Why Barefoot Fitness?

By Albert Li

Right now you may be thinking, “Why barefoot fitness?” 

To some it conjures images of hippies trying to get in shape and to others, it is something they only do at the beach or a soft grassy park on a beautiful day. To us, it is the latest in the evolution of training methodologies, biomechanics and theory. 

While I was in the Naval Special Warfare community I was considered to be one of the better “shots” at the command. Colleagues would approach me and ask me if I had an extensive history of shooting and where I learned. I told them, “It’s all about fundamentals.” 

They often took this response as a conceited answer to avoid giving my “secrets.” Little did these men know that prior to my official training by the Navy, I had only gone shooting a grand total of three times with my father as a boy. Being Asian, he decided not to try and teach me high level methods reserved for the elite competition shooters, as he was, but teach me the fundamentals. He said, “Everything is built on these fundamental skills.” 

In case you are not too familiar with shooting a weapon, it is actually quite difficult if you are not properly trained. The slightest motion in your body such as the blood pumping though your hands, or the slight motion of your breathing can be the difference between a hit or miss at 500 yards. At this distance there are many variables to take into account, wind, breathing, body position, gun temperature, ambient temperature, ammunition type and many others. These variables only increase as the distance to your target increases.

Whenever my shooting was less than stellar, I would remind myself of my father’s words, “…fundamentals.” I would line up on the 2-yard line and begin shooting, putting each bullet through the hole I previously made. At four feet there are no longer many variables; at this point it’s either you or the gun. Once I realize that my performance hindrance is a simple fix such as the way I am pulling the trigger, I go back to the 5-yard line and put a dozen rounds in the same hole, then at the 10-yard line I repeat the process, and I do this until I am shooting perfectly. I did this because there was the potential for the day when one of my brothers lives would depend on my ability to put a bullet exactly where it was intended.

By now, you are probably thinking that I have digressed even further from the initial question of the question of “Why barefoot fitness?” I’m getting to that, I assure you. 

The human body is an extremely complex device with nearly infinite variables playing in an interconnected system. The point is this: when things become complicated, get back to fundamentals and try to remove as many variables as possible.

There are 23 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles in the foot alone, and it has taken millennia for our bodies to perfect the mechanics of this overlooked part of the human machine. Human kind has walked the earth without the aid of modern style footwear up until the middle-ages, and since then the shoe has evolved quite rapidly, while our bodies have not.

Most people search through shoe styles and brands to help remedy foot issues they develop. Doctors and trainers recommend shoe after shoe and inserts and orthotics in the quest to alleviate foot, ankle, knee, hip, and back issues. These are only putting band-aids on a gaping wound. It may help for a moment but it does not remedy the real issue at hand. Feet were not intended to be permanently encased in shoes.

Your chiropractor may be telling you he is fixing your back issues by realigning your back, but they do not often see that this is a result of a hip issue that is caused by foot and ankle problems. This interconnectedness is often referred to as the kinetic chain. Furthermore, each of the joints play a role in the mobility-stability continuum, or the evolutionary design in which there is a stable, then mobile, then stable joint; foot, ankle, knee, hip, lumbar spine, and so on. Knees are not meant to have much mobility in the side to side plane, but when the hips and/or ankles become immobile the knee will make adjustments to compensate and this compensation, in time, will reveal itself in knee problems.

None of this means that you have to cast off your shoes in an attempt to have healthy joints and posture, but it does show you how a few therapeutic exercises and practices can have a greatly positive effect on your health. The past few years have seen a change in footwear, and now many gym shoes and running shoes are made with little to no heel rise, and they enable the foot to function more naturally. 

There are a handful of podiatrists and doctors who are utilized to cite the counterpoints of the barefoot method in the popular media, but they only cite a few reasons and many of them are flawed. Many of these people say that modern men and women should avoid doing anything barefoot because our feet are not accustomed to it or that the world is more paved than it used to be. This former line of reasoning is to say that one should never lift heavy weights in the gym because one is currently unaccustomed to doing so. The point of being in the gym is to progress and become increasingly strong and physically capable. You begin with a manageable weight and work your way up as your body adapts.

The same concept can be applied to integrating barefoot training into your lifestyle. Start small, and gradually increase as you adapt. Don’t kick off your stiletto heels and go run a half-marathon barefoot, because you’ll hurt yourself. It takes time to make the transition, and training barefoot or with minimalist shoes is as much the end-goal of a progression as it is the method itself. This isn’t a magic fix for a lifetime of lost movement patterns.  

Most of these same anti-barefoot individuals know that the best marathoners from Kenya train without shoes. There was also a study done on rickshaw drivers in India who pull these old style taxis through the street completely barefoot. Surprisingly, examinations showed their feet to be in excellent health. Another example of what the body can achieve is the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. Ultra distance running is part of their culture and these people have won many of these international races barefoot or in roman styled sandals called huaraches. It is not uncommon for a Tarahumara to run 50 to 80 miles a day! Experts believe that these skills are not hereditary but a result of diet and conditioning, meaning you and I can develop at least a little of this skill.

If you peruse the training logs and forums on Elite Fitness Systems, home to some of the world’s strongest powerlifters, you’ll find that they’ve dug up research conducted by Eastern Bloc countries showing that simply walking barefoot on the beach had a therapeutic effect on their athletes and played a role in nervous system recovery. Many Russian strength coaches have advocated that heavy lifts such as the deadlift be performed without shoes because they weaken the kinetic chain and can actually lead to a degree of neurological inhibition. This is partly because the feet contain mechano-receptors or sensors that give the body feedback about its environment. While the rest of the body is getting stronger adapting to increasing weight bearing loads, your feet are tricked into thinking nothing has changed because of those nice cushy running shoes you have been wearing.

Why is it that the Tarahumaras are free from many of the ailments our modern society is plagued by? 

Certainly it is not just that they run and live barefoot or with highly simplistic footwear. This plays a definite role, but one must also consider the sedentary lifestyle we live in the West. Sitting in an office all day with everything within arm’s reach and minimizing anything physical plays a large role in our body’s devolution. 

Even our exercise has been transformed. Just peer into your neighborhood corporate gym. You see armies of people running side by side on treadmills, each with their own television and fan. Consider for a moment how many people you know who attend these sorts of places. How many of them are in good shape? Being in shape does not mean large biceps. Can they do pull-ups, push-ups, run, swim and pick up their kids without back pain? 

The good news is that there are people who train free from all the shiny machines and hi-tech looking devices. We at Barefoot Fitness are one of the few who focus on functional strength and real-world conditioning that will aid you in your day to day life. Good posture and joint mobility, two of the main issues we deal with, will keep you out of the doctor’s office more and establish a great foundation for healthy living. When your choices become too convoluted, remember “…Fundamentals.”

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