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In this article we’ll discuss the benefits of training barefoot AKA minimalist training.
We’re about to unlock a whole world of benefits waiting for you and your body, and it simply involves dumping your big, thick soled trainers and getting as close back to nature as you can (wherever reasonably possible).
Africa has produced so many world class, long distance runners over the years and it’s believed that this is largely thanks to a lack of reliance on footwear throughout history. People from this part of the world continued to predominately travel barefoot as other continents began to rely on additional footwear.
The result being that today, African runners appear to be more genetically gifted at continuously producing and absorbing force, as well as possessing the ability to cover long distances with fantastic efficiency in terms of energy consumption.
And it’s all thanks to maintaining the natural relationship between their feet and the ground. Obviously when competing, athletes will always wear supportive, comfortable footwear, but the foundation for success still remains within the shoe...the conditioning of the foot.
Here’s just some of the key benefits for footballers, which we will cover in more detail below are:
But first let’s unravel minimalist training in a bit more detail.
In terms of footwear for minimalist training, you’ve got 2 main options: barefoot or a specialist shoe like Vibram’s.
Generally, minimalist shoes incorporate design aspects which aim to reduce mechanical and sensory interference between the ground and your foot. This means a reduction in one or more of the following: midsole thickness, forefoot to heel elevation, heel counter stiffness and midsole stability elements.
Modern shoes change your gait - one of the most complex motor functions in the human body. Over time, this contributes to weakening the structure of your arches, toes, and ankles, thus significantly increasing your risk of developing injuries in the lower body.
Biomechanical changes include: changes in foot stance, postural alignment, body balance, body mechanics and weight distribution.
Wearing heels is particularly problematic (note that this doesn’t just mean high heels! Even slight heels can create issues) and forces a forward slant, putting most of your weight onto the ball of your foot instead of your heel (when barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes, weight is equally distributed). They’ll also shorten the Achilles tendon and the calf muscles - both are hugely important for maintaining normal gait, especially for running.
Many shoes also have a toe spring. You can see this when you put a pair of shoes flat on the ground - the toe is slightly raised, the result being that your toes are forced to roll forwards as you walk. This is a big problem…18 of the 19 tendons in your feet are attached to the toes and depend on them functioning as they should.
Modern shoes affect our sensory foot/body, foot/brain connection, which is crucial in maintaining your body’s stability, equilibrium and gait. The thicker and less flexible the shoe, the greater the negative impact. Over time, your feet will lose flexibility and elasticity (again increasing injury risk).
The feet, ankles and toes need to be trained just like any other body part. Skeletal muscles produce force but also act as shock absorbers. When skeletal muscles aren't activating properly, lots of stress is transferred to tendons, ligaments, joints and surrounding connective tissue.
The feet and ankles are designed to withstand incredibly high forces and should provide more in terms of shock absorption than other body parts.
Apart from minimising the ability to withstand intense ground reactive forces, wearing normal shoes when training results in the body sending fewer signals to the feet, leading to distortions in proprioception and loss of innervation all the way up the kinetic chain (your body’s connection and relationship to the ground is weakened, meaning it can’t react as quickly to changes to the surface). The result is that dysfunctional movement patterns are created throughout the body.
Training in shoes will compromise your training efforts and results. Squatting (for example) with weak ankles and feet often contributes to faulty hip and knee mechanics, affecting the position of the spine. Poor spinal alignment is linked with low back pain, neck impingement and shoulder injuries to name a few potential issues…
One main difference between being minimalist compared to wearing normal shoes is the way that the foot strikes the ground when you run.
When you’re barefoot, you use a midfoot to forefoot striking pattern. When you run in normal shoes you use a rearfoot to heel striking pattern. This foot striking position results in a shorter stride length and a higher step frequency (cadence).
Moving barefoot reduces the initial impact force due to the higher level of pre-activation in your calf muscles. It also lowers peak torques at the hip, knee and ankle and makes you more energy efficient as the energy demand for running increases about 1% for every 100 grams of additional mass on a foot (i.e. the heavier your shoe the less energy efficient you are when running).
When you train barefoot, you make direct contact with the ground, this develops proprioceptive awareness whereas normal shoes don’t require this ability to the same extent.
The sensory feedback from the sole of the foot activates a series of muscle contractions in the foot that allows for shock absorption and reduces impact transmission. A well-trained foot disperses pressure to a wider area, functionally avoiding injury.
In terms of making you more resilient to injury on the pitch, this helps your body to identify when it’s in a high-risk position or stance and provides the body with immediate information. This can then be used to quickly correct or prepare your body for what is about to happen. Even a split-second delay or a slight hinderance in this process could literally be the difference between you suffering an ACL injury or narrowly avoiding it.
Minimalist training unlocks the capacity to make faster gains in strength in the lower body as more of your lower body muscle is recruited/ activated for stabilisation (studies have shown that when squatting barefoot, you activate leg muscles to a greater degree during the eccentric phase (lowering) than when squatting with shoes on). If you’re doing plyometric work, training barefoot also decreases force at the knee, which again helps to prevent knee injuries from occurring.
To see significant changes in terms of muscle mass and performance, you need to be using minimalist footwear or training barefoot for around 6 months. You might see some benefits sooner, but they are unlikely to be noticeable until the 6-month mark. This is going to be a slow burner, but with great long-term rewards.
Of course, it would be impractical to expect you to start doing everything barefoot, especially when you’re not used to it. Furthermore, we are not recommending that you start playing football barefoot, as obviously you’re at a higher risk of injury without the protection you get from footwear.
However, you will benefit from getting back to basics and being barefoot whenever the opportunity strikes, for example:
Furthermore you'll maintain the progress you make in terms of muscle activation and proprioception etc. even when you have to put your boots back on for training.
And if you want to have even more opportunities to remain barefoot, then I recommend investing in a pair of minimalist shoes to wear when you’re out and about. They may not be the most stylish and they will take a couple of weeks to adjust to, but you will definitely start to notice the improvements in your strength and stability.
You'll feel muscles in your foot starting to work to keep you balanced that you didn't even know existed, which has a positive knock on affect on the rest of your body.
In terms of an investment in your body and career long term, it’s a no brainer. So many players are addressing problems in their hips or knees without getting their first point of contact with the ground sorted first (the root cause of so many problems), the feet.
Brown, S. E. (2013). Electromyographical Analysis of Barefoot Squat: A Clinical Perspective.
Chen, T. L. W., Sze, L. K., Davis, I. S., & Cheung, R. T. (2016). Effects of training in minimalist shoes on the intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscle volume. Clinical Biomechanics, 36, 8-13.
Rossi, W. A. (1999). Why shoes make “normal” gait impossible. Podiatry Management, 50.
Rothschild, C. (2012). Running barefoot or in minimalist shoes: evidence or conjecture?. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(2), 8-17.
Sinclair, J., Hobbs, S. J., & Selfe, J. (2015). The influence of minimalist footwear on knee and ankle load during depth jumping. Research in Sports Medicine, 23(3), 289-301.
Sinclair, J., McCarthy, D., Bentley, I., Hurst, H. T., & Atkins, S. (2015). The influence of different footwear on 3-D kinematics and muscle activation during the barbell back squat in males. European journal of sport science, 15(7), 583-590.