WHY OUR ATHLETES TRAIN BAREFOOT

If you follow us on social media or have watched any of our Youtube videos lately, you will notice that many of our athletes have been training barefoot. I wanted to take a moment and explain why.

For some time now, podiatrists have termed shoes, “foot coffins” with the intention of highlighting the potentially damaging impact a sneaker can have on the musculature, connective tissue, and ultimately functionality of the foot/ankle complex. These damaging effects are resulting from a reduction in mechanical stress applied to the foot, as the sneaker works to alter the force absorption needs of the foot. Inherently, this should seem beneficial as the mechanical load on our biological system would then be less. However, our body is a master at being efficient, which is most illuminated through the conservation of energy. Therefore, when the musculature, tendons, and bones of the foot are not being stressed or utilized regularly, they will begin to decrease in functional capacity and ultimately become weaker. While this may seem like a trivial result to use of sneakers, we must heed the mounting research that suggests functional capacity issues at the foot/ankle complex can lead to several upchain issues such as altered kinematics at the knee and hip complexes leading to potential injury. To deconstruct this concept in a more comprehensible format, think of the sneaker as wearing a cast.  When it is time to remove the cast you will undoubtedly notice some muscular atrophy, movement deficiencies, and downright weakness. Now think about the damage if that cast is worn 365 days a year and for approximately 8-12 hours a day.

WHAT ABOUT THE INJURIES THAT CAN OCCUR BY BEING BAREFOOT?

The ramifications of going barefoot for walking, running, or training have been duly noted in several research studies; patients have complained about several issues such as plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, and several other bony and soft tissue injuries.  However, with almost all these instances of injury, the primary issue was not the forces being applied but the progression in the duration and intensity of these forces. Take Wolff’s Law of Adaptivity, which states that compressive forces applied to bony structures in a healthy system (person or animal) will respond to the load being applied to it. Thus, if the load increase the bone will remodel stronger over time, conversely, if the load decreases the bone will get weaker over time (remember the body is an efficiency master). While this explanation works well to explain the potential benefits of bone stress, the key term in the explanation is the word ‘respond.’  

The word choice of ‘respond’ is absent of definitives, as all it states is that the bone will produce a response, not whether that response will always be positive or negative. Therein lies the primary issue – the rate of progression and intensity to which this load is applied. Thus, the potential benefits of training barefoot (much like all things with the body) can only truly be realized if the progression to overload is acclimated accurately.  Several studies have indicated that benefits from training, walking or running barefoot may take several months to a have a meaningful impact.

SO, WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS TO TRAINING BAREFOOT?

Each athlete that enters our door is put through a thorough initial evaluation process that among many other kinematically based movement screens, includes an analysis of the foot at stance and in action (walking, running, landing, jumping, etc.).  It is extremely common for many of these athletes to present with issues relating to the foot and the way in which this will cascade to other issues up the chain towards the knee, such as valgus moments (the knee diving in), or the hip, such as asymmetrical shifts in jumping or landing.  These dysfunctions are a primary concern of our programming process and must be addressed as an integral part of increasing performance. It is with this that several new studies have begun looking at the potential benefits of training athletes barefoot.

One of the more recent studies found that over an 8-week period of barefoot training individuals were able to redevelop strength and connective tissue tension in the arch of the foot which allowed for great force production through the big toe.  If you have looked into any recent literature on sprint speed, agility, or power production, you will be aware of how significant the force production potential of the big toe is to these skill sets. Adding to this point another recent study (link) took several athletes through an 8-week barefoot training program and found that the athlete’s ankle stability, speed, and their agility all improved. What is interesting about this study is not so much the ankle stability as this inherently conceivable, or the speed development as it is probably easy to ascertain that improved foot mechanics, can lead to improved force production (as we just learned with the previous study) and thus faster speed times, but what is most interesting is the improvements in agility. Agility is a kinematic process that is highly dependent on the deceleration capacities of an athlete, which would imply that by training barefoot an athlete becomes better at not only creating force but absorbing force as well.  This concept is further illuminated by two studies (link) that looked at groups of athletes performing squat movements both with shoes and barefoot. What can be gleaned from both articles is that the eccentric portion of the squat resulted in greater musculature activation when barefoot and as a result of the barefoot training the athletes experienced an increase in stiffness at the knee joint and hamstring reflex activity. These two studies help provide some evidence as to perhaps why we may see improved agility based measures following barefoot training as the stiffness at the knee joint and improved hamstring reflex will greatly aid in safe and accurate deceleration movements.

MAJOR TAKEAWAYS:

  1. Barefoot training can improve foot dysfunction over time with the proper progression of exposure.
  1. Barefoot training can improve force production through the big toe which can have drastic implications in total system power output.
  1. Barefoot training can improve foot/ ankle stability, speed development, and agility based movements.

FINAL NOTES

Each of our athletes are progressed to training barefoot based on their responses to its exposure (like any other training modality) and are all (at least initially) provide foot strengthening, mobilizing, and stiffening exercises upon initial exposure.

SIX EXERCISES YOUR CATCHER NEEDS TO BE DOING

Catching is painful; from the bruises to the ever constant joint pain, it stays with you long after you catch your last pitch. It is a brutal position that is physically taxing on the body. So, before I continue with this article, I want to make a point – HAVE YOUR CATCHERS WEAR KNEE SAVERS. They do just that – save your knees. It is not weak, it is smart. Conceptually, most individuals and researchers will say that you should be strong enough to sit in that position. Research takes anecdotal perspectives in a given situation and not the whole experience. Instead, I challenge you to think about it from this perspective. One game is on average two hours. Split in half and estimate one hour is spent on defense. Now, multiply that by five to six games (at a minimum) a weekend for 32 weeks. That’s 160 hours of sitting in a squat position!! Now, multiply that by countless practices and training sessions and the hours pile up on the individual’s knees. When interpreting the studies conducted on this topic, researchers are just considering the one game, not all of the excess hours put into the craft. But here is the catch. Regardless of whether you utilize knee savers or not, catchers still tend to have hip, knee and lower back discomfort. So, how do we address this issue?

3 Stretching Activities Your Catcher Needs to Do

  1. Hip CARs (controlled articular rotations) – 
  1. Known as an FRC (Functional Range Conditioning) exercise, hip CARs challenge the athlete to go through the full range of motion at the hip joint. In concurrence with the “use it or lose it” mentality, when we do not challenge ourselves to go into certain ranges of motion, our body’s ability to get there deteriorates. Flexibility at the hip joint is imperative to a catcher’s physical health. As the range of motion breaks down, the body will adjust to an inferior position. Catchers tend to rotate their hips internally which places excess stress on the knees and lower back.
  1. Directions – Bring knee as high up as it can go. Open “the door” of the hip without rotating at the torso. Then rotate the foot at the knee joint (internal rotation). From this position, work the knee back with hip into extension. Reverse the process with as much control and precision as possible.

90/90 Switches – 

    1. Here we are focusing on opening up the hip joint and working on the internal and external rotational ability of the joint. Being able to control and move through this range of motion is imperative to full body health of a catcher. We are working postural awareness in conjunction with hip mobility. Another function of a healthy hip: taking pressure off of the lower back.  
      1. Directions – Driving the open leg down into the ground, try to lift the closed leg into the air. Drive both legs in the opposite direction and eventually switch.
  1. Talus Slide Lunge Stretch 
  1. Dorsiflexion is the ability to flex the foot in the upward direction thus allowing the shin angle to decrease to a more acute angle while squatting. Ankle mobility is extremely important in catchers. Often, they are stuck in an elevated position, similar to a calf raise, for a majority of their time catching. It is important to provide flexibility and the opposite range of motion to avoid extreme stiffness which can lead to injuries up the chain. If a catcher does not possess the adequate dorsiflexion needed to achieve the most effective position it is important to note that this will not inhibit the athlete from sitting in a squat but instead will cause the athlete to compensate into ineffective positions in order to get into that position.   
    1. Directions – While maintaining contact between the heel and the ground, go into a lunge position. Drive the shin forward while still maintaining heel contact with the ground. Work to avoid shifting hips and instead keep torso and hips in line while driving forward.

3 Strength Exercises Your Catcher Needs to Do

  1. Internal/External Hip Lift Offs 
  1. Mobility is one aspect of injury prevention, strength is the other. Being able to get through the full range of motion can be just as dangerous if you do not have the strength to stabilize the joint. These isometric holds at the hip joint provide strength to the hip abductors and adductors which are responsible for holding the ball and socket of the hip joint in place.  
    1. Directions – In the 90/90 position, lift the front knee and foot off of the ground. Hold for 10 seconds. Next, lift the back knee and foot off of the ground. Hold for 10 seconds. If actively achieving these positions is not possible, work to find a passive range of motion as well.
  1. Deadbug Variations 
  1. Core strength is important for every aspect of athletic movement. In catchers, it provides stabilization to the pelvis in a squatting position. The deadbug forces the athlete to contract their midline, activating erector muscles of their back into the ground, while either holding the position or going through small, controlled movements. The key here is to push your lower back into the ground while maintaining the ability to breathe. Being able to contract the core and breathe is important for athletes of all sports and positions as it ensures the muscles surrounding the diaphragm are responsible for breathing and not the muscles that are supposed to be stabilizing the spine.  
    1. Directions – While pushing hands  into the wall, drive the lower back into the ground while maintaining the 90-degree angle at the hips and knees. Drive one foot out, leading with the heel, work to breath while simultaneously maintaining ground contact with the lower back.
  1. Supermans 
  1. When constantly being positioned in lower back flexion, think about a catcher’s squat with a rounded back. In order to combat this, we need to strengthen the catcher’s back in the opposite end range – extension. Supermans provide posterior chain activation in the gluteal, hamstring, and spinal levator muscles along the posterior chain. Whether it is in the contracted hold or constant movement range, this exercise provides stabilization to the area catchers tend to be underactive in.  
    1. Directions – Driving the belly button into the floor – lift your arms, using your lower trap muscle structure, and your legs by flexing your glute and hamstrings. Hold for 3 seconds and then relax.

While there are far more exercises your catchers should be doing, these are ones they can do on their own at home. These should be done at least three times a week for both the stretches and the strength exercises. Before performing any catching activity, the stretches should be done. Providing flexibility and mobility to a position that generally results in extreme stiffness is imperative to preventing injury. But, as stated before, mobility should only be given with the intention of providing strength to stabilize the mobility. Finding the optimal balance between strength and mobility is the first step to preventing injury in any athlete.