When it comes to performance footwear, athletes and weekend warriors alike have no shortage of options. Chances are, you have a certain pair of shoes that you swear by; a pair of shoes that you attribute your PRs to; a pair of shoes that you simply can’t live without. The chances are also high that you have, at some point, encountered a barefoot runner — someone who runs sans shoes — who has tried to “convert” you to the shoeless way of life.
This encounter may have had you asking yourself: Is training barefoot better? Do I have to toss my beloved shoes to the back of my closet where they will collect dust alongside my old ThighMaster? Let’s read on to find out!
Barefoot Training: The Why
Foot coffins. That is the term used by many doctors to describe shoes. Why? Podiatrist Gennady Kolodenker, D.P.M, succinctly explains: “When you’re wearing shoes, the muscles and connective tissues don’t have to work very hard to stabilize your body.” Kinesiologist and exercise specialist Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S. seconds this idea in an interview with SELF:
“He explains that it’s a lot like wearing a cast on your arm. Remove it after a few weeks of wear, and you’re bound to notice a drop in your bicep curls, triceps extensions, and even your ability to type and write. Now envision wearing that cast on your foot for a good 12 hours per day, 365 days per year. Exactly.
Somerset explains that, over time, shoe wear can contribute to weakness in structures including the arches, toes, and ankles, potentially increasing your risk for ankle injuries, shin splits, and even knee issues. After all, it’s all connected.”
“It’s settled then! I’m switching to barefoot training immediately! No more shoe shopping! I will have money for all of the avocados!”
Not so fast. As is the case with anything in the health and fitness industry, one size does not fit all. It’s time to dive into some of the cons associated with training barefoot:
Barefoot Training: The Cons
Before we get to the pros (and there are some serious pros), we need to highlight a few key cons to training sans shoes. We know…you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, huh? If you wear shoes too often, you’re prone to injury. If you don’t wear shoes enough, you’re prone to injury. It’s enough for anyone to throw in the towel and resort to a life of binging conspiracy theory documentaries.
Here are few of the most notable cons attributed to barefoot training:
If you’re training outdoors, cuts, scrapes, and/or puncture wounds are real possibilities that you need to consider. In order to cut down on the likelihood that you’ll step on a nail, for example, being aware of your surroundings and choosing areas that you are familiar with are key. Minimalist shoes can provide some wound protection while still simulating the feeling of being barefoot.
– Stress Fractures
Regarding barefoot running, many podiatrists find that stress fractures are common. In a study conducted at Brigham Young University, researchers found that when they compared runners who wear traditional running shoes to runners that wear minimalist shoes, the latter group, “despite starting with short distances and slowly increasing their mileage over 10 weeks, suffered more bone marrow edema and stress fractures than those wearing traditional running shoes.”
– Accidental Injury
Dropping a 50-pound dumbbell on your foot, barefoot or not, is going to be painful. A shoe, however, can protect your foot from at least some of the impact. If you accidentally kick a barbell or get your foot caught in the chain of an exercise bike, shoes can greatly reduce the likelihood that you’ll suffer an injury.
– Previous Injury
Stress fractures, tendonitis, and other recurring nagging injuries should not be ignored. Don’t train on an injured foot unless your doctor has given you the all-clear. Further, if you are a diabetic, many doctors recommend that you never train barefoot due to an increased risk of infection.
– Heavy Lifting
Many lifters go barefoot because of the total-body benefits that accompany lifting without shoes. Most of the time, it’s a great way to connect with your body. However, if you are Olympic lifting or powerlifting and moving some heavy weight around, wearing shoes specific to your sport is probably a good idea. Podiatrist Emily Splichal recommends a stiff lifting shoe over a cushioned running shoe.
– You Haven’t Had a Pedicure in a While…and People Know It
We’re just kidding. No one cares about what your feet look like. It’s Durango!
Now that we’ve looked at the cons, let’s take a look at the benefits of training barefoot:
Barefoot Training: The Pros
If you frequent Jungle Gym, you’re no stranger to barefoot training. We implement this shoeless methodology often and for some good reasons:
– Increased Proprioception
Proprioception, via Verywell Health, is “the ability to sense the orientation of your body in your environment. It allows you to move quickly and freely without having to consciously think about where you are in space or in your environment. Proprioception is a constant feedback loop within your nervous system, telling your brain what position you are in and what forces are acting upon your body at any given point in time.”
– Jacked Feet
Okay, maybe not jacked, but your feet will be stronger and that is very important for the health of the rest of your musculoskeletal system. Your feet are your foundation. As any homeowner knows, a weak foundation is going to provide you with a lot of problems down the line.
“Get swoll” – You to your feet
– Correct Imbalances
It’s harder to favor one side over the other when barefoot. Trainers are able to assess imbalances much faster if they are able to see your feet and ankles at play. For example, if an athlete does a squat wearing shoes, it may look great. If that athlete does a squat without shoes, however, a trainer may notice mobility issues in the right ankle or over-pronation of the left foot.
– Mind/Body/Spirit Connection
Proprioception aside, there’s something to be said about connecting with the earth. There is a vulnerability and innocence to connecting with the ground below us.
Ready to give barefoot training a go? Here’s how:
Barefoot Training: The How
If you’re new to barefoot training, the biggest piece of advice from experts is to start slowly. You may be able to run five miles in shoes, but it’s an entirely different experience while barefoot. Most injuries related to barefoot training occur when athletes try to progress too quickly.
Minimalist shoes are great for transitioning and accessory exercises are highly recommended: pick up marbles with your feet, wiggle them around in the dirt, scrunch up a towel with your toes. If you want to get into barefoot running, you should go even slower and should not make the official change to minimalist footwear until you have prepared your body for well over 10 weeks.
Barefoot Training: The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: barefoot training is very beneficial and has many pros. It also has some cons. Don’t feel pressured to hit the trails wearing nothing but minimalist shoes. Do feel a bit of pressure to, at the very least, go barefoot more often.
Finally, your feet are just like any other part of your body: they fatigue. Treat them kindly. Roll them out and if they begin to tire, stop what you’re doing. Listening to your body is very important, especially when it comes to barefoot training.
Oh, and, here’s your friendly reminder to wash your feet. Please.
The next time you’re at the gym, toss those shoes aside and start strengthening those things that get you from Point A to Point B on a day-to-day basis.