Barefoot Training Guidelines

by Katy Bowman on Nov 15, 2011

Chances are that you or your clients have seen Vibram’s FiveFingers® shoes and have questions about starting a barefoot or minimalist footwear training program. As a movement professional, you need to fit yourself into the great foot conversation.

Spanning more than two decades, the research on footwear and its impact on total-body health is fairly extensive. Shoes have many detracting qualities, and data supports at least a change to more flexible, spacious and flat footwear. As for all-barefoot exercise, research is limited and new, but it is trending toward integrating this lost body part back into the foreground of exercise training.

Many footwear companies have begun to create minimalist footwear—shoes that allow more natural biomechanics while still offering a bit of protection from modern surfaces. For most people, these options provide the best of both worlds, enhancing health and performance while minimizing risk of injury.

Training Feet

Leaping into minimalist shoes after a lifetime of wearing traditional shoes can set a person up for injury. With all evidence pointing to foot strength’s key role in foot mechanics, consider offering a foot-specific training session designed to innervate intrinsic foot tissues and restore length to muscles in the lower leg. The muscle groups of the two feet make up 25% of the body’s muscles; ignoring the strength and function of foot muscle is like eliminating upper-body training from your routine and calling it balanced.

Most of the population has worn shoes since birth, so foot exercises don’t have to be limited to an advanced or athletic population. Everybody who wears shoes needs barefoot exercise, regardless of whether they want to switch to minimalist footwear or not.

Unfortunately, the numerous skeletal muscles running between the 33 joints of each foot have always been seriously neglected—both in therapy and in fitness. The complex machinery of the feet plays a critical role, not only in the obvious realms of gait patterns and ankle stabilization, but also in whole-body balance, nerve conduction and cardiovascular circulation.

Setting Up Space

One of the main critiques of barefoot training is that the environment is unsafe. Sharp objects increase the risk of injury, and bacteria-covered mats expose the possibility of infection. To reduce these risks, create a barefoot-specific area: Post a “barefoot training in progress” sign and keep the area free of weights and clutter. Install a small handheld vacuum and go over the site regularly. Use antibacterial wipes on mats and feet before and after each session.

Natural Motions of the Feet

Toes are designed to have as much dexterity as fingers. Each toe joint can flex and extend, abduct and adduct. These seem like basic motions, but if you try lifting one toe without the others, you will likely find it extremely difficult. Start a foot-strengthening program that assesses motor skills, and continue until movements are improved and fluid.

Ex Rx: Sample Exercises

  • Toe Lift. Check if the hallux (great toe) can be lifted on its own. Progress to lifting each toe one at a time till they are all in the air. Then, place them down in order, fifth metatarsal to hallux. The narrow toe space in footwear creates weak toe abductors and tight adductors, preventing the natural spread of toes.
  • Toe Abduction. Standing barefoot, back hips up until weight is stacked over heels and toes are liftable. Work to spread toes away from each other, eliminating any toe joint extension. Flip-flops, another common footwear choice, have been shown to increase gripping action, leading to buckling (hammer toes) of the foot phalanges. Chronic tension in the flexed position can reduce the foot’s surface area, eventually leading to changes in balance.
  • Stretching the Toe Flexors. Standing, reach one leg behind you, placing the top of the foot on the ground. Slowly allow the ankle to plantar-flex. Toe cramping is normal—take a break when necessary and work up to holding 1 minute on each side.

General Guidelines for Footwear Transition

  • When switching to barefoot or minimalist footwear, give underutilized muscle time to develop. Begin foot exercises before switching, and continue the foot exercises while doing your whole-body training in less-supportive shoes.
  • Master shoeless walking before you try shoeless running. Running creates much greater forces in the joints of the foot, so walking is the more natural precursor to developing the appropriate strength for running.
  • If running, start with short distances—on dirt or grass—before logging longer runs.
  • Seek out expert guidance on running form. Regular running shoes offer excessive cushioning to protect against high joint forces. The better you align your feet while exercising, the less you will overload them.

For additional information, plus photographs of the three exercises, please see “Fit Feet: The Professional’s Guide to Training South of the Ankles” in the online IDEA Library or in the November-December 2011 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

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About the Author

Katy Bowman IDEA Author/Presenter