“Shoes off, socks off.” Those four words are heard before every B Sports Performance training session. Our athletes train barefoot, something most training facilities don’t require of their athletes. I myself never trained barefoot as an athlete, however, like most of us, I was unaware of the benefits. Let’s take a quick look into the history of barefoot training, the anatomy of the feet, and what the benefits of training barefoot are.
In 1960, Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila won gold and set a new world record in the Summer Olympics in Rome. The story has it that the team shoes that Abebe was given for the race hurt his feet and did not fit him, so he decided that he would run just like he trained back home, barefoot. This victory brought world-wide attention to the concept of running and training barefoot, even though it had been going on for much of human history.
Anatomy of the Feet
The foot is comprised of 26 bones, 33 joints, and 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments, all to stabilize and balance the weight of the body. While the bones in our feet are there to execute subtle movements and shifts in weight to maintain balance during movement, the numerous tendons that attach bone to bone and ligaments from bone to muscle allow our powerful muscles to move us. There are two groups of muscles of the feet: extrinsic and intrinsic. The extrinsic muscles of the feet are responsible for eversion, inversion, plantarflexion, and dorsiflexion activities. Many of these muscles are attached to the dorsum (top) of the foot. Intrinsic feet muscles are located within the foot and are responsible for fine motor functions, such as moving individual toes. Two intrinsic muscles are attached to the dorsum to aid the extrinsic muscles while ten intrinsic muscles are attached to the sole (bottom) of the foot to stabilize the arch.
Benefits of Barefoot Training
Barefoot training provides several important athletic benefits for movement and health. When we train barefoot, we experience an increase in strength of many of the muscles in the foot, ankle, and even calf. Many of these stabilizing muscles provide support for the joints at the muscle attachment points. While running shoes, cleats, turfs, and tennis shoes provide support, they don’t work as many of the muscles which can lead to underdevelopment and biomechanical weaknesses. The greater the muscular development of our feet, the more balance and stability we possess.
We also experience an increase in mobility while training barefoot. Without the restriction of sneakers, our body’s ability to move the foot, ankle, and leg is improved. Because of this, the recruitment of numerous muscle fibers is triggered, resulting in increased neuromuscular pathways of the foot and leg to be utilized. With the increase of our muscular mobility, the ability to create strong and powerful movements is intensified while ensuring we limit the risk of injury. Moreover, we are able to keep the structure of our foot, such as the arch, uncompromised.
An increase of proprioception also occurs while training barefoot. Proprioception involves body awareness (knowing where you are) during movement and positioning of the body. While in direct contact with the ground, the nervous system is able to have an in-tune connection to where we are and can determine the amount of strength and mobility needed to successfully create a movement pattern. With continued practice, our conscious and subconscious movements become more engrained so that they are performed with greater ease and consistency.
Training barefoot is an important aspect to athletic development. Most of our lives are spent balancing, shifting, and moving on our two feet, especially in the athletic world, yet we don’t train our feet as much as we should. Since most of us need to create strong and powerful movements starting with our feet on the ground, it is wise to make sure that our strength, mobility, and ability to move from our feet are as optimized as much as possible. So the next time you train, or even walk around outside, try going barefoot to give yourself an edge.