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.

IDEA Fit Tips , Volume 9, Issue 12

© 2011 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Katy Bowman IDEA Author/Presenter

10 Comments

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  • Barbara Murray

    I wholeheartedly agree that everyone needs more barefoot time. I have been practicing and teaching yoga for ten years but am also a runner. I attribute my long term lack of foot and leg injury from running in large part to my contemporaneous yoga practice. I have moved to a much lighter shoe (Nike Free) and am now in process of working the Five Fingers slowly into my running routine.
    Commented Dec 02, 2011
  • George Tabares

    Great article. Thanks!
    Commented Dec 02, 2011
  • User

    try the willPower & grace class! A great way to strengthen your feet and entire body barefoot!
    Commented Dec 02, 2011
  • User

    Can you give me some research proof of any of your claims. All this sounds logical but I have yet to see any scientific proof
    Commented Dec 01, 2011
  • User

    love this article - very useful to pass on to my clients at www.somaranch.com. I've found the best place to buy and recommend clients buy 5 fingers are REI - it's a fabulous store that is actually a co op. Love supporting this model of business, receiving 5-10% back on already great priced products and finally with REI if you are dissatisfied with something you buy there at ANY time they will provide a full refund - that includes used foot wear!! can't beat that - and I have found it essential to get the right style and size to really make this product work well.. I LOVE my 5 fingers :-) HelenTerry@somaranch.com
    Commented Dec 01, 2011
  • User

    As a yoga instructor, we Yogi's have known the importance of being barefoot all along!
    Commented Dec 01, 2011
  • User

    Thank you for posting this article - very valuable information. I teach Pilates and have been advocating more barefoot training and barefoot living for years. I see such a difference in my clients overall posture and well-being after bringing awareness to their feet.
    Commented Nov 30, 2011