Barefoot Training for Performance

If personal hygiene is a point of emphasis in your life—you would know if it’s not—barefoot training is the way to go. Meaning, if no one close to you has let you know that you smell, and you are interested in optimal health, performance, and the reduction of injury, most everything you do should be done without shoes on.

Really, everything.

(Socks count as “barefoot”, in most instances, not impeding any of the benefits. Just an FYI, for you and for smell.)

First, though, before highlighting the profound barefoot impact in my life, I have one disclaimer to make. It doesn’t seem like something that should be necessary to say—of the commonsense variety—but there are some absolute renegades out there that take online content as medical, licensed advice and prescription. So:

I am not a doctor. I do not speak on behalf of any doctors. I read, and listen, and I will always try to find what works best and is most sustainable for my mind and body. When I find things that have worked for me, things routed in sound science or theory, I like to share them with others. I am simply sharing what has worked for me, what I believe to be true; what is helping me qualify for the Boston Marathon… If any of the me-not-being-a-doctor part surprises you, or you feel compelled to ignore the warning, just know that I recorded the sound of a recent bathroom session—a #2—last week, and I messaged the audio-clip to a lifelong friend;  because it made me chuckle.

Not a doctor.

A little over three years ago I made the decision to start running. Nancy had just visited and pointed to my neck/chin—and the abundance of it—on a double-digit count while in town, so some action was required.

I turned to running.

Within months, fueled for weight loss, I began logging 20, sometimes 30 miles a week.

I was running.

A lot.

And I was hurting (IT band, sore feet, lower back, shin splints, liver—ibuprofen like skittles—etc), a lot. It is the story and theme we’ve all heard, the long-distance running isn’t good for the body rallying-cry/declaration. I started saying it, and believing it, because it seemed to be true.

And then, I took off my shoes…

(That’s a little dramatic, I did some research first.)

I read “Born to Run”, Christopher McDougal’s essential runner’s read, like so many others, and instantly was drawn to the premise/story: some of the best runners in the world run/train, injury free and barefoot, and shoes/orthotics can take us away from optimal health and functionality. Intrigued, and a big fan of the holistic feet-to-ankle-to-hips ground up approach, I delved a little further.

Kobe Bryant championed for basketball shoes to be low-tops, as minimal-like as possible, just like soccer cleats, because with high-tops and ankle braces one can never develop real strength in the feet and ankles. Obviously, as noted above, the feet and ankles lead to everything else.

Kelly Starrett, a world-renowned physical therapist and trainer (“The Supple Leopard”) chronicled his efforts with barefoot work inside the gym, during all types of movements and lifts. Barefoot, we can strengthen muscle synergies and stabilizers that shoes limit and we can correct postural imbalances.

(Quick note about shoes: Shoes aren’t evil, and unless you’re able to begin that beachside bartending career you’ve always had on your mind, you will need to continue to wear them. Just know that shoes are designed to remove tension and strain from your feet, thusly eliminating opportunity to utilize and build musculature)

And, in a less anatomical, scientific regard, tons of spiritual practices note barefoot connection to the earth as a paramount walking, grounding practice.

So, as previously noted, I took off my shoes.

And then, up there next to snuggle sessions with Sunnie (insert inappropriate hand-stroking gesture here), barefoot training/living became the most impactful implementation of my adult life.

I realize that’s dramatic—both the “most impactful” remark and then noting that anything could compare to a Sunnie Bear snuggle sesh (same)—but it is an absolute personal truth.

By making a commitment to my feet, pursuing our most natural, unadulterated strength, the rest of my body has benefited. The pain, and discomfort that my early running efforts induced, went away. Not magically, or instantaneously, but gradually; the pain that was pervasive, faded. I started to feel stronger, and more athletic, too. Moving barefoot put me in greater connection with imbalances and tightness in my body—not just my feet—that before I didn’t heed, or couldn’t feel. I was strengthening musculature that had been underutilized and I was correcting posture that was improper. Ultimately, barefoot training is one of the main reasons I am writing this, why I am now able to pursue a goal as arduous as a 3:00 marathon. Below, in bullet form, because it requires less skill as a writer, I’d like to expound and tell you why; what I do and how I utilize barefoot training:

  • Around the house:
    • Gradual implementation is key. Many runners, and even non-runners, felt some type of way after reading the aforementioned “Born to Run”, because they said they experienced severe tendinitis in both feet and knees. They read the book and started running barefoot, IMMMEDIATELY…Respectfully, those people are very dumb and deserve the tendinitis, and probably shouldn’t have the right to vote.
    • I began walking around my home, inside and out, barefoot. Shoes and sandals became obsolete at Beaucadia (what I named my house, because I’m that cool). This was a way I could begin to really analyze my stride and feel areas that were either over, or underactive. And I started developing strength in my feet, in a safe, clean (it is clean, Nancy) environment. Deficiencies I had developed over time were addressed, and felt, and new muscle synergies started forming. Gradually.
  • In the gym:
    • When barefoot you are in your greatest state of full body awareness. With movements like the squat, or lunge, or hops and jumps, just to note a few, you are fully tuned to your movement patterns. These are complex, full-body movements—everything is connected and starts from the ground. I did not begin developing real, functional full-body strength until I began performing barefoot exercises in the gym: feeling everything.
  • Grass/Turf Sprints:
    • This is a progression that needs to be made after several months of barefoot assimilation, but it is undoubtedly the best thing for developing strength and speed. Think about when you were a kid and you were athletic and light on your feet and running on grass. Without shoes, in an organic way, your stride and the way you land will gravitate towards what is most effective and efficient. I perform one or two thirty-minute sprint workouts a week on a grassy soccer field near my home. I’ve both lengthened my stride and corrected a hip imbalance/tightness, simply by tuning into these barefoot sprints.
  • Mindful Grounding:
    • I might lose some people here, but it wouldn’t be genuine to note barefoot training without noting what it has done for my mindfulness/happiness… Grounding is an integrative attempt to mindfully connect to the present moment and the earth. Anytime I’m outside I take a moment, either slowly walking, or standing, and I breath down through my whole body and through my feet into the earth. No, I don’t take acid, and I’ve never voted for Bernie Sanders, but I believe in the connectivity of this world, and my feet are sensory organs that connect me to everything; through the ground, to the earth. It can be a powerful, simple practice that cuts through the noise and distraction of frenetic life and takes you to what matters: the present moment.

Hopefully the barefoot way is something you will look into. I have been injury free for the past 18 months, running, exercising, undisputed corn-hole champion of East Baton Rouge Parish, and I feel amazing.

I won’t conclude with too woo-woo of a sentiment, but we as people are closest to our optimum when we are removed from artificial devices and distraction. Physically, barefoot training puts us in our most natural state, using ALL of our muscle groups, and we are able to tap into so much inner strength and functionality. Simple is almost always better, and simply moving, barefoot, has been the greatest catalyst for me and my pursuit of Boston.

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