Find out why leaving your trainers at home can help you train harder and smarter.
Exercising barefoot is one of the most natural things to do in the world and enhances the effects of most workouts. It can promote your sense of balance, improve muscle alignment, strengthen and increase flexibility in your feet and ankles, and lessen the chance of injuries such as sprains and fractures. What’s more, a study from Harvard University shows that it can improve your training performance by 5 per cent.
So it’s no surprise the trend for barefoot running and barefoot fitness classes – such as will Power & grace and Beaming at Virgin Active gyms – continues to grow. Here’s how to how to incorporate barefoot exercise into some of your favourite workouts to see your results soar.
The simplest way to introduce barefoot exercise into your fitness regime is to start with barefoot walking. ‘Walking barefoot encourages positive physiological changes to your posture, gait and how your feet strike the floor, reducing the negative impact that even the smallest heels can have on your knees, hips and spine,’ explains Gillian Reeves, national group exercise manager at Virgin Active and an authority on barefoot exercise. ‘Barefoot walking also helps you burns loads more calories, fits easily into your lifestyle and you won’t need to slow your pace when you start out.’ To start, gradually increase the frequency and distance that you walk barefoot or in ‘minimum heel’ shoes, to activate tiny muscles in your feet and ankles, build your body’s strength from the ground up, and improve postural alignment. Begin by walking barefoot around your home and garden to build strength. You’ll need to wear barefoot shoes on concrete surfaces to protect against sharps objects – and on treadmills (the belts get very hot) – or try walking barefoot on uneven sand and grass for an tougher yet joint-friendlier workout.
Research published by science journal Nature shows barefoot runners tend to run more lightly, landing near the balls of the feet – generating less pounding and potentially less risk of injury. Time spent in a raised heel unnaturally tightens your calf muscles and lengthens your shin muscles, which often leads to calf cramps and shin splints. Running in supportive trainers can weaken your ankles over time, so when you make the switch to barefoot running, run at a slower pace to gradually build strength and stability and avoid sprains. ‘You might find the muscles in your calves and on top of your shin bones ache more than usual, but this is fine and simply illustrates how much harder you’re working,’ says Reeves. Start out with one barefoot run a week – on surfaces free from sharp objects – and build up gradually. Or try barefoot shoes – as long as they have a sole of 7mm or less, you’ll get the same benfits of training barefoot – but with added protection.
Skipping is an excellent form of exercise to do barefoot because you generally do it on the balls of your feet. And there’s no reason to worry that skipping barefoot will place more impact on your body. ‘Any exercise that involves jumping will have an impact on your joints, whether you do it with trainers on or off,’ says Reeves. ‘Just remember to build up gradually, starting with a few minutes a day until your feet and ankles are stronger, and again, warm them up before you start.’
Boxing barefoot will help you train more effectively by allowing you to change direction more easily. ‘Many trainers allow you to move forwards and backwards, but restrict side-to-side and rotational movement, which can cause potential injury during a workout where you’re constantly changing direction,’ explains Reeves. ‘Going barefoot lets you step, jump, slide and shuffle around more freely and get a more sensory experience to vastly improve your reactions, speed, balance and stability, ensuring every muscle in your body is firing.’
Dancing barefoot improves both your dance and fitness performance by allowing you achieve the movements you really want. ‘You’ll feel more grounded and better able to work against the floor, whether you’re springing up or slowly rising and falling, calling on your body to do the work rather than springy trainers,’ says Reeves. ‘Trainers also restrict the movement of your feet and ankles, so when barefoot, you’ll have greater freedom to twist, pivot and turn. Check with your dance instructor before going completely barefoot in a class – while they’ll appreciate the extra benefits you’ll get, they might not want you getting trampled by someone else. Alternatively, wearing barefoot shoes will still let you feel the floor.