Traditionally, a high quality pair of sneakers has been considered a necessary part of a good workout. But lately, many trainers and online workout enthusiasts are encouraging others to try barefoot workouts.
Sneakers can provide support, comfort and stability to help athletes excel in their sport and avoid injury in the gym. But some say working out barefoot provides a host of other benefits such as improved mobility and sharper proprioceptive awareness, which is the ability to sense where your body is in your environment.
While it’s true that working out barefoot can have its benefits — primarily, increasing balance and coordination by letting the feet connect directly to the ground — it’s not for every person or every activity. In some cases, this can do more harm than good.
“On the plus side, it can help strengthen your feet and increase proprioception,” says Gregory Alvarez, DPM, a podiatrist at Ankle and Foot Centers of America. Health. “On the other hand, there are risks to exercising without shoes.”
Here’s what the experts had to say about whether people should consider ditching their sneakers and the precautions to take to ensure a safe workout.
It’s true that barefoot workouts can have a number of benefits, as suggested by the creators online. Barefoot exercise can help increase foot strength and proprioception, improving people’s balance and reducing their risk of injury, Alvarez explained.
“Increased sensory feedback from the ball of the foot can lead to better body awareness and coordination, and better neuromuscular control,” he said. The reward: improved balance, agility, strength and stability.
And training barefoot can also be good for the foot itself. When people are barefoot, the muscles in their feet have to work harder because they don’t have the support provided by an athletic shoe, explained Anna Balabanova Shannahan, MD, associate director of education at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine from Northwestern Medicine.
“Being barefoot requires more ankle stability and can increase arch support,” she said. Health.
Beyond better balance, strength and stability, another benefit is that working out barefoot can help a person move more naturally – movement can be restricted when wearing material-filled shoes padding,” Alvarez said.
That being said, there are still risks.
Because the soles of our feet are not as hard as sports shoes, walking barefoot can make someone more vulnerable to cuts and scrapes. Additionally, when exercising in public, such as at a gym or fitness studio, it is possible for a person to expose their bare feet to a fungal infection such as athlete’s foot, a added Alvarez.
In terms of actual athletic performance, a lot of research has been done on barefoot exercise, but the results are quite mixed.
A small study found that running barefoot for eight weeks actually didn’t have much of an impact on strength and proprioception. The researchers said it was unclear whether going barefoot was beneficial or whether it simply took longer than eight weeks to see results. Another deadlift study found that walking barefoot did not seem to improve performance compared to lifting with shoes.
However, another report followed young adult women who played netball – a sport similar to basketball – and found that playing barefoot improved their ankle stability and agility.
“Despite some of these benefits, it is unclear how they subsequently affect overall performance,” Dr. Shannahan said.
In light of the pros and cons, determining whether it’s safe to try barefoot exercise really comes down to an individual’s health and preferred activity.
People who have pre-existing foot issues such as plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, or bunions will want to keep their shoes on.
Additionally, sneakers can still be a good choice for people with a low arch because the shoes support the planar fascia ligament, or the ligament that connects the heel bone to the toes and helps support the arch of the foot. The same goes for those with high arches — sneakers can help maintain that arch, according to Bruce Pinker, DPM, a podiatrist and board-certified foot surgeon with Progressive Foot Care in New York City.
“Additional arch support is beneficial for many types of activity, whether it’s walking, standing, or running,” he says. Health.
The specific workout a person chooses also has a big effect on whether training barefoot is a good idea.
It is generally safe for indoor mat activities, such as yoga and pilates, as long as a person has no pre-existing foot or ankle problems.
However, it’s not recommended for cycling because people can injure or cut their feet on the pedals, Pinker said. And if someone likes to train or run outdoors, it’s best to lace up to avoid injury when stepping on sharp objects such as debris or uneven surfaces, he added.
“Choosing a safe surface for barefoot activities can be difficult, as even grassy fields can pose some risk,” Pinker said.
When strength training at home, people may try taking their shoes off to test their proprioception, but if someone is at the gym where bacteria can be spreading, it may be worth keeping their socks on. Dr. Shannahan always recommends sneakers for lifting heavy weights.
“It may be best to wear shoes specifically for this to provide extra foot and ankle support to prevent injury,” she said.
If you decide to train barefoot, you’ll need to start gradually and give your body time to adjust.
“Start with short, low-intensity sessions until your feet get more used to the feeling,” Alvarez said.
People can try going barefoot as they warm up and cool down before trying to do the entire workout without shoes, Dr Shannahan said. Start with slower or shorter runs at first, for example.
Strengthening your legs, hips, and buttocks, as well as your foot and ankle, can also ease the transition. Adding muscle can “(compensate) for the lack of cushion, high heel and support that your feet may be used to,” Dr. Shannahan said.
There are also minimalist shoes that offer less support than a sneaker and “still allow for more natural biomechanics,” Pinker said.
It’s never a bad idea for people to get evaluated by a podiatrist or specialist at a running store to determine if they may have any issues that would make barefoot training painful. But the most important thing is that people listen to their bodies. If working barefoot feels good, keep going, but if it starts to hurt, stop and take care of yourself.
“At the end of the day, everyone’s feet are different,” Alvarez said. “It’s important to find what works best for you.”