How to Become a Barefoot Athlete
Barefoot running has been around since man learned to walk. Several of the top champions in track and field have competed barefoot, a list that includes South Africa’s Zola Budd, who dominated women’s middle distance running in the 1980s.
Christopher McDougall’s recent book Born to Run rekindled interest in barefoot running by suggesting that we’re born to run as our ancestors did thousands of years ago when they went barefoot. This promotes a natural spring-like stride on the balls of our feet that dissipates force and allows us to run longer and without injury. Athletes’ Performance founder Mark Verstegen says training in minimalist footwear can be beneficial in a number of ways, though athletes should ease their way into it to prevent injuries and get the best results.
In 2011 Verstegen helped launch the adidas adiPure Trainer, the first barefoot gym shoe, and is a proponent of such footwear. But he stresses that it’s a misnomer that minimalist footwear automatically fixes poor movement patterns.
“If you have poor movement patterns and put on these shoes or no shoes, it’s only going to accentuate the forces going through the body,” Verstegen says. “If you go to less structured shoes, you might not be able to handle the same load. If you don’t step back first, you’ll set yourself up more for injury.” Here are four ways to get the most out of your minimalist footwear:
1. Make it a gradual process.
Step down gradually. Go from a traditional stability shoe to a performance trainer to “barefoot” shoes. Give yourself at least several weeks to let your movement patterns adapt.
Just as Movement Prep is an effective way to prepare your entire body for movement, it’s also an efficient means to condition your feet. Start with a morning routine of rolling your feet one at a time for 30 seconds on a baseball, tennis ball, or golf ball. This turns on the hip stabilizers, releases the fascia, and activates the various trigger points in the foot. It also reinforces the importance of the big toe.
“This gets you out of your shoes and rolling over that big toe, which most people aren’t accustomed to,” Verstegen says. “The big toe is the trigger to the whole kinetic chain. That’s why if people are walking, we want them walking straight ahead rolling over the big toe.”
2. Prehab your feet.
Many newcomers to toe shoes complain that it’s difficult to spread their toes apart sufficiently to slip into the shoes quickly. Verstegen says that’s the fault of the user, not the shoe. “You should be able to extend the toes and slide them right in,” Verstegen says. “How quickly you can put on these shoes demonstrates the level of dexterity and motor control you have.”
Verstegen calls this a part of “phlangeal fitness.” We should be able to separate our toes as easily and we do our fingers. But years of wearing shoes conditions our feet otherwise. The solution? Take off your shoes and socks regularly and work on moving your toes apart from one another.
3. Pay attention to stride.
Don’t assume those new shoes have fixed your stride. Verstegen says 75 percent of endurance athletes tend to be heel strikers, a function of wearing shoes with a wide heel box in back. This promotes a lazier running style with a longer stride length and more time in the air between strides. This increases the forces driving up through the heels, knees, and lower back, leading to hamstring injuries and plantar fasciitis.
With minimalist shoes, the feet should contact the ground underneath the hips, producing a more efficient transfer of energy through the body. Stride length becomes shorter and more compact. The feet respond by naturally increasing the arch strength of the foot.
“Think of that arch like the springs in your car,” Verstegen says. “If I have a nice arch, when my foot hits the ground, the arch expands like a spring and snaps back. That’s the goal of the arch—to store and release energy. It lengthens and snaps back. In normal shoes, we lose a lot of these dynamics.”
4. Employ proper recovery techniques.
It’s normal to have some soreness when transitioning to minimalist footwear, but stop if you’re having any pain. Do arch rolls on a tennis ball, baseball, or golf ball before and after training with minimalist footwear and use a soft tissue massage stick on your calves. Foot hygiene is always important, but especially when shifting to minimalist footwear. Look for cuts or breaks in the skin, calluses, and blisters. Keep toenails trimmed and neat. Wearing minimalist footwear makes you more prone to ingrown toenails, which can be as debilitating as turf toe or an ankle injury.
“People don’t take care of their feet, especially guys,” Verstegen says. “Taking care of your feet is important if you’re going to experience the benefits of training with a minimalist shoe.”
About The Author
Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.