Barefoot running is becoming ever more popular, especially with the advent of minimalist footwear such as Nike Frees and Vibram Five Fingers. Even still, the vast majority of people are unaware of the benefits that you can get from going barefoot in your training, not only running, but in the gym as well. From personal experience, I have found great improvements in certain aspects of my training since wearing my Vibrams during gym sessions, and doing some barefoot jogging on grass. I spent 5 weeks in Melbourne in 2011 rehabbing a long standing groin injury, and regular barefoot running round the footy oval was a key part of my rehab. I started with one lap the week that I arrived, and by the time I left, I could have run barefoot all day, pain free. If we are rehabbing an injury at ACLAÍ, you can be sure that there will be a barefoot aspect to the training. It may be in the form of barefoot balance training, barefoot strength training, or some jogging around the fields. It is very easy to incorporate some barefoot work into your workouts, a good place to start is to do your warm up or core work barefoot. Anyway, I wanted to share some of the benefits of training with naked feet so you can make your own decision on it!
1. Strengthens the foot and ankle
Working out barefoot will encourage the foot to get stronger. This is one adaptation that I have gained from myself in a big way. I always had pretty flat arches and plenty of pronation, but when I started doing some barefoot work, I started to regain an arch. I have seen this happen with a lot of people who start working barefoot. I actually had to drop half a shoe size after a while because my foot had shortened due to the return of the arch. This greatly increases running efficiency, and will also help in maintaining a good posture.
2. Improves proprioception
Proprioception is a big word, but basically means how we know where we are in space. For example, if you close your eyes, and put your hand up in the air, you know that your hand is in the air thanks to your propriocetion. Now this may not seem like it has much to do with barefoot running at the beginning, but considering that all the rolled and sprained ankles that I see in the gym, and the fact that most of them can be caused by poor ankle mobility and rubbish proprioception, all of a sudden barefoot workouts don’t seem like such a bad idea! Check out Holme et al. for more on ankle proprioception. On a side note, the balance board seems to be the first port of call for rehabbing an ankle, but this is often introduced too early in the rehab program. Use some barefoot balance exercises first. Another great proprioception builder is slow barefoot walking placing the foot down as gently as possible with easy step. When you can do this without falling over or slamming your foot into the ground, try it with your eyes closed, then try it backwards!
3. Encourages a forefoot strike
We love a bit of in-house research here at ACLAÍ, so we put this whole forefoot strike/ heel strike/ midfoot strike to the test! Here is a video of me running on the treadmill, first with some big chunky shoes on, then with my Nike Free 3.0, and then with my vibrams, and finally barefoot. In the chunky foot, there is a definite heel strike, cause by the large heel lift. There is less of a heel strike in the frees, and finally, the Vibrams and birthday shoes result in a forefoot strike. ‘So what’ I hear you say! Well this is what! If we had a force plate on our treadmill, you would see that the impact of a heel strike is massive, and it sends a shock up into the body that would rock the Great Wall of China! In addition, a heel strike involves a sudden deceleration of the foot, which means you must then swing your leg forward into the next step. Not good for staying injury free, or for running efficiency. Heel striking while running is a phenomenon that came with the advent of the squishy running shoe in the 70s, and not the way we were designed to run. Its much more efficient to utilise a forefoot strike, and make the most of those springy arches that we were given. Check out Dr Liebermann’s site for more information on this.
4. Increases Ankle Mobility
In traditional shoes, your heel is raised somewhat, and this limits your ankle mobility. Limited ankle mobility, will cause big problems at the knee, hip and foot, so its clear that limited mobility in the ankle is not desirable. Going barefoot brings the heel down to the same level as the toes, rather than being raised by a rubber heel, and thus increases the range of motion of the ankle during walking and other activities. This also applies to strength training. Doing single leg exercises and deadlift variations barefoot (or with minimalist shoes), is great for the technique, balance, and building strength and mobility in the ankles and feet.
5. It feels great
This point is the most important. If you build up your barefoot training capacity slowly, and resist the temptation to jump straight into a fully barefoot existence, your body will thank you greatly! Movement will feel more fluid, and you can expect things like running technique, posture, and mobility to improve when you have integrated your barefoot work into your training program. Quite a few of our clients train in their Vibrams and get great satisfaction out of them. Going back to a regular shoe when used to barefoot, or Vibrams, or even Nike Free 3.0 is a big change, and you will feel like you have your feet in a bucket of concrete. But remember, it takes time to build up your capacity to train barefoot. Go slow and easy at first and build up gradually.
Steps to success when it comes to transitioning to barefoot.
Start slow and build gradually!
- Start doing your mobility warm up in the gym barefoot
- Take your shoes off when your in the house
- Get yourself a nice pair of Viram Five Fingers, and start wearing them out and about.
- If starting to jog barefoot, start of with 1 minute of jogging and build up in 1 minute increments from there.
- Keep the speed of jogging nice and low in the beginning. The faster you run the more forces you will be producing and this will put more pressure on the Achilles and calves.
Holme E, Magnusson SP, Becher K, et al. The effect of supervised rehabilitation on strength, postural sway, position sense and re-injury risk after acute ankle ligament sprain. Scand J Med Sci Sports 1999;9(2):104-109.
Lieberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, Daoud AI, D’Andrea S, Davis IS, Mang’eni RO, Pitsiladis Y. (2010) Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature 463: 531-5.