Safety / Injuries | Training Tips

Barefoot Training: How Does Footwear Affect the Human Body?

Barefoot training is exercising without footwear or very minimal material enclosing the feet. Training with minimal material around the foot allows the feet muscles to function better than if they had cushioned heels. As a trainer, there is a lot to consider with barefoot training due to safety concerns, chance of injury, and gym rules. 

As a professional, you should know what type of shoe your clients should be wearing during each specific workout they perform. Considered this in your client’s daily activities of living as well.

With 206 bones in the body and 52 originating in the feet, we can understand how important it is to care for our client’s feet strength and stability. The feet are responsible for transferring body weight to propel the entire body forward. Let’s explore the benefits of having stronger feet and learn how to implement these practices into your client’s programs.

Benefits of Proper Footwear

The human body is designed to function without external feet support. When we train barefoot, stabilizer muscles and connective tissue suddenly activate. This does not happen to the same extent when our clients wear sneakers. Training barefoot allows the body to take on stress applied to the body that sneakers normally take over. Strength gains within the feet help improve body awareness, balance, and body alignment.

If you apply barefoot training to your client’s program, they may notice improvements in overall stability, body awareness, feet strength, and proprioception. Finding the right shoe for clients—regular or barefoot-style—helps increase leg strength, which allows the body to encounter better shock absorption. With enhanced shock absorption, the body tolerates stress applied to the body in an injury-free manner.

Body Awareness

The feet contain peripheral nerves and thousands of other nerves that impact a client’s awareness of their body position. These peripheral nerves are responsible for sending signals to the brain. If these nerves do not respond correctly clients lose muscle control and feeling throughout the body. This leads to disruptions in keeping the body upright and stabilized. Barefoot running will allow the nerves to send signals to the body improving muscle mind connections.

Stability and Agility

The type of shoe your clients wear sets the foundation for proper movement. Shoes take away the stress that feet and ankles should be dealing with and adapting to. This diminishes ankle stability and strength, which is vital to human performance. Ankle stability and agility have a major impact on client results, especially in athletes. 

Fewer Muscle Imbalances

Shoes that provide this excess support create imbalances that later lead to injuries. Shoes can hide clients’ weaknesses, whereas training barefoot often reveals the imbalances that need addressing. This natural barefoot movement amplifies ankle, knee, and hip mobility issues. All of which are observed through foot pronation, range of motion, gait, stiffness, and painful movement.

If your client has good proprioception then they have a good sense of where their body is in space. Barefoot training can help improve this due to movement patterns the brain records. The plantar surface of the feet plays a major role in muscle connections and movement patterns. Proprioceptors help activate feet muscles to provide stability for the body to transfer weight. If these proprioceptors are firing, your client will experience fewer muscle imbalances and better results.

Running and Overuse Injuries Relating to Footwear

Barefoot training has pros and cons just like anything else. Wearing shoes can weaken muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the feet. They prevent natural arches from doing their job.

Overuse injuries can arise from how a client’s feet strike the ground. Some non-barefoot shoes provide too much ankle support. Well-designed shoes maintain a neutral ankle. However, this limits range of motion. And that affects the natural pattern of the feet, interfering with proprioception and gait.

Striking the ground with the heel first applies excess pressure to bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons. This leads to ankle, knee, and hip issues. A cushioned shoe promotes more dorsiflexion and plantar flexion, which will slow your client. The faster your client strikes the ground with the balls of their feet and picks them back up, the faster they run.

Overuse injuries result from repeatedly performing an incorrect movement. Running on your heels commonly causes discomfort, inflammation, and pain. Training technique paired with correct footwear helps prevent biomechanical issues. Clients wearing improper footwear are more prone to injuries, such as plantar fasciitis and stress fractures. 

Plantar Fasciitis 

This issue results from constant pressure and impact on the heel. The plantar fascia and connective tissue located around the heel bone becomes inflamed and this causes pain.

Modifying the natural arch of our client’s feet through shoes causes problems. One way to prevent this is by finding a minimalist barefoot shoe that aids in creating stronger feet. 

If your client has plantar fasciitis, avoid performing high impact exercises and try to develop better shock absorption.

Stress Fractures

These are another common injury from incorrect overuse. The pain caused by stress fractures comes from cracks that arise in bone. These cracks appear from constant pressure the bone cannot withstand. 

Shin splints are a form of stress fractures often found in runners. They also affect the metatarsals and tibia. Many factors play a role in contributing to stress fractures such as bone density. Thought the first line of defense is our body's natural protective mechanism of shock absorption. Training with barefoot running shoes can teach proper shock absorption and impact techniques.

Gear to Support Injury-Free Fitness

Wearing minimalist running shoes has the potential to help your clients improve natural gait and strengthen tendons, ligaments, and muscles in the feet. 

These shoes provide less elevation at the heel and support the calf muscle with mobility and flexibility. This allows the Achilles tendon attached to the calf to have better range of motion. Every time the calf muscle flexes, it pulls on the Achilles tendon. Be cautious so it does not become too stiff. 

Elevated heels create stiffness and mobility issues. These issues do not allow your clients to run or walk according to their arch. This can create further injury through improper foot mechanics. 

As athletes adapt to training with minimalist shoes and soft surfaces, they will experience better flexibility in the tendons. Tendons normally have a lack of blood flow. This creates an environment more prone to injury. 

Athletic Footwear for Clients

Running completely barefoot is not realistic in most situations. If your client opts for minimalist shoes, encourage them to select a supportive style specific to the type of training you prescribe them. 

The minimalist shoe should mimic the shape of the foot as closely as possible. It should aid in protecting tendons, ligaments, and surrounding muscles of the foot. Look for minimalist shoes that fit like a sleeve rather than providing too much stiffness and cushion. 

Remember that every client’s feet are different, including the arch and the way they strike the ground. Take it slow with clients new to barefoot training. Too much impact and compression can affect the lower extremity. 

Most importantly, you want your clients to have the right shoes that create the right movement patterns. Instability in the feet affects the entire kinetic chain.

Looking to expand your knowledge of exercise therapy to better assess clients? ISSA’s Exercise Therapy Certification will teach you techniques and exercises to rehabilitate your clients from injuries they may experience from training.

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