It was a hot summer day and I was done at the gym. After my workout I stopped by Fancy Nails for a Mani-Pedi but alas, I forgot my essential post pedicure flip-flops. On my way home I needed to stop at whole foods to grab one or two ingredients for my food prep so I was faced with a choice: Put my sneakers on and ruin my pedicure or run in barefoot. If you know me, I’m sure you can picture the scenario and appreciate the humor in it. You guessed it, I ran into whole foods barefoot – not the best decision I’ve ever made. By the time I got to isle 4 the manager approached me and asked that I either put my shoes on or leave. Ya, I guess I deserved that, considering it is a health code violation so I wasn’t that mad when she escorted me to the checkout area. It is whole foods after all and there is no real reason for me to be barefoot. At the gym, however, it is a different story altogether. When a trainer approaches me and informs me that “working out barefoot is not healthy” I smile politely and ignore her. Why? For the same reason I don’t workout blindfolded – I don’t typically workout with shoes on (depending on the type of workout I’m doing).
I’ll explain. At the bottom of your feet, there are receptors that give information to your brain about where your body is in space. It improves your balance, stability and helps your brain determine how much force to use for contracting and relaxing your muscles while they work. It helps your brain map out the route between where your body is and where it needs to go to perform a certain exercise. When you wear shoes you inhibit your body’s own ability to collect that information and use it to help you train better, kind of like eliminating one of your senses.
There is a misconception that the more support a shoe provides the better it is for your foot. Now, I’m not saying support is never needed but if you have a “neutral foot” and no specific needs, it is likely that full support shoes are actually detrimental to your training. It is also possible that if you have a tendency to turn your foot in or out (if you are a Pronator or a Supinator) you are missing the opportunity to self-correct by using a shoe that does the correcting for you.
Sneakers are designed to allow or prevent your foot from moving a certain way. Running shoes are intended to keep your foot moving in a forward motion so if you use those shoes for plyometric or weight lifting exercises you are not allowing side to side movement and you can’t grip the floor with your feet the way you could if you were barefoot. Full support sneakers at times act as a brace and while that may assist with stability in that moment, you are preventing your muscles from strengthening to provide real stability in the long run (no pun intended).
The modern society obsession with footwear starts way too early with “fashionable” baby shoes. As soon as a baby starts walking, we run out and buy them shoes that help them stabilize. What we are really doing is disrupting their natural development and cutting off the proprioception feedback loop. The truth is, if we want to do right by our children, we should limit the time they wear shoes and socks the same way we limit their iPad and TV time. Schools should have them place their shoes in their cubby and allow them to walk around class barefoot. Ya….it’s a bit out there but why not?
Whenever this subject comes up in conversation or at the gym there are some questions that inevitably follow. I’ll try to address a few but please feel free to write in if I missed any:
- Doesn’t it hurt your feet? People are so used to wearing shoes that their feet become extremely sensitive and it does take a bit of time to get used to the sensation. Some floors are easier on the feet than others. Like anything else, I would say ease into it and find what works for you.
- Aren’t you afraid of working out on a dirty floor? C’mon, you’re at the gym, people sweat all over that yoga mat and the bicycle seat. I choose my fitness centers wisely and trust they keep it as clean as possible. Then I go home and shower.
- What if you drop a weight on your foot? That is always a possibility but unless you are working out in work boots with a metal toe box, I don’t think you’d be that much better off, even with full support sneakers. It’s a risk–benefit analysis – I am willing to take the chance.
- Do you run barefoot? I don’t. I think there are other safety issues to consider when you are outdoors, but to those who do – more power to you! I used to run in full support shoes because I thought it would help my knee pain. As it turns out, it didn’t. Getting to the root of the knee pain and fixing that helped my knee pain, and in turn, my running. I run in minimal support shoes that allow me to feel the surface I am running on and allow my feet free range of motion.
- Ok, I’m not willing to go barefoot just yet but what should I look for in sneakers?First and foremost, realize that sneakers have an expiration date. Even if you haven’t used them much, the foam they are made of hardens as time goes by. Sneakers should be replaced every 9 months or so. Make sure you have plenty of room in the toe box for your toes to spread as needed and consider going up half a size from your regular shoes as your feet swell during your workout. They should be made of flexible, breathable material and soles you can twist and bend. My favorites are the New Balance Minimus and VivoBarefoot brands.
As always, I am not here to tell you your doctor was wrong, just to give you some food for thought. If there are circumstances that call for supportive footwear – go for it. However, if this is just something that never crossed your mind, I hope you give this stuff a try!