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The benefits of working out barefoot

From better foot mobility, to greater strength and fewer injuries, the benefits of runnng or working out while barefoot are many

Barefoot training is the way to go.
Barefoot training is the way to go. (Istockphoto)

Training and running barefoot is not uncommon anymore. The one thing that has come a long way in fitness culture over the past decade is the acceptance of different practices. While this has led to a huge change in gym infrastructure and the various specialised fitness studios, it has also opened people’s minds to alternative ways of training. Barefoot training is one such idea that has been around for a long time, and it’s easy to spot a couple of people in your fitness circle who train this way, even if only for particular exercises.

In a way, this is a return to the roots for the human body. Something as simple as sensory input while landing and figuring out terrain is an important part of any fitness routine. This is why sports shoes have evolved over time to allow athletes to feel as close to the sense of being barefoot as possible.

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The first big benefit of going barefoot is mobility. Just having the ability to spread the toes during a landing or for extra foundation can be a gamechanger. If hygiene and safety issues of your workout space are taken care of, then starting with just a barefoot warmup is a great way to begin.

“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,” explains an article titled The Benefits Of Barefoot Training, published by the Medical University of South Carolina.

Amit Bhattacharjee has made a name for himself as a popular barefoot runner, and clocks a volume of running 100 kms per week. The 54-year-old has run from Ahmedabad to Mount Abu mostly barefoot and has also completed the Mumbai Marathon barefoot, apart from many other accomplishments in ultra racing as well. He says that he learnt about barefoot running from the writings of endurance guru Dr. Philip Maffetone, and was inspired by the argument in every runner’s favourite book Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall.

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“It was a slow process for me. It took three months from the point where I started walking on soft surfaces, to adding some drills, and finally being able to run long distances barefoot. I have never been injured since I started running this way,” says Bhattacharjee.

People have won marathons at the Olympics while running barefoot, and the reason for the deep research into this subject is to find out more about the physiological make-up of human feet. “The foot is a complex structure with its 26 bones, 33 articulations (each with 6 degrees of freedom of motion) and its 20-plus muscles including four layers of arch muscles. This structure allows the foot to serve many different functions, such as providing a base of support, serving as a shock attenuator, being able to adapt to uneven terrain, and serving as a rigid lever for push off,” states a research paper in the journal Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, titled Walking In Minimalist Shoes Is Effective For Strengthening Foot Muscles, which proves that walking in minimalist shoes is good for strengthening the foot.

This is important especially because “intrinsic arch muscles have been referred to as the foot core”. This foot core weakness can lead to lifting related injuries. Bhattacharjee adds that “when you land on barefoot, the electric signal goes to the brain and sends back the signal to correct the posture as well.”

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Now barefoot running and barefoot training are related but can be entirely different prospects. Barefoot running needs a deeper preparation which starts with training without shoes. While warming up is always a good idea, adding some stability and mobility exercises is another step to having a sustainable barefoot routine. There is some brilliant material available on the YouTube channel The Barefoot Strength Project, and this video of five exercises to do barefoot will give you an idea of how it feels.

“The important thing to note, however, is that if you've been wearing running shoes for a while, it's not a great idea to switch directly to barefoot (or almost-barefoot) cold turkey. You want to slowly ramp up time barefoot running until your running style shifts and your feet build up some strength. But once you do, you may find that a lot of your old injuries don't come back,” states an article in the magazine Wired titled Born To Run But Crippled By Shoes. While a lot of factors decide whether you will go barefoot or not, there is certainly some merit in trying.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.

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