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We spend most of our waking day in shoes. We put on dress shoes in the morning for work, switch to running shoes for workouts in the gym, and then don slippers when we get home. With so much time spent in shoes, we’ve come to expect not only style, but also comfort in footwear.
Nowhere is this quest for comfort and performance more prevalent than in the athletic shoe industry. Since the introduction of the modern athletic shoe in 1972, manufacturers have spent countless time and expense on advancing its design. Now, even the idea of a microprocessor embedded in an arch barely raises an eyebrow.
But now some wonder if the demand for more bells and whistles has given rise to shoes that deliver too much of a good thing.
Many runners prefer to train on natural surfaces. They say they believe these surfaces reduce the stress on their joints and allow them to run longer distances. But is it the surfaces or the shoes that affect the runner?
When a runner trains wearing shoes, he will typically run using the inefficient heel strike gait mechanics. The heel strike creates stress that the runner absorbs with every stride. Those who run barefoot or in minimalist footwear, however, tend to have a midfoot strike — the heel and ball hit the ground simultaneously — or a forefoot strike — the ball of the foot strikes the ground first. These gaits are more natural and can even come down in such a way that nearly no collision force is generated, making the running surface irrelevant.
Indeed, shoes provide stability, comfort, support; but at the same time, they immobilize your feet and ankles. They restrict natural movement, allowing certain muscles to weaken. They increase the energy cost of exercise, as well as the risk of injury.
Analysis has also shown that the mechanics of running is actually altered when wearing shoes, with runners striking the ground with their heels instead of the more efficient forefoot strike. In fact, heel strikes cause repetitive impact forces by as much as three times the body weight with each stride.
These stresses are distributed across the body and can lead to pain and injury. This could help explain why the rate of ankle sprains and knee injuries for athletes has increased rather than decreased, despite the abundant options in athletic shoes.
A September 2010 article by Laura Miler in “Becker’s National Orthopedic and Spine Review” noted that “sports-related foot and ankle injuries are increasing among athletes,” And several other studies have shown that those who wear high-priced, high-performance athletic shoes are actually more likely to suffer an injury.
Not ready to go 100-percent barefoot? A number of footwear manufacturers are finally taking note and producing products designed for barefoot-style training.
Look for more flexible, thin soles that have a “zero” drop from the heel to the toe, Steve Maxwell, a strength specialist with MaxwellSC.com, says. Their level bottoms promote a more neutral midfoot to forefoot ground strike when running, rather than the heel strike that running shoes tend to encourage.
Before you jump into barefoot training, developing the strength of your feet and ankles will improve their overall dexterity and reactivity. Your balance, proprioception and quality of movement are also enhanced, and this benefits real-world activities, as well as training in the gym and for sports performance.
Yoga — which is intended to be barefoot — can help increase foot and ankle strength.
Just like what happens when wearing a cast, certain muscles will atrophy and weaken when wearing overly supportive shoes. So incorporating minimalist or barefoot training into your workout is something you should do gradually.
Start by doing your warm-ups in socks or bare feet if your gym permits it. This will give you a good introduction to the application and how it feels. Take it slowly and transition over a period of several months.
In the beginning, you’ll probably feel some discomfort. As you reawaken the muscles in your feet, ankles and calves, they may feel stiff and sore, and this is normal.
It’s not normal, though, to feel pain in your joints, bones or soft-tissue. This could indicate an injury. So if you experience aches of that sort, stop immediately and allow your body to rest and heal.
And if you have diabetes or any other condition that can cause a loss of sensation in your feet, keep your shoes on. Feedback from the feet is vital in barefoot and minimalist training to know how to adjust the movement you’re engaging in — or if you need to stop. Numb feet can’t provide this feedback and can be severely damaged.
As you build to more advanced movements like lunges, deadlifts, squats and step-ups, you’ll notice they feel amazing performed barefoot. Training this way promotes and develops the reactivity and stability of your feet, as well as the mobility of your ankles.
Have you ever tried barefoot or minimalist training? What did you think? How did you transition from shoes to no shoes? What advice would you give someone wondering about barefoot training? If you don’t train sans shoes, do you think you’ll give it a try? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below!
By Jim Smith
Originally Published By Livestrong.com