The craziest thing happened to me once on a hike. It was a decent one—about 8 miles roundtrip, with plenty of elevation gain. I went up just fine, even picking up random logs and rocks to carry along the way to add to the experience (and intensity). But on the descent, about a mile in, my left quad started cramping. I changed how I walked, I took rests, I walked more slowly, I tried placing more emphasis on my hips and glutes, but nothing worked. The cramp was overwhelming and getting worse by the minute.
So I took my shoes off. When I say shoes, I mean my Vibram Fivefingers. If you don’t know, these are ultra-minimalist footwear with individual slots for each toe. They allow your toes to spread and your feet to feel the ground and everything on it. They’re about as “barefoot” as you can get without actually being barefoot. And yet, when I took my shoes off and put bare foot to ground, the cramp subsided. Within a minute, it was gone, never to return. I flew down the mountain, feeling faster, fresher, and lighter than ever. The fact that I was already in Vibram Fivefingers, which approximate the biomechanics of the barefoot experience about as well as anything out there, suggests that there was something else going on. It suggests there is something very special about being barefoot.
I have long advocated going barefoot as much as possible. I’ve written post after post on the topic. The simple fact is that the stiff shoes with pronounced heels and thick soles that don’t let you feel anything underneath you we wear today are evolutionary aberrations. They are totally novel inputs that our bodies haven’t adapted to. Barefoot is how we’re born and, for tens of thousands, how we spent our days. You aren’t weird for going barefoot. Everyone else is weird—on an evolutionary timescale—for wearing thick shoes.
For my money, it’s also the best way to train. Barefoot workouts provide a host of benefits:
Proprioception is our subconscious bodily awareness of our place in space. Proprioception allows us to move along a narrow path without touching the poison oak that threatens both flanks. It’s how we know where we are, where our body parts are and how they interact with our immediate surroundings. Someone with good proprioception will be able to move fluidly through the world and make the micro-adjustments necessary to avoid injuries and perform at a higher level.
Proprioception depends on sensory data coming in from all angles. We don’t consciously interpret it; our brains accept incoming info from nerves and eyes and other sensory organs, then interpret the data and relay relay that information to our periphery. It all happens in a blink of an eye. And we can handle a lot of data, so the more data, the better.
Removing your shoes and going barefoot provides another layer of proprioceptive information for our brains to process and utilize. The foot is covered with nerve endings—thousands of them—which can learn about the foot’s place on the ground, the texture of the ground, the slope, the slipperiness, as well as the condition of our musculature in the foot. All that data can make our proprioceptive awareness better. In fact, if you’re not barefoot, you’re cutting off an entire line of information.
Now, balancing. might feel harder at first because you actually have to activate the muscles in your feet and lower legs. Balancing on bare feet is different from balancing in a shoe. The shoe gives a little “shelf” on which to sit. And if you’ve been wearing shoes all your life, balancing in bare feet might feel weird. Many people find that balancing on bare feet makes your lower legs incredibly tired. Your calves, your ankles, your anterior tibialis all must work to keep you upright and balanced. You may be sore the next day. You may feel the burn right away.
But here’s the thing: This is training. It being hard is the entire point. Balancing becomes a whole body exercise, and, like all other exercises, eventually it stops feeling so hard and starts feeling much easier—which means you’re getting stronger. So just push through the discomfort and know that you’re progressing.
Barefoot balance transfers over to shod balance. Shod balance does not transfer as well to barefoot balance.
The foot contains dozens of muscles, most of which lie dormant inside shoes. They go slack, they get weak, they aren’t engaged, just like your arm atrophies when you wear a cast for a month. Lifting in a shoe is fine but you’re leaving a lot of potential on the table. Now, this isn’t about hypertrophy of the foot muscles. Don’t expect visible “gains” down there. But you can expect a stronger, more resilient foot that can handle long walks or even runs with regular barefoot exercise. You can also expect fewer foot problems, like plantar fasciitis, provided you ease into your barefoot workouts and don’t go too hard, too quickly.
Better ankle stability
There was an older study, done 20-30 years ago that looked at the optimal way to tape ankles for ankle stability in athletes. It had an ankle taping group and a high top group, and then there was the control group. The control group was used as the ideal. The optimum. The baseline for ankle stability. Could the ankle tape or the high tops compare to the industry standard?
The industry standard was, of course, bare feet. No shoes at all turned out to be the most stable of all. But, see, the researchers assumed that everyone has to wear shoes of some sort. Right? I mean, you can’t possibly exercise or exert yourself without foot protection.
Even recently, a study found that barefoot athletes had the best ankle stability of all athletes. There’s simply no comparison.
Planting bare feet to earth connects you to something deeper and larger than yourself. Something older. I don’t care if this sounds hokey to you. It’s true.
Wearing the fancy sneakers in the air conditioned gym with CNN playing on the TV and top 40 hits on the speakers can’t compare. Not even if it’s a hardcore place with iron clanging and bumper plates dropping and chalk dust clouds in the air and horsemats on the ground does the gym experience compare with planting foot to raw earth. Fusing with the source of all life, going back to the place where we all began. You can go home again if you just take off your shoes and move through space and time with great intent and precision.
You’ll feel it if you try it. And guess what: there’s even a study for this.
10 experienced lifters deadlifted for 4 sets of 4 reps in both shod and unshod conditions. Although being barefoot made no difference when it came to some of the performance measures, barefoot lifting did improve the rate of force development. The difference wasn’t massive, but it was there. Barefoot lifters were able to develop more force more quickly than when they were wearing shoes, suggesting that there is a “disconnect” between the shod foot and the ground that must be surmounted before force can develop. Barefoot lifters didn’t have that disconnect; they were connected from the get-go.
This is still a theoretical effect, but proponents of the “grounding theory” say that connecting to the earth with bare feet (or through leather/animal skins/any other conductive material) helps fight inflammation by allowing our bodies to absorb electrons from the earth. Researchers in Poland conceptualize grounding as a “universal regulating factor in Nature,” the “normal” baseline condition of life on earth—connection to the ground and its supply of electrons—from which prolonged separation allows disease to manifest.
I’m not sure of all that. It sounds nice, and it sounds somewhat plausible in a wild, New Agey kind of way. But my experience on the hike with the cramps makes me give more credence to it. Maybe it’s not “grounding.” Maybe there’s something else going on. All I know is what happened to me was quite remarkable.
Barefoot workouts are one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal. They make exercise feel more real. They make exercise safer and more effective. And they make exercise more of a way to connect with your surroundings, the world, the universe, and your place in it all.
Do you workout in bare feet? What’s your favorite part of barefoot workouts?
Let me know down below, and thanks for reading!