A Closer Look at Barefoot Training
We spend most of our waking day in shoes. We put on dress shoes in the morning for work, switch to running shoes for workouts in the gym, and then don slippers when we get home. With so much time spent in shoes, we've come to expect not only style, but also comfort in footwear.
Nowhere is this quest for comfort and performance more prevalent than in the athletic shoe industry. Since the introduction of the modern athletic shoe in 1972, manufacturers have spent countless time and expense on advancing its design. Now, even the idea of a microprocessor embedded in an arch barely raises an eyebrow.
But now some wonder if the demand for more bells and whistles has given rise to shoes that deliver too much of a good thing.
Barefoot or minimal footwear training provides the feet a much finer feedback from the ground, which optimizes movement efficiency. It also keeps them strong and healthy.
Erwan Le Corre, founder of the natural training movement MovNat
The Problem With Shoes
Indeed, shoes provide stability, comfort, support; but at the same time, they immobilize your feet and ankles. They restrict natural movement, allowing certain muscles to weaken. They increase the energy cost of exercise, as well as the risk of injury.
Analysis has also shown that the mechanics of running is actually altered when wearing shoes, with runners striking the ground with their heels instead of the more efficient forefoot strike. In fact, heel strikes cause repetitive impact forces by as much as three times the body weight with each stride.
These stresses are distributed across the body and can lead to pain and injury. This could help explain why the rate of ankle sprains and knee injuries for athletes has increased rather than decreased, despite the abundant options in athletic shoes.
A September 2010 article by Laura Miler in "Becker's National Orthopedic and Spine Review" noted that "sports-related foot and ankle injuries are increasing among athletes," And several other studies have shown that those who wear high-priced, high-performance athletic shoes are actually more likely to suffer an injury.
Transition to Minimalist Training
Not ready to go 100-percent barefoot? A number of footwear manufacturers are finally taking note and producing products designed for barefoot-style training.
Look for more flexible, thin soles that have a "zero" drop from the heel to the toe, Steve Maxwell, a strength specialist with MaxwellSC.com, says. Their level bottoms promote a more neutral midfoot to forefoot ground strike when running, rather than the heel strike that running shoes tend to encourage.
Before you jump into barefoot training, developing the strength of your feet and ankles will improve their overall dexterity and reactivity. Your balance, proprioception and quality of movement are also enhanced, and this benefits real-world activities, as well as training in the gym and for sports performance.
Start Slowly With Barefoot Training
Just like what happens when wearing a cast, certain muscles will atrophy and weaken when wearing overly supportive shoes. So incorporating minimalist or barefoot training into your workout is something you should do gradually.
Start by doing your warm-ups in socks or bare feet if your gym permits it. This will give you a good introduction to the application and how it feels. Take it slowly and transition over a period of several months.
In the beginning, you'll probably feel some discomfort. As you reawaken the muscles in your feet, ankles and calves, they may feel stiff and sore, and this is normal.
It's not normal, though, to feel pain in your joints, bones or soft-tissue. This could indicate an injury. So if you experience aches of that sort, stop immediately and allow your body to rest and heal.
And if you have diabetes or any other condition that can cause a loss of sensation in your feet, keep your shoes on. Feedback from the feet is vital in barefoot and minimalist training to know how to adjust the movement you're engaging in — or if you need to stop. Numb feet can't provide this feedback and can be severely damaged.
As you build to more advanced movements like lunges, deadlifts, squats and step-ups, you'll notice they feel amazing performed barefoot. Training this way promotes and develops the reactivity and stability of your feet, as well as the mobility of your ankles.
- Nigg BM, Emery C, Hiemstra LA. Unstable shoe construction and reduction of pain in osteoarthritis patients. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Oct;38(10):1701-8. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000228364.93703.53
- Nigg BM. Barefoot shoes – energy return & future shoe development. Footwear Science. 2009;1(sup1):80-82. doi:10.1080/19424280903059687.
- Tscharner VV, Goepfert B, Nigg BM. Changes in EMG signals for the muscle tibialis anterior while running barefoot or with shoes resolved by non-linearly scaled wavelets. Journal of Biomechanics. 2003;36(8):1169-1176. doi:10.1016/s0021-9290(03)00086-1.
- Vibram FiveFingers.com. Manufacturer's site.
- Warburton, M. Barefoot Running. Sportscience 2001;5(3).
- Barefoot running may be over, but here's why barefoot training is still smart
- The Importance of Barefoot Training
- 16 Weeks of Progressive Barefoot Running Training Changes Impact Force and Muscle Activation in Habitual Shod Runners
- The Effect of Training in Minimalist Running Shoes on Running Economy
- Barefoot Running: The Effects of an 8-Week Barefoot Training Program.
- Effect of training in minimalist footwear on oxygen consumption during walking and running
- Evidence-Based Fitness Academy: Barefoot Training Certification
Jim Smith has been training athletes and writing fitness articles since 2001. He is an expert writer for "Men's Health," "Muscle & Fitness" and "Men's Fitness." He holds a strength and conditioning specialist certification with the NSCA, is certified RKC through Dragondoor and is Westside Barbell certified. Smith holds a Bachelor of Science in physics from Mansfield University.