One of the many perks of working out at Catalyst is that you don’t need shoes. While this has financial advantages (and simplifies early am fashion choices), working out barefoot has a host of other benefits. Spending more time barefoot can prevent injuries, improve balance and gait, and increase speed.
I have considered my feet problematic for most of my adult life. Aside from being just plain big, they were also “flat.” When I got my first pair of shoes from a running specialty store in high school, I was assigned to a stability shoe (a far cry from the sleek Nikes I wanted). Fast forward 10 years to my first marathon. A significant mileage increase with little to no stretching or strength work likely caused my first case of plantar fasciitis. As a cross country and track coach, I preached warm up, stretching, cool down, and supplementary strength, but I applied none of these to my own training. I was advised to stretch, nix flip flops from my shoe collection and wear more supportive shoes even when not running, which I did (mostly).
After working out (95% running) in well-cushioned shoes for years, I discovered barefoot training at my first kettlebell class. Between the bare feet and that crazy tension breathing (tsst, tsst), I was a little out of my comfort zone…and intrigued. I was initially drawn to kettlebell training because the zero impact gave my well-used joints a break, and the strength work complemented my running. Additional kettlebell strength training education revealed more benefits of barefoot/minimalist shoe training. We encourage Catalyst members to practice in bare feet or flat shoes because heel drop (see photo) affects our center of gravity in the swing and actually increases the distance we have to pull the weight in a deadlift. A shoe’s cushioning also minimizes the tension and power we can create between the ground and our feet and apply throughout the body, especially applicable to the press and an explosive deadlift/swing/clean/snatch. I bought my first pair of “five-finger” shoes just for kettlebell training, but with the concurrent Born to Run craze, I began to wear them for short runs 1-2 days a week.
Plantar fasciitis resurfaced when I increased my mileage to train for a Tough Mudder. Instead of returning exclusively to my stability shoes, I opted for physical therapy to learn how to stretch and strengthen my feet. I was planning to wear my Vibram shoes for the race because they wouldn’t get as heavy in the mud and muck, so I didn’t want to stop training in them. I dropped my mileage significantly, actually did my PT homework, and raced without pain. While Vibrams weren’t a smart long term running choice for me, it didn’t make sense to go back to the stability shoe either. I opted for a minimalist running shoe with some cushioning, but little to no heel drop, returned to (relatively!) pain-free running, and gave foot mechanics little additional thought.
As a cross country coach this past fall, I was surprised by the number of runners affected by shin splints and stress fractures. My first instinct was to check for worn out shoes, but most looked just fine. We had access to better surfaces than most teams, and mileage was reasonable, so I was stumped. While I knew I had had success avoiding injuries in a less structured shoe, taking away impact-absorbing cushioning from injured runners seemed counterintuitive. When an invite to a Barefoot Specialist training magically appeared in my mailbox, my interest was piqued.
There, I learned about research (Nigg et al. and Robbins et al.) that suggests…a direct relationship between sensory stimulation of the plantar foot and intrinsic muscle strength concluding that one is necessary for the other. This means that if our footwear or orthotics disconnect us from sensory stimulation – as in the case of cushioned footwear – this can actually weaken our foot making us susceptible to plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis and stress fractures….Sensory stimulation of the foot leads to a contraction of the intrinsic muscles of the foot. Intrinsic muscle contraction is not only is a critical step in the damping of impact forces but has also been shown to increase the medial arch and build co-activation contractions in the core (https://barefootstrongblog.com).
So what does this mean in regular English?
Foot strength diminishes as we spend more time in shoes, especially those with more cushioning, heel drop, or built-in stability. The more stability a shoe provides, the less mobility it allows and the less strength and stability it requires of the foot. Following the “use it or lose it” principle, feet lose mobility, stability and strength as we spend more time in shoes. Days, weeks, years, decades, and thousands of miles in shoes cause these effects to snowball.
How can barefoot training benefit me?
It can help prevent injury and aid recovery.
Each time your foot strikes the ground is an opportunity to gain potential energy and feedback. Shoes inhibit neuromuscular reactions to the ground. The bigger the barrier (more cushion) in our shoes, the less energy and feedback we get from the ground. This feedback is important for teaching our stabilizer muscles to fire, both in our foot and further up the body. The more time we spend barefoot, the better our feet become at stabilizing, reflexively firing the right muscles, and communicating with our brains to improve our movement patterns.
It can preserve and improve balance and gait as we age.
Spending time barefoot increases neuromuscular feedback. Some 80% of our plantar mechanoreceptors (nerves on the bottoms of our feet) are sensitive to vibration. We use this vibration to determine how hard our foot is striking the ground and maintain dynamic balance. The sensitivity of these mechanoreceptors peaks at age 40 and by age 70 requires twice the stimuli to create the same response (https://barefootstrongblog.com/2014/09/02/five-tips-to-protect-your-pripheral-nerves/).
By increasing the feedback between the multitude of nerve endings in the foot and the surface beneath it, the brain can respond more quickly for better balance and stronger gait patterns. The more time we spend outside of our shoes, the more we stimulate those nerve endings, which allows us to have a quicker reaction to the ground each time our foot strikes, thus improving our balance and gait.
It can increase speed and quickness.
Barefoot training is not just for the injured and old. Top level athletes can benefit as well. Increasing neuromuscular response rates = greater speed. The more efficiently we can absorb potential energy in the foot strike/landing phase of a stride and turn it into kinetic energy in the push off phase, the faster we become. Impact forces enter the feet in less than 20 milliseconds, but research suggests that muscles can only respond at a rate of 50 milliseconds. This means that if you want to increase speed, strength is necessary, but neurological connections are faster. We need to anticipate the force with reflexive responses, which are made better with more receptive nerves. We can best increase nerve receptiveness by regular stimulation of those nerve endings…best done in bare feet!
Considering all of this…
We challenge you to go barefoot this summer!
But ease in…
- Set a timer and spend a few minutes each day walking around your house barefoot (across a variety of textures). Increase the time each week.
- Walk barefoot outside across a variety of textures. If you’re looking for an additional challenge, try walking over smooth landscaping rocks, again increasing time gradually.
- Work out barefoot! If you’re a runner, start with just a few barefoot build ups in your yard before or after your run.
- Or better yet, join us at Catalyst, where you can get strength, mobility, and conditioning without shoes or joint impact.
- Can’t bring yourself to go barefoot? You can still get sensory stimulation with textured insoles. Try these: http://nabosotechnology.com/proprioceptive-insoles/
Want barefoot company?
Just one Catalyst class a week can give your feet a well-deserved 45 minute break from shoes. Join us…
- Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 5:30am for strength based classes (heavier weight, more rest),
- Tuesday and Thursday evenings at 5:30pm for more metabolic classes (more sweat, less rest).
…and new this summer!
- Tuesday and Thursday 7am Restore classes — strength, balance, stretching. We’ll meet on the back side of St Mary’s church hall at 6:30am for an informal run (shoes recommended!) open to anyone before class.
Want to learn more?
Check out the Barefoot Strong Blog at https://barefootstrongblog.com/2018/02/06/beyond-biomechanics-addressing-foot-pain-with-sensory-stimulation/
Disclaimer: This blog suggests that barefoot training has the potential to prevent injury, not fix it. If you have an injury, you should seek the advice of a medical professional.