The Benefits of Being Barefoot
Is there really something special about being barefoot? And is running barefoot or with minimalistic shoes the way to go? What if you’re an athlete but not a runner; should you be squatting or lifting barefoot?
Indeed, there are many differing (and often confusing) philosophies about the pros and cons of barefoot training. I’ve had several clients proclaim during their first session that they came to Finish Line Physical Therapy because we are known to be “barefoot friendly.” Yes, you may see people lunging and jumping around the clinic barefoot, but our athletes aren’t necessarily racking up miles around the streets of New York without shoes on.
I had the pleasure of recently attending a barefoot training workshop with podiatrist Dr. Emily Splichal, and I think that it’s important for all athletes to understand the benefits of being barefoot and why our clients might get very friendly with our hardwood floors during therapy.
What does being barefoot actually do for my body?
Your foot is the first (and usually only) contact point between you and the ground, so how it responds to the surface that you’re on matters a lot for your whole body. The bottom of your foot has many nerve endings that relay information about pressure, skin stretch, vibration and other environmental factors. These inputs drive reflex patterns in muscles throughout your leg, hip and core to first load and attenuate shock, and then explode or unload energy back out of your body as movement. Stimulating the cells and small muscles on the bottom of your foot therefore guides your entire body’s response to the activity that you’re doing.
Does it matter what surface I’m on when I’m barefoot?
Yes. Studies have shown that the body is able to sense changes in movement fastest on hardwood floors and astroturf. Wearing textured shoe insoles also gives the foot a highly sensitized loading surface. Wobble boards and foam pads actually don’t improve the body’s movement detection as effectively because they stimulate larger nerve endings, which relay information at speeds too slow to activate reflex patterns.
Is barefoot or minimalistic shoe running the way to go?
Transitioning from running in supportive footwear to running in minimalistic shoes or barefoot takes time. If that is a goal for you, it is important to consult a professional about the safest way to gradually introduce your body to a new way of running. Depending on your foot and body type, fitness level and goals, it may or may not be the best for you. Some people find that lighter shoes are helpful in achieving a more natural stride, but it is not necessarily “the best” way to run, and you can still benefit from barefoot training without actually running with no shoes.
What if my sport requires shoes?
Even for athletes who wear shoes for their sport, spending time in barefoot can be beneficial to stimulate the plantar (bottom) surface of the foot and training the reflex activity of the body to respond in certain ways to different movements. For example, practicing barefoot jumping and landing with activation of the arch of your foot can turn on gluteus medius and result in greater hip stability.
How do I include barefoot training into my schedule and training?
Spending time every day just walking around your house barefoot increases the input to the bottom of your foot and strengthens small, intrinsic muscles. Try standing on one leg and pushing down with your big toe – you should feel your arch pull up and your foot shorten in length a little. You can practice this with single leg squatting, stepping, lunging and jumping exercises as well. Including 5-10 minutes of barefoot exercises into the beginning of your training can benefit your body’s response to training by stimulating the natural patterns of muscle stability at your ankles/feet, hips and trunk.
Being barefoot on a regular basis provides important cues to the bottom of your foot (and simultaneously to the rest of your body) that benefit your ability to withstand repetitive, everyday activities as well as respond optimally to sport-specific training.
As an important aspect of rehabilitation and injury prevention, don’t be surprised if your therapist at Finish Line incorporates barefoot assessment and training into your session! Be sure to ask how you can continue barefoot activities in your home exercise program, and have fun introducing your body to new things in a natural and fundamental way.