feat of suppleness in her stretches during our hike. Thanks to her hard work, this lady keeps an incredible joint suppleness.

Maximum  stretch
Maximum barefoot stretch on Jat’s Incline!

This shows that barefooting certainly increases your tendon flexibility and ease of extension.


Stretching barefoot
Linda stretching in the middle of a barefoot hike

Running downhill

As you may know, I often run downhill Kowloon Peak, after a hike around the mountain. Lately, I started long runs around the mountain, which end up with a downhill run.

Most of the time, I try to take the Wong Tai Sin route to add some mileage to my runs. Sometimes, however, I take the “short” route and run down Jat’s Incline, which amounts to roughly 9 to 10 kms from doorstep to doorstep.

The road can be quite rough in places, so it was a bit of a stretch for Bailey to run down, but he and his mother managed to do it with a great smile!

Hiking barefoot and running down Kowloon Peak!

Barefooting alone is nice, doing it together is even better!

In the end, because we are a social animal, we tend to enjoy experiences in common more than alone… Communication and sharing the benefits of barefooting (without all the nonsense of “grounding”) may incite friends to join you on the trails. In Hong Kong and Asia, at least, barefooting can be done in a fun way.

Celebrating spring with two barefoot hikes

Since I came back from Canada, I slowly resumed my barefoot running. This week, I also resumed barefoot hiking. Ok, not in very challenging conditions, but I wanted to celebrate spring with two barefoot hikes. Right now; temperatures are very moderate (a high of 19° C), so a perfect time to undertake hiking. My first goal was to scale Tung Yeung Shan.

Tung Yeung Shan

Tung Yeung Shan is much less well known than its more illustrious neighbor, Kowloon peak, but it deserves interest all the same. Mainly known by Hongkongers, it offers a very lovely view on the Marina Cove of Sai Kung.

Getting there involves, for the first part, to pass in front of the entrance of the path to Suicide cliff and to choose to disregard it. You then continue on Fei Ngo Shan road, straight, until the road arrives to an embranchment towards a camping ground (just before a hairpin curve taking you to the Kowloon Peak observation point). That is where you turn right. You walk down, a few hundreds of meters and you can start to climb Tung Yeung Shan very easily, as the first half of the trail is made of stairs. The second part is rocky and involves some scrambling, but nothing really serious.

Barefooting a mountain

It goes without saying that I was barefoot from the start of my hike and of course, barefoot still on Tung Yeung Shan. Actually, when climbing, bare feet offer an excellent adherence to the nooks of the terrain. In my previous visit to this area, I had stopped after the first volley of stairs.

When going down, bare feet did not have issues. The terrain was also covered with leaves, hence making it a bit slippery. Nevertheless, with bare feet, adhesion was optimal (I know I would have been losing traction with shoes). I also encountered fellows from a Hong Kong Hiking Meetup. Comments were all appreciative (and several commented that it made feet strong!).

Tung Yeung Shan
Going down on Tung Yeung shan

Of course, I don’t only climb mountains for the sport now. I also drag around my drone, but it took some testing before I made it fly, as there was quite some strong winds up there in altitude.

Drone shots

I did say that Tung Yeung Shan has a marvelous viewpoint on Sai Kung. Well, here were three youngsters who were trying their best to get a selfie with the backdrop of Sai Kung. I did offer them their picture, of course, as it probably beated hands down their selfie stick pic.

Tung Yeung Shan
Three young Hongkongese take a selfie on the background of Sai Kung

I followed their example, and here is my dronie with Sai Kung in the background.

Dronie on Tung Yeung Shan
A dronie with Sai Kung in the background

Tung Yeung Shan offers a lovely viewpoint for a number of interesting landmarks, such as the Metereological observatory of Tate’s Cairn.

Tate's cairn
The meteorological observatory on Tate’s Cairn

Of course, the day after, I would go closer.

The return was unremarkable, except that instead of going the full circle around Kowloon Peak, I elected to go back down the same way I came.

After this hike, the feet were quite a bit tender (mainly because of the asphalt), but with some care, they were ready for the next adventure. In a way, the feet feel “oversollicited” nervously with a barefoot hike (and that’s maybe where it is different from barefoot running, as the interaction with the ground is quite different).

When leaving, I hqd the occasion of shooting an interesting encounter between a paraglider and a plane (obviously at very different altitudes).

Encounter in altitude
A plane encounters a paraglider near Tung Yeung Shan

 

Hike on Jat’s Incline

The following day, my feet having recovered, I decided to go on Jat’s incline (as my condo faces that road) and take a closer look to the Meteorological observatory. I decided to leave on sunset, and on the whole I did good time in climbing the three kilometers of Jat’s incline, until the viewing point.

It must be said that the roads leading to Jat’s incline are covered in stones mixed in the asphalt. They literally kill your feet when you are a beginner (about the same material was present in Shoushan national park). I am getting accustomed to this material, and so, on the return, I even jogged back down Jat’s Incline.

Jat's incline
Stones in the cement, on Jat’s incline.

 

My drone took off on a higher portion of the road, simply to give it as close a view of the observatory as possible. In the background, you can see the city of  Shatin, in the New Territories.

The meteorological observatory of Tate's Cairn in Sunset
The meteorological observatory of Tate’s Cairn in Sunset

I then went back down to the observation point, to shoot another set of pics. This viewpoint is a pretty famous spot for awaiting the sunset.

Viewpoint on Jat's incline
Many people drive to the viewpoint, just to admire the sunset.

This place also provided a safe operation area from which to launch the drone. And then, of course, the most fun part was probably taking another “dronie”.

Dronie on Jat's incline
A dronie on the viewpoint of Jat’s Incline

Later, I went down, on Shatin’s pass road, but I realized that the whole mountains, from Kowloon Peak to Shatin’s pass, were literally covered in electrical poles.

Shatin's pass road
In the distance, you can see how many electrical poles there are on the side of the mountain.

Of course, flying a drone over electric poles should never be done for two reasons. Firstly, in case of contact with the electric wires, you may cause a major incident knocking out power over a vast area. Secondly, the high-voltage electricity generates a magnetic field which may affect your gps and the internal compass of the drone, hence causing a loss of control (and a loss of the drone, obviously).

Running barefoot, a healthy activity

On the return, I did run down the mountain. Despite the ground being rough (as shown above), and the occasional stone in the darkness, it was a lovely experience. It goes also to show that barefoot running really does strengthen your feet on the long run. My feet don’t hurt and they feel rejuvenated the day after. For those who wonder if I have heavy calluses by now, the answer is negative. The skin is soft, and if my feet are always as sensitive (they will always be), but the mechanism of adaptation have changed as my feet automatically shift weight if they land on something painful. Sometimes a tiny pebble nestles in my feet, but I just need to brush it off.

A test with a positive conclusion

The goal in doing a barefoot hike two days consecutively was to test my adaptation and my resilience, and so far the result is positive. After having started to run barefoot a few months ago, the results have been quite positive on my overall form and strength. When hiking, not having rigid soles under your feet is an incredible advantage. When running, you cqn feel truly light running barefoot. Of course, in part, these were not really challenging hikes, as they mainly took place on asphalt, but it is still quite a climb upwards and a really fun moment.

 

Kowloon Peak barefoot!

While I often climb Kowloon peak and suicide cliff in particular, so far I always did it with hiking boots or trail running shoes. As a few weeks ago, I started running barefoot, I decided this time to run/hike to the top of Kowloon peak barefoot.

Barefoot on Kowloon peak
At the top, enjoying the magnificent view over Kowloon.

Why running barefoot?

Firstly a few words of explanation for what might seem an unconventional decision at first. I have had an ACL surgical reconstruction about one year ago (ruptured the ACL with karate). Rehabilitation has been overall good, except that I would continue having pain at the patella tendon when attempting to run with shoes. I had a period of barefoot running when I lived in Paris and was much younger (because shoes were hurting my toenails).

Here, as I was growing frustrated with being unable to revert to a more engaged fitness lifestyle, I decided to try running barefoot in the park in front of my apartment. Incredibly (but not astonishingly, given the biomechanics of barefoot running), I didn’t feel any pain in the knee. It is true that the running track in my park, is pretty absorbing and hence rather forgiving for the joints. It also helps that many parks in Hong Kong have reflexology paths.

After I started running barefoot, other areas of the body have improved too, from calves to ankles which have also been reinforced. I have, on average, covered around 5 kms per session, with about 1/2 hr running and feel much better physically. The feeling of freedom is also impressive. I added burpees and jumping jacks to my training routines, and, of course, do a lot of squats. On the other hand, the calves and ankles were extremely sollicited. As I took it nice and easy though, I did not suffer too much with those muscles.

The logical development was to attempt running on longer distances and a logical target was my favorite mountain, Kowloon Peak.

Kowloon Peak barefoot… but only on road!

The day before this hike, I took a stroll to the 10,000 Buddhas monastery with trail running shoes, and I emerged out of it, quite exhausted in my legs and feet. I was looking to release the tension.

Obviously, for a first time, I was not going to attempt suicide cliff barefoot, so I opted to take the road which climbs up to the Kowloon Peak observation point. Overall, the road is quite flat, but there are a lot of gravel in places, so it can be uncomfortable in places when running. As my cardio is not yet up to par, I walked on the steepest sections, but it was still lovely.

The level of sensory feedback from the feet is quite different. I am not a hippie and I am very far from the pseudo-naturalism of some barefoot running/hiking proponents or stories of “earthing”. Return to nature is not my cup of tea. Nevertheless, as far as I am concerned, it was a nice experience (try feeling the warm asphalt under your feet in autumn). Sometimes, you have to feel free to do things differently.

As for the impact on the body, strangely enough, the impact is much less than with shoes as long as you run with the forefront of your feet (and not landing on your heels). I must say I felt quite light on my feet (if you recall, had a pair of falls on my last hike, due to ankles buckling – but I was also carrying 15 kgs gear!).

 

Walking the line
Walking the line barefoot and feeling the warm floor beneath.

Views along the way

Kowloon Peak offers a number of interesting view points, especially on Sai Kung. On this period of the year, silver grass start showing, so that makes a quite lovely foreground for pictures. As I was focused on running, I did not take much photographic gear with me, using only my Iphone for these pics.

Silver fern
A lovely view of Sai Kung with silver fern in the foreground.

At the Kowloon peak observation platform, you can sometimes take some nice nostalgic pictures of onlookers while they embrace the view before them.

A lady looks on Sai Kung from the Kowloon peak observation point
Kowloon Peak observation point

 

Reactions from others

Of course, running/hiking barefoot is an activity a bit extreme/marginal, so you will inevitably elicit reactions from the people you cross (and God knows there are a LOT of hikers on Kowloon Peak on a Sunday!). Hongkongese are quite conservative re. footwear, but they are accustomed to walking barefoot at home. Some reactions are of surprise, others can inquire if you are ok (a lady asked me if I was ok, when she saw me walking barefoot). One older guy even gave me a thumbs up.

A smile and confident demeanor will solve those little situations. After all, you do what you like. Obviously, barefoot running is not for you if you cannot feel free to be “different”. It also requires quite some confidence in yourself.

Wild Encounters

Three wild boards
Wild boars forage on Jat’s Incline

I guess this passage will come across as cliché when it comes to running “close to nature”… But I did encounter some wild boars on Jat’s Incline. I stopped by to take a picture and then resumed running. While many accounts talk of the danger of these animals charging you, I left them alone and they didn’t care about me running past.

So, if you ever encounter wild boars, just give them a wild berth. In this case, it was three specimens with a juvenile. Trying to caress these animals, feeding them or getting too close might lead them to feel threatened and to charge, so please never try anything like that.

Hiking barefoot?

As I mentioned earlier, this time, I hiked/ran on a flat road. While there were inconveniences such as gravel and stones, it was not climbing up on suicide cliff in any way. I have not yet done something like that, as my main focus when hiking is safety.

However, from past hikes, I can confirm two points. Firstly, I did find that having hiking boots with a rigid sole was rather an inconvenience when hiking on a mountain. The lack of flexibility of the sole does not adapt well to climb on rough terrain. I do climb better with my trail running shoes which have a much more flexible sole, so I guess bare feet are even better. Secondly, I did see an older guy going down the suicide cliff route with flip-flops (which is more dangerous for tripping/slipping), so that seems feasible even if it sounds a bit crazy.

Finally, I live in a tropical country, where the floor is often populated by insects or other animals, and you certainly don’t want to be caught by a snake barefoot, but most of the time, snakes will just slither away, as long as you don’t walk on their tail.

So, the issue is still open to debate in my mind. I will certainly try hiking the Dragon’s back barefoot (I saw people tackling the trail in flip-flops) before taking on more challenging trails.

This brings me to my conclusion: never attempt to start hiking barefoot on trails that you don’t know! At the very least, you should have done a couple of reconnaissance hikes shod and should be aware of both, the terrain and the configuration of the hike. Finally, you MUST bring along some shoes/flip-flops and some first aid. This will help protect against mishaps or cross difficult passages.

 

Some more references on running/hiking barefoot:

For more about minimalistic running (no, I don’t advocate those Vibrams or other “minimalistic” shoes), here are a few resources:

Running World article on barefoot running (a measured view on the phenomenon)

Biomechanics of barefoot running

Sports science on barefoot running (a scientific study)

And as it is interesting to show both angles of a discussion, this article warning against barefoot running:

Why barefoot running isn’t best for most runners Quite obviously, barefoot running is not made for everyone, as it requires changing a lot in your posture and approach.

Finally, on the slightly different subject of barefoot hiking:

Should you hike barefoot An interesting nuanced approach to the question.

Pros and cons of hiking barefoot Another nuanced article.

Society for barefoot living And finally, to conclude this series a link to the website from the “Society for barefoot living” which features webinars with catchy titles such as “shoes: the silent killer”. Sorry, I couldn’t help but laugh at that one.

All about grounding And finally, to top it all, an article debunking that myth of “earthing”.