Saturday, December 24, 2016

An Interview with Barefoot Matt (Dahmen)

I am excited to share with you an interview with Matt Dahmen, a local farmer in the Colorado Springs area. Matt was years ahead of me in listening to his body and eschewing faulty belief-systems that are unfortunately still common today. I remember having many discussions with him as I started my transition to barefoot and minimalist footwear years ago. I had chronic foot and hip problems that did not resolve with years of conventional treatment. I wasn't looking for a cure-all but I felt that going more natural with my movement made sense. Matt became an excellent resource and was supportive of my journey. Some of the most powerful and influential stories that helped me were not from the medical field, they were from people without medical degrees taking control of their own health. So without further adieu, I hope you enjoy this interview!

Matt Dahmen

What was the impetus to start your barefoot journey?
Growing up I never really liked wearing shoes, as soon as I would get home from school and basically the majority of summer and weekends I was sans shoes. I made the decision to forego shoes and live barefoot in 2010. I had learned about the Paleo Diet and ancestral health movement and it just made sense to me, so I began implementing a lot of the practices into my life. During this time I started researching a lot about minimalist footwear, as I have never been a fan of shoes and I was also interested to see if going minimal or barefoot would help with some of the problems I had been experiencing with my feet. It dawned on me I am already barefoot a lot of time, so the transition wouldn’t be that difficult.

How did you get started?  
I was already wearing shoes infrequently leading up to when I chose to forego them entirely so I had unknowingly already started the transition into the barefoot and minimalist lifestyle. However to fully transition into being barefoot I had to do some work on building up the pads of my feet. I found that hiking a few hours several times per week on trails with varying surface textures such as sand, gravel, dirt, and solid rock helped thicken the callus pretty quickly. It also helped me develop a better ability to adapt to different terrains and exposed me to a large degree of different sensations I was missing in shoes. It also helped to greatly strengthen my feet.

A few years after I started I learned about CrossFit and was lucky enough to find a gym that didn’t have any qualms and was supportive of me training barefoot. Training in the gym has exposed my feet to a lot of movements I wasn’t experiencing prior. It has helped me with learning how to adjust the distribution of weight on my foot depending on the movement, how to balance better, how to store and release energy more efficiently, and also how to react very quickly to falling heavy objects. With all of the variety of movements I was doing in the gym in addition to on the trails my feet began to strength even more.

What did you notice change over time?
The most significant changes I experienced over time were the development of arches and the overall strengthening of my feet. Growing up I had “flat” feet or collapsed arches. Basically if my feet were wet the prints I would leave behind were of the entire bottom of my feet. I had “weak” ankles and would often roll or sprain, especially when wearing shoes. I also remember even having lower back pain in elementary school, which I now contribute along with my ankle problems to my lack of arches.

My feet have physically changed over time since going completely barefoot. I have noticed that in the development of arches my feet have actually shortened some. I used to wear a size 13 with little room to spare, but now on the occasion that I have to wear shoes I can comfortably wear a size 13 and even 12 in some brands.

Another noticeable change was the widening of my forefoot. I always had wide feet, I remember growing up I could never wear Nikes because they were too narrow, but now they are much wider. I now have space between all of my toes and my entire forefoot widens when pressure is applied.

In foregoing shoes my feet and ankles have become significantly stronger. Where before even walking relatively short distances would lead to foot pain I can now go miles and hours on end without any discomfort. I’ve always been clumsy and my balance was always off, but now I my ability to balance has increased immensely and though I am still really clumsy, my clumsiness no longer results in frequent injury.

Matt's feet at 7-yrs old.
Matt's feet at 22-yrs old.  Still flat as a pancake.

What did other people in your life think about your lack of shoe wearing?
I'm pretty weird in general and already wore shoes as infrequently as I could so when I told people I was no longer going to wear shoes at all (except when absolutely required) the people around me responded by either rolling their eyes or basically saying “that sounds about right”. For the most part my friends and family just added it my list of quirks. A few family members voiced concern that I would “mess up my feet not wearing shoes” or injure myself.

What's the hardest thing about going barefoot?
By far the biggest challenges I experienced going barefoot were how to protect my feet in winter and figuring out where and when I cannot be barefoot.

Matt cut his toe while hiking and fashions a quick bandaid. 

What do you do in the winter to protect your feet?
I have found over time my feet continue to become more adaptable to varying temperatures, both hot and cold. For the most part here in the Colorado Springs region we have relatively mild winter with occasional periods of subfreezing weather or snow, which usually melts in a day or two. So for the most part I remain barefoot all winter, but on the occasion that I am going to be in snow for a prolonged amount of time or exposed to bitterly cold temperatures I have found a pair of neoprene socks work great for protecting my feet. Basically it is a wetsuit for your feet, they protect against the cold and feel very minimalist. I have found them pretty inexpensively on for around $15. They hold up well when used in snow or on smoother surfaces such as concrete, but if you try to take them on a trail they wear through really fast.

How do you navigate public places (such as restaurants and stores) where you cannot be barefoot?
The good news is anywhere outside you can be barefoot. For places like restaurants and stores I usually keep a pair of easy to slip on footwear like sandals in my car. The only time this doesn't work is when I take the footwear out of my car and forget to put them back, then when I get to the store I have to drive home to get them. I've come to terms with the fact having to wear shoes for a short period of time isn't going to undo all of the benefits I have experienced.

I have found one can be barefoot the entire time one is in an airport. However, the last time I flew through Denver International a TSA officer told me they haven't cleaned the floors in the security area since 1974, which was before they even built the airport.

For work or any time I have to wear shoes for more than a few hours I have found a good pair of minimalist shoes with a wide toe box are best.

Are there any other times you will still wear shoes?
I recently took over my family’s farm and have found wearing rubber boots to clean stalls and chicken coops is better than having to wash, re wash, re re wash my feet to get the smell out. Outside of that, I still go barefoot when doing chores.

What has being barefoot taught you?
I think the biggest thing being barefoot has taught me is being more aware of my surroundings. I have learned to adapt my walking or running to a multitude of different terrains and surfaces. It has opened up a world of senses and sensations I was lacking prior to leaving shoes. There is a huge disconnect people have from what they are standing on. Any time I wear shoes now I feel like I'm blindfolded.

Another major thing being barefoot has taught me is not  to blindly listen to conventional wisdom or what other people or even medical professionals are telling me. I was told my “flat” feet were something I would have to deal with the rest of my life and could manage it by wearing orthotic inserts and more supportive shoes. I have found it is best to listen to my gut, do my own research and observations, and go with what I think is best. If I make a mistake or decide something I am doing is not great for my health and wellbeing I will change it and look for a new answer. Going barefoot is by far one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Feeling the world in a way most people do not.

Have you saved money going barefoot?
I have saved some money not having to purchase shoes or socks. The few pairs of shoes I own have lasted for years because they rarely get worn. I own a pair of Vivobarefoot minimalist shoes, which are great and mainly used for work or times when I am required to wear shoes, but I do have to say they are the most expensive pair of shoes I’ve ever purchased.  

What are the most interesting comments or questions you've gotten about being barefoot?
Well the most common questions are: Doesn’t that hurt?, which for the most part the answer is no. I mean if I’m running and loose gravel rolls into my arch or I cut my toe on a sharp rock, then yes it does still hurt, but my feet have adapted and I do not experience any discomfort ambulating barefoot; Don’t your feet get cold? Which again the answer really depends, if only the pad of my foot is exposed to snow and/or ice, then no my feet don’t really get cold, but if I am walking through ankle deep or higher snow then yes my feet do get cold after awhile; another question I get a lot is Why don’t you wear shoes? Which I will usually answer by saying “because I don’t like shoes” and sometimes if the person asking seems more intrigued I will go into detail about the benefits I have experienced.

By far the most interesting comment I get, which it is mainly interesting because how often it has happened,  is when I am hiking and I cross paths with an elderly couple and the man usually has some comment about how he used to do the same thing when he was younger.

Some other comments I’ve gotten are “you’re brave” or “I could never do that”, which both I find funny because it does take some commitment and time to transition to living barefoot, but for the most part anyone can do it and it's truly not as difficult as people seem to believe. For thousands of years no one wore shoes and still today there are many places in the world where barefeet or minimal footwear are the norm.

What do you think are the most common myths about being barefoot?
I think a common myth about being barefoot is that it is bad for your feet. I was told because of my “flat” feet I should basically always be in shoes. I have the strongest and healthiest feet of anyone I know.

Another common myth is it is unhygienic to be barefoot. Yes, my feet might literally be dirtier in the sense that they have dirt on them, but simple washing will resolve this. However wearing shoes is basically having your feet in a petri dish. The warm, moist, airless environment of a shoe is the perfect breeding ground for anaerobic bacteria and fungi. My feet are constantly exposed to the air and I have never had any fungal issues and they don't stink. Being barefoot can expose you to more chemical and biologic contaminants on the ground than wearing shoes, but having a thick, hard to penetrate pad on the bottom of your foot functions the same way and avoiding areas known to have contaminants and having good hygiene negates any negative effects of being barefoot in the modern world.

Matt no longer has foot pain or "flat feet" as evidenced by this snow print.

What do you wish everyone would know about going barefoot?
The biggest thing I wish everyone would know about going barefoot is it is not as difficult as you may think and the benefits greatly outweigh any possible negatives. Also if you are not ready to completely forego shoes or your current employment does not allow or accommodate a barefoot lifestyle going minimalist and spending a much time as you can out of shoes is a great step in the right direction (pun intended).

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