Barefoot training seems to have been in resurgence for the last decade or so with countless coaches and trainers extolling its benefits. Even the latest ‘innovations’ in footwear technology have been designed in an attempt to mimic the natural action of the foot; Vibram Five Fingers and Nike Free the most popular examples. So what’s the reason for the barefoot ‘revolution’ and how might it benefit your training?
The Importance of the Feet
In any free standing structure, the foundations are of critical importance to the overall stability. In our human structure the feet are the only point of contact we have with the ground. They must not only be able to withstand substantial impact forces whenever we make contact with the ground, but also be able to transfer the forces that we develop in the body. The feet must have adequate strength, mobility and proprioception in order to provide a solid and efficient base for performance, however these qualities are lacking in the majority of the population. If the feet are weak then they are likely to limit the progress you can make within your training and also increase the potential for injury. This doesn’t always mean injuring the foot or ankle directly however; if the feet can’t do their job effectively then extra stress is placed further up the body on structures such as the knee, hip and lower back.
The Issue with Running Shoes
The feet are designed to work without the restriction of footwear. Each foot contains over 30 individual joints, 100 muscles and 200,000 nerve endings. Traditional athletic or fashion footwear doesn’t allow the foot to move and react to the surface in the way it’s meant to. If the foot isn’t able to function in its natural manner then over time it will become weaker, less mobile and less proprioceptive. If the foot can’t react and respond to the ground then it’s unable to provide appropriate feedback to other structures further up the chain and the risk for injury is therefore increased. Instances of knee valgus (where the knee buckles inwards), a significant risk factor for knee injury, are noted to be closely related to the use of footwear. This is particularly noticeable when movements become quick and chaotic such as cutting and turning movements.
Over-reliance on trainers is often implicated in a loss of ankle mobility. The raised heel places the ankle in a plantar-flexed position which over time will effectively become what the body recognises as the new default ankle position. This can often result in a restricted range of motion in dorsiflexion. This is not just counterproductive to the performance of many activities but also increases the risk of faulty movement patterns, due to compensations that occur further up the chain, and potential injury. Training shoes also cause an anterior translation of force because of the raised heel. This means that activation in the quadriceps is increased and activity in glutes and hamstrings is reduced. Given that the underdevelopment of the posterior chain is so prominent in the both the athletic and general populations, footwear further promoting quad dominance may not be appropriate.
Running trainers are, by design, made to deform in order to absorb and disperse impact forces. Whilst this type of cushioning may be desirable for reducing the forces acting upon the lower limb, as well as for overall user comfort, it will reduce the amount of force you can put into the ground. When you’re squatting or deadlifting, for example, you want all the force that you generate to be transferred to the ground in order to get the bar back up. If you’re wearing cushioned running trainers when you lift then you’re wasting energy. Shoes designed for power and strength activities are therefore either thin-soled like sprinting spikes and deadlift slippers, or made from materials that won’t deform such as wooden soled weightlifting shoes.
Can’t Train Barefoot?
Not every gym will allow you to lift barefoot and there may be some instances where you wouldn’t be happy in doing so. Thin-soled plimsolls are a relatively inexpensive alternative, essentially just providing a bit of protection for the sole. As you can also wear them day-to-day I’d probably consider them the best choice. If you don’t mind splashing out on some footwear then Vibram’s Five Finger trainers are probably the closest to barefoot that you’ll get. A word of caution however; don’t live in them, they look ridiculous! Nike Free’s can also be a good transition into barefoot training; they come with different levels of cushioning so you can progress from a 7.0, about halfway between traditional running shoes and barefoot, down to a 3.0, about 75% less cushioning. Regardless of the specific footwear you choose, you want to choose something without arch support, without a raised heel and with a flexible sole.
Introducing Barefoot Training
Generally when people have problems with adapting to barefoot training, it’s because they’ve jumped right in at the deep end and ditched the trainers completely. You can’t just go from running 5km a day to running 20km and it’s the same with barefoot training; you need to increase volume gradually. You also have to work out what your foot is doing now that it’s not supported. Without the arch support of trainers the likelihood for pronation (the feet collapsing inwards) becomes greater and may initially be a problem when going barefoot. Be sure to be watch out for over-pronation as it often leads to valgus movement at the knee.
Let’s have a look at some step-by-step progressions to introducing barefoot strength training:
- Start by making sure that you’re out of your shoes whenever possible during your regular day; get used to walking round your home barefoot.
- Start to incorporate barefoot activities into your warm-up. Simple activities that challenge your balance, such as balancing on one leg, are a great place to start but gradually progress to doing the majority of the warm-up barefoot. Keep the trainers on for any jumping, plyometrics or Olympic lifting variations you may have in there.
- Start to perform your upper body exercises barefoot, particularly for anything standing such as the military press. For the first few weeks just start with your warm-up or light sets and keep the shoes for the heavy work sets.
- Deadlifts are the next exercise you should look at undertaking barefoot. Again, start by introducing this to your warm-up sets before going heavy.
- Squatting barefoot is next step but does require an appropriate level of strength to have been developed in the feet. As the position of the load on the back will effectively multiply any load acting on joints down below be sure to avoid over-pronation.
The progression outlined above shouldn’t be a rapid process. The timescale will of course depend on the individual but I’d say that a period of twelve weeks would be typical. I think it’s also worthwhile cycling barefoot vs shod sessions within this initial period, not so much for the warm-up but certainly for the strength work. Needless to say, if you have experience any problems when introducing barefoot training then take a step back and give yourself time recover before continuing.
Personally I’d recommend keeping the shoes on for training that involves high impact forces such as jump training or anything plyometric. Olympic lifting can be potentially be implemented, particularly any power or pull/high-pull variations. Lifting shoes may be necessary for squat cleans/snatches if athletes struggle with ankle mobility and would also be advisable for heavy sets. The increased speed of movement generally increases likelihood of pronation so again be vigilant.
Remember, strength must be built on a solid foundation. Keep those feet strong, mobile and receptive!