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Benefits of barefoot training

Updated: Mar 25

By Alice Ha​ll​

Ditch your trainers to protect your feet? It sounds counter-intuitive but that's exactly what a growing number of experts recommend

Would you take the plunge and go for a walk barefoot? Although the thought of bearing our feet – bunions and all – fills most of us with dread, exercising without shoes has grown in popularity in recent years. Scarlett Johansson, Kate Hudson and Channing Tatum are all said to be fans.

But as with any trend, there is always one person who takes it further than the rest. Matthew Disney, a former marine, recently completed his “most painful” challenge yet by walking the “Bob Graham Round” – 42 fells in the Lake District – entirely barefoot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is the first person to complete the route without wearing any shoes – a feeling, he says, “you don’t get numb to”.

Disney, from Preston, said his feet were “slightly swollen” after the 66-mile walk and they looked like “Hobbit feet”. He added: “I was in such a dark place halfway through this challenge.” Yet the 38-year-old is no stranger to ditching his shoes. He trained by walking barefoot on a treadmill and the hike was the tenth challenge he has completed barefoot, including the Yorkshire Three Peaks.

Disney joins a long line of hobbyists who extol the benefits of exercising barefoot. One of the key pioneers of the movement is Dr Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University – better known as “The Barefoot Professor”. Mire than a decade ago, Dr Lieberman decided to ditch his trainers and start running both barefoot and in specially designed “minimal shoes”. One of his studies in 2010 found that barefoot runners, who often land on their fore-foot, create less impact shock than runners in sport shoes who land heel first. Dr Lieberman also believes that modern running trainers are the root cause of the injuries that “65 to 80 per cent” of runners suffer every year.

“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet and had much lower incidence of knee injuries,” he wrote in Born To Run. Research from the University of Exeter in 2016 found that runners wearing high-tech expensive trainers were more likely to injure themselves than those who wore simpler shoes with no cushioning.

Fans of exercising barefoot cite many health benefits, including improved posture, stronger foot muscles an increased awareness of imbalances and better stability, to name a few. A 2019 study published in the journal Nature found that wearing shoes changes our sensitivity to the ground, affecting balance and the force put on our joints, and notes that there could be potential future consequences for our whole bodies. On a biological level, this idea has some merit, explains Dr Kris D’Aout, a senior lecturer in musculoskeletal and ageing science at the University of Liverpool. For around six to seven million years, says Dr D’Aout, humans lived barefoot; it is only in the last 200,000 years that shoes became commonplace. He explains that, from an evolutionary perspective, going barefoot “allows your body to function” as it first did.

“When you run with cushioned shoes you’re cheating your body into thinking your landing is soft, meaning you tend to land very abruptly on your heels. If you run barefoot, you will develop stronger foot muscles,” he says. However, Dr D’Aout isn’t against wearing shoes entirely. Rather, he thinks we need to reframe our approach to footwear and opt for “minimal shoes” which replicate the experience of being barefoot, where possible. “For athletes, it might make sense to train in minimal shoes. Then, when you put a strong foot into a good trainer, you have the best possible combination.”

Indeed, there are plenty of options on the market. Vivo Barefoot, one of the biggest retailers, promises shoes that “promote your foot’s natural strength and movement”, while “bringing you closer to nature”, while Freet BareFoot markets shoes that don’t strangle “the astonishing network of muscles, ligaments and nerves”.

Some experts believe that going barefoot can also help us in the gym. Nancy Best, personal trainer and founder of Ladies Who Crunch, explains that most running trainers are actually too supportive for gym-based activities like weight training. “For functional movement patterns, you want to ground through the heels as much as you can to give you more stability. This increases the force with which you can push through the floor, particularly when it comes to unilateral movements like lunges. The more you can do that without shoes on, the better the muscle capability will be,” she says.

One theory about barefoot lifting centres around the foot’s nervous system. Since the feet are rich with nerves that connect with other parts of the body, going barefoot can activate the extra muscle fibres in your body to help you lift heavier weights and reap more muscle-building benefits. However, the evidence around this remains small. A US study found that, when squatting barefoot, participants activated some leg muscles to a greater degree than when they squatted with shoes; however, this was only during the exercise’s lowering phase and not when rising up out of the squat.

Dr D’Aout errs on the side of caution when it comes to stripping off our feet entirely, and says people looking to exercise barefoot should think of it as a gradual transition. “It puts slightly more load onto your feet and your calf muscles but lower loads on your hips and knees. A slow adjustment to minimal running is usually best,” he says. Risks of transitioning to barefoot exercise too quickly include Achilles strain or tendonitis, metatarsal fractures, blisters and cutting your foot on an object.

If you’re making the switch to minimalist footwear, spend a few days padding around the house in them, to try and get used to landing on your midfoot, rather than your heel. If you are going completely barefoot, start by just standing on a hard surface, such as gravel, to build up toughness on the soles of your feet. When you start your training, don’t increase your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent each week.

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