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