Shoes… to Shoe or Not to Shoe When Training

by:Vu Nguyen May 27, 2017

We were all, without exception, born barefoot. Not a single person in the history of man was born rocking a pair of Nikes, Reeboks, or Converses on our feet. But, this state of bare-footedness doesn’t last very long. Shortly after, we are fitted for our very first, of many, pieces of footwear (“shoes”). And, from that point, our feet forever lose their freedom.

Don’t get me wrong. Shoes do serve a very important purpose; shoes protect your feet from the elements.

The correct shoes can help you brave the cold and snow. The correct shoes will allow you to tackle rough terrain. Shoes also have the added benefit of being a versatile fashion accessory; matching that black dress, blue jeans, or summer skirt.

Proceed With Caution

We live in a society where safety is of utmost concern – where products, whether worn, applied, or ingested that have the potential to cause adverse short-term and/or long-term effects come with some form of “proceed with caution” label. Cigarettes may cause cancer, medication may cause dizziness, food may cause allergy.

So, why don’t shoes come with any warnings? It is uncommonly known that prolonged use of shoes commonly leads to both short-term and long-term complications. And, not only complications of the feet. Prolonged use of footwear can create issues up the entire posterior chain. That is the true beauty of the human body – it is a synchronous and harmonious system.

Shoes commonly lead to issues such as bunions, corns, and athlete’s foot. This is simply a function of cramming our feet into a confined space. These issues won’t be addressed in this article.

Foot Design 101

In this article, I want to focus on shoes and how they affect the integrity of the feet – the integrity of the feet as it pertains to their design and intended utility. When you break down the foot, you start to realize and appreciate the brilliance of Mother Nature in her design – this design really should be patented!

Each foot is equipped with three arches which, in combination, are designed to adapt to the surface you’re on and to respond with proper movement mechanics and weight distribution. Also embedded into our feet are sensory receptors, called proprioceptors, which interpret and send information to the brain. This includes information about the surface you’re on and about the foot itself such as orientation and position in free-space. Proprioception contributes to both environmental and body awareness.

We don’t actively think about this but when we walk, the simplest of all movement patterns, all of this comes into play. We don’t actively think about this because we’ve all been walking the majority of our lives. But, what about climbing, jumping, throwing, lifting, moving quickly, or moving through multiple planes of motion. Although the mechanics of these movements may differ, they have one thing in common – through the entirety of these movements, the feet are the only part of the body in contact with the ground. So, doesn’t it make sense, intuitively, that optimal movement is dependent on the optimal function of the feet?

Cover or Leave Bare?

Here’s where the dilemma kicks in. The same shoes that were designed to protect you from the elements also suppress the natural ability of your feet. Remember that the natural arches in your feet are designed to adapt to the environment and respond with proper movement mechanics and bodyweight distribution. Shoes, but more specifically the artificial arches and padding that they provide, compromise this natural ability and lead to faulty mechanics. And because your feet are the foundation of the entire body, the faulty mechanics transfer through the entire posterior chain. This is how footwear, especially the wrong footwear, causes back pain. And I’m still only talking about walking! Let’s not talk about loading your back for weighted squats!

Let’s not forget the proprioceptors in your feet. The better the information your brain receives about the surface you’re on, hardness, unevenness, etc., and the better the information it has about the feet’s location in free space, the better it’s able to make informed decisions on how to move. The integrity of this information is correlated to the integrity of your feet’s sense of touch so it is simple to conclude that a lifetime of wearing shoes will affect the integrity of your foot proprioception. Imagine wearing padded gloves on your hands as often as you wore shoes on your feet. Imagine how much dexterity you would lose. Now consider that your feet are the ONLY point of contact with the ground anytime you’re upright. It’s your base of stability. Once your stability is compromised, an injury is right around the corner.

Retrain Your Feet

Let’s not go overboard with my message – I’m certainly not advocating for a life without shoes. Shoes have their place. I can’t imagine trekking through the snow or strolling through the mall without shoes. What I’m saying is that we should all have the ability to perform (the majority) of our activities in our most natural state – without shoes. This includes walking, running, and yes, even training.

As it pertains to training, it holds especially true for functional training, the training of movement. The purpose of functional training is to correct and maximize your daily movement patterns so doesn’t it make sense that it’s of utmost importance that the mechanics have to be correct from the foundation up?  Your shoes create artificial contact with the ground and, over time, compromises the mechanics of your ankles, which will gradually transcend up to your knees and hips and then ultimately, your spine. The more unnatural, the more this effect is amplified. Those of you who wear high heels all day, keep this in mind. Training without shoes will allow you to slowly undo the faulty mechanics you’ve developed and to reset the sensitivity of the proprioceptors you’ve suppressed.

Don’t go all in all at once though. You’ve spent a lifetime wearing shoes so you can’t expect the correction to be immediate. Like any other body part, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. And in the lifetime that you’ve worn shoes, you really haven’t used your feet (properly). This correction needs to be gradual or you will subject yourself to injury. Similar to any other body part, training of the feet has to be controlled and gradual.

Whether or not you decide to incorporate this modality of training, consider this. Yoga, karate, and Mixed Martial Arts are fine-tuned arts that not only require skill but also the flawless combination of stability, mobility, agility, proprioception, and precise movements through multiple planes of motion. It’s no coincidence that these skilled arts are all trained au natural.

Remember the adage, “Your house is only as strong as its foundation.” Well, your body, in its entirety, is only as strong as your feet.

And, I totally get it. Your traditional big box gyms won’t condone your bare-footedness. Well, if all of the above makes sense to you, perhaps it’s time to find another platform by which to incorporate shoeless training.