Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Training Barefoot

I'm sure we've all heard about people who train barefoot. A lot of us have looked at them like they're crazy. Shoes give added support, cushioning, and protection to the foot, right?

Well, is it right? First lets look at some anecdotal evidence:

Shoes are a fairly recent invention, being only several thousands of years old. The Hominini tribe, the earliest ancestors of Homo-sapiens genus, divulged from their Pan genus brethren 6.3 million years ago. The human foot, and all the body's supporting mechanisms for the foot, evolved over millions of years to be fairly good at what it does. We could probably trace the evolution of the human foot even farther back, but lets go from there. Human feet were designed to be walked on. Shoes stop you from walking on them.

You are probably wearing shoes right now. Take them off, and put one on your desk. Look at it. Do you see how the toe is curved upward? This is done so it is even possible to walk in shoes.

When you walk barefoot, you strike with the middle of the heel, rolling forward onto the balls of the feet, and then there is a powerful push-off from the balls of the feet. When running, they were designed to strike in the midfoot, not the heel. Shoes alter your gait - when you walk in shoes, the back of your heel strikes first, and your foot rolls forward, and then you push off your toes which creates a rocking motion. When you run with shoes, it feels "natural" to run heel-to-toe, which causes a jarring shock to your ankles and knees. High heels exacerbate problems caused by an unnatural position of the foot. They cause different and unnatural stresses on the bones of the foot, the ankle, the knee, up to the pelvis and even through the shoulders. It raises the heel, which is the foot's natural supporter of weight, by an inch, two inches, sometimes even four or five inches! The entire weight of the body is transferred to the ball of the foot, while the pelvis and the shoulders tilt to compensate for the difference in weight distribution.

In terms of health, unshod feet have been proven healthier than their shoe-trapped relatives. Zulu, an African tribe, have healthier feet than their shoe-wearing Europeans counterparts, EXCEPT for the Zulus that work in coal mines, where they are "forced to wear ill-fitting footwear and stand on their feet for long hours." ( Foot fungus and other bacteria thrive in dark, damp places... such as inside of a shoe.

Society is too focused on protection. Just like an over-obsessive use of anti-bacterial soap robs your body of the chance to be exposed to those bacteria and develop an immunity to them, exposing your body to minor threats strengthens it. Walking barefoot toughens the foot, while wearing shoes can destroy it. Even as an infant, wearing shoes too early or socks that are too tight can permanently inhibit proper bone growth (

How does all this relate to Parkour?

I've trained barefoot several times in the past month, and each time is better than the last. Not only do you get back down to that primal feeling of your feet in the dirt and the grass, but it forces you to progress slowly. Slow progression is something I understood in Parkour, but I'm coming to realize its importance in everything. I'm recovering from a nasty case of tendonitis developed by rock climbing and bouldering WAY too much in the Winter. I didn't limit myself and let my body adapt, and now I'm facing the consequences.

This happens all too often in Parkour, and training barefoot is a magnificent way to force this concept of slow progression. With shoes, I can do a 9.5 foot precision with little trouble. Without shoes, I was hesitant to attempt a 4 foot precision. I was second guessing myself when doing an extremely small cat. I lacked the confidence to land out of a certain kong. Without the "protection" shoes offered me, I was more halving the distances of most of my techniques. And I was elated. Not only was I learning more about an area of my body I had been neglecting (my feet), but by mastering and rebuilding my confidence when barefoot, those gains still exist when I am wearing shoes. Going barefoot means perfecting my form, or else there will be pain. Shoes mask imperfections in technique, but do not fully protect you from their consequences.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

They also really don't offer that much 'protection' in my eyes, I think the biggest thing that they do is simply cut out a lot of the feedback that naturally comes from you're feet, making it seem as if they are padding out the forces when really you are just not feeling them because you're feet have no idea what is going on (they are naturally one of the most sensitive areas of the body). I mean really, how much ihmpact can a small bit of foam and rubber really protect you from?

I've started to go barefoot whenever I am teaching, it has me focus on the technique more and also adds a bit of a challenge that I wouldn't normally get just going over the fundamentals again with a class. I'm enjoying it a lot, why I'm also looking forward to K-Swiss's new Ariake Light's and the forthcoming Dietake :)

May 8, 2008 at 3:54 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Great post, I recently started training barefoot for the reasons you stated and it has really humbled me that even the smallest things are scary like jumping onto a rigid surface. Keep at it, train hard and train safe.

June 14, 2008 at 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Victor Lo Forte said...

Awesome article. I'm a mostly full time barefooter, have been for half a year, off and on for a year or 2. My strength, speed, balance, connection to my environment and health is SO much better now. When I run, I am no longer winded and tired. I have more grip. My feet and legs are stronger. My joints aren't being pounded anymore. Going barefoot forces you to be more aware and more careful, you won't do things that you'd do normally with shoes on, but from that comes better health, lasting joints, and a longer life hah

If anyones thinking about starting barefoot training, start SLOW and SMALL, and progress according to how your body feels. Think of it as an arm thats been in a cast for a year, when you get it off, you don't start punching the bag and brachiating like crazy, you slowly reintroduce it to the things you used to do; first the basics, like walking, turning, jumping over things, balancing, then you progress to more technical as your strength and technique grow, you start to run, drop and vault, and soon you add more mileage, then you start to run faster and faster.

I give my word when I say that barefooting has opened MANY new doors for me, and has made my overall wellness better.

August 24, 2009 at 12:20 AM  
Blogger Kyle J. said...

great post! not only am a barefooter but i wear vibram five fingers when the terrain gets rough or public (like work or school). vibrams are the closest to barefoot that people around you will accept no question. also i cant believe we have this afair with shoes at all. ever since i was little i hated shoes but everyone literally forced me to wear them. you cant even shop without them; they are like the mark of the beast

April 6, 2010 at 8:16 AM  

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