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A Step in the Right Direction: An Introduction to Barefoot Training

By Devin Wicks

You’ve seen them. You know, those funny shoes that make you look like you’ve just stepped off the Planet Of The Apes movie set. Those five-fingered shoes that everyone seems to be wearing these days are the noticeable start of a barefoot training fad that is gaining a “foothold” in the fitness arena.

In recent times, barefoot training has seen a resurgence due to some fancy advertising and several new studies on barefoot (or barefoot-simulated) running. While the jury is still out (and before you barefoot runners get all worked up…yes, the jury is still out), we are seeing evidence pointing to the substantial benefits that can be gained in strength and biomechanical function by incorporating barefoot training.

Benefits of Barefoot Training

  1. Increased running efficiency: A recent study by Divert and colleagues (2008) demonstrated that running barefoot causes mechanical modifications in your body that increase running efficiency. This means that you can run further with fewer demands on your body.

  2. Less fatiguing: Divert et al. (2008) showed that barefoot running requires lower energy consumption which delays fatigue.

  3. Increased sensory input: It is hypothesized that with barefoot training the exerciser will more accurately perceive the actual impact forces of the activity, potentially reducing the injury risk (Vormittag, Calonje & Briner 2009) while increasing proprioception (knowledge of the position and movement of the body, and the ability to react accordingly) (Warburton 2001).

  4. Increased lower-leg strength: Hart and Smith (2008) propose that one of the overlooked benefits of barefoot training is the increase in musculoskeletal power and strength in the foot and ankle.

How To Begin
As you would with any fitness program, you’re going to want to have a clear plan for incorporating barefoot training into your overall workout. First, don’t start a barefoot training program with running or you may end up doing more harm than good. Your feet are likely not prepared for the intensity that a barefoot training program entails. Instead, consider adopting a progressive overload approach. Start with easier, less intense activities to give your feet a chance to adjust. One of the best places to begin is by doing your daily activities without shoes such as walking barefoot around the house or going shoeless while gardening.

You’re also going to want to keep your workouts simple. Do multiple short sessions of barefoot training during your regular workouts. For the first two weeks, keep the total barefoot training time per session to no more than 30 minutes—two to three 10-minute bouts throughout the day is a great way to begin. As you progress, you can gradually increase the time and/or combine the shorter sessions into one longer session.

After a couple of weeks, you should have sufficient enough strength and endurance to begin introducing activities that require greater strength and stabilization. Consider adding some walking, jogging, or calisthenics in a grassy field or on an indoor track. Other great options include a pick-up game of Frisbee or volleyball on sand, or some time with the pooch at the park.

For variety, go with a combination of indoor and outdoor activities making sure to vary the surface (sand and/or grass). You should continue to progressively transition your barefoot training to harder-surface (sidewalks, etc.) walking and other activities. But, do pay attention! You are going to want to be very aware of rocks, glass and other harmful surfaces. If you can’t find a sufficient space, consider using a fitness facility or some other indoor location like a mall or school gymnasium for your training. Not only can these places provide safer surfaces, they are also a great way to supplement your training during inclement weather conditions. Nobody wants cold toes!

This Isn’t for Everyone
Remember, not all training protocols work for everyone. There are some key times when barefoot training is ill-advised. If you’ve been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, have a stress fracture, or have some other issue with your feet, then you definitely want to avoid barefoot training until you know the symptoms of the injury have subsided. You also want to be very cautious if you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes. Barefoot running can be contraindicated for diabetics because of something called peripheral neuropathy (a common complication of diabetes) which can lead to a loss of the protective sensations in the feet. Before beginning any fitness program, you should first check with your physician to make sure you are in good health.

Barefoot training can be a great addition to your workout program. Under the right conditions, it can help improve quite a few biomechanical issues that prevent you from performing at your peak. Just remember to start slow, plan sensible progressions, and train safely. Using a training shoe that simulates barefoot training is a great option. Almost every major shoe manufacturer has a training shoe that simulates barefoot conditions.

If you’re serious about training barefoot, you may want to investigate the shoe option as a transition. But always remember, consistency is important with any training (even barefoot training), as data shows there is a loss of gained strength when training stops. In other words, you don't want to stop and start with this program—think instead about investing time in building up your training, and then sticking with it.

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.