Advance with MUSC Health

The Benefits of Barefoot Training

Advance With MUSC Health
February 14, 2023
Barefoot person standing on grass next to athletic shoes.

By Amber Andrews, ATC 

Training barefooted has been a topic of discussion in sports for over a century. Here, MUSC Health Athletic Trainer Amber Andrews, ATC, offers the case for athletes going barefoot when warming up. 

In 1905, Dr. Phil Hoffmann published research on barefoot training, comparing the feet of barefooted and shoe-wearing people. It became a popular topic again in 1960 when an Ethiopian runner won the marathon in the Summer Olympics barefooted while also breaking the world record. The most recent peak in discussion comes from barefoot runner Christopher McDougall, who published Born to Run in 2009. Since then, athletes across many different sports have started including barefoot training in their workouts. 

From an anatomical standpoint, most footwear compromises the mobility and structure of the foot. 

The Barefoot Facts

  1. The big toe requires 20 degrees of extension for normal forward motion; often this is restricted in stiff-soled shoes.
  2. A lot of shoes have a smaller toe box, squishing the toes together and decreasing the base of support
  3. Crowding of the toes can cause toe joint deformities.
  4. The heels of shoes usually have an elevated platform, which can lead to the shortening of the calf muscles.
  5. The elevated heel causes more pressure on the forefoot and can lead to permanent hyperextension of the MTP joints. 

Barefoot Warmup Benefits

Many athletes, such as football and basketball players, often wear ankle braces and tape under their high-top shoes, weakening their muscles more by relying on the structures for support and stability. By ditching the shoes for warmups, the athletes are able to strengthen the intrinsic muscles that are found in the feet. These little muscles are often overlooked and underutilized, resulting in weak feet. 

Foot-to-ground contact recruits more sensory input from the ground, causing the intrinsic muscles to work and make small adjustments. These small adjustments help balance and reposition our bodies over the point of contact, ultimately increasing coordination and proprioception. Stronger muscles and better awareness of your body in space increase the stability of the foot. 

Warming up without shoes also allows you to get the full range of motion in the toes, foot, and ankle. Training through the full range of motion also increases strength and agility. The big toe is super important for balance and stability, and increasing its strength can help lead to better posture, faster running and better push-offs. Taking away the elevated heel in shoes also allows the ankle to work in its full range of motion. By doing this, you strengthen the calf and lower leg muscles and stabilize the ankle joint. 

Why Barefoot Workouts?

As modern footwear becomes more advanced, it is important to stay “grounded.” Incorporating foot-to-ground contact by adding barefoot training into workouts can lead to many benefits for athletes on and off the court. Barefoot workouts have been shown to increase muscle strength and endurance, stability, proprioception, and coordination. By increasing these components, it can also decrease the chances of injury. 

Amber Andrews, ATC, is an MUSC Health Sports Medicine Athletic Trainer. Learn more about how MUSC Health Sports Medicine can help athletes.


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