In my popular and controversial article, “Evolution Revolution: My Manifesto,” I covered a number of different thought-provoking topics that had to deal with the current state of training. One of those areas dealt with barefoot training. Since I received so much positive feedback about the article and numerous specific questions about the topic of barefoot training, I had to expand on the topic.

"The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet." - Lao-Tzu

Our feet are the only part of our anatomy that touches the ground to transmit all the force that we spend so much time developing in the rest of our body. Think about that -  the only part of our anatomy to touch the ground when we run or jump - and most of us spend little to no time developing strength, mobility and proprioception in the feet.

For the last 10 years, I've been traveling the country training athletes and coaches. During that time, I've also been preaching about the benefits of barefoot training. That’s one of the reasons I’ve become known as “that barefoot training guy.” And it's a moniker I really don’t mind because I believe as a result of my convictions to the feet, my athletes get tremendous results and fewer injuries.

Simply put, barefoot training is essential. Noone is born with shoes on, but within the first year of our life, we're fitted for the first pair of shoes that many of us eventually bronze. Funny, but maybe that's why some of us never get the gold. Almost 30 percent of all joints in our body are in our feet. Feet are your base of support, the foundation of movement. If the feet lack strength, mobility, and proprioception (the ability to feel yourself in space and the ability to react) and we have strengthened the rest of the body so that the force that will be put into the ground through those feet is increased - we’re asking for trouble.

When you don’t have foot proprioception or mobility and you run and cut, your body can’t protect and tighten down correctly – you’re going to get injured. Now, add taped ankles and tightly laced shoes on a kid who has been training a lot and doesn’t know how to slow down - and we increase the possibility of injury and decrease the possibility of athletic performance. Want to test your proprioception (or get an idea what the word really means)? Take your shoes off, balance on one foot and then close your eyes. If you all of a sudden feel like you have had a couple of drinks too many and can’t stay balanced, time to work on your proprioception. Want a quick test of mobility? See if you can squat without tightness or your heels raising from the floor. If you have to prop a plate under each heel to squat, this shows there is some foot and ankle tightness probably going on.

“Shoes are mainly developed and bought for fashion. Anyone telling you anything else is selling you something.” - Martin Rooney

Our athletes tend to think that if they buy the right shoe, they don’t need to do anything else for their feet. Actually they tend to think that feet are just something that get shoved in a shoe. Unfortunately, this “shoving” usually leads to common problems like bunions, corns, hammer toes, Achilles shortening, athlete’s foot, ingrown nails and more. Instead of performance gear, shoes need to be looked at the way we look at other protective gear - shoulder pads for example. We traditionally bench press as preparation for competition, but we don’t wear shoulder pads while doing it. That’s because we’re building the musculature that will go under those pads. With the feet we should be building the feet that will go into the shoe just as we build the shoulders that go under the shoulder pads.

How do we do that? Many lower body strength training exercises can be performed barefoot. Performing lunges, for instance, really challenges an athlete's balance and motor recruitment more than while wearing shoes. The deadlift and ladder are two other excellent choices for barefoot training. Your athletes can also perform their entire warm-ups barefoot. Form running and sprint running can be done barefoot - that’s what we’re designed for. But when was the last time anybody did that? Most “tenderfeet” people I meet cringe at the thought of barefoot running, but strengthening your foot is an essential part of strengthening the entire lower limb. The architecture of the hand and the foot are almost identical. So what would happen if you had incredibly weak hands? If you have incredibly weak hands then you can’t pick anything up and if you can’t pick anything up then the arms, back and legs can’t get strong –  and it would be easy to see that if the arm isn’t strong then it’s also more susceptible to injury. I believe the same principle applies to the foot.

I’ve heard a lot of objections to barefoot training, some of them out of long-ingrained habit, some of them legitimate concerns. I’ve heard that you can’t have athletes in the weight room without their shoes on or they’ll cut their toes off -   the kids in our gym don’t.  As a coach you’ve got to figure out how to control that, and careful supervision will control that. Another objection has been that there could be glass, there could be holes on the field - it’s not safe. If you can’t control that area then keep their shoes on, but before you do, think about ways you could control it. Facility personnel tend to be really invested in the athletes. If you explain the reasons for working barefoot and ask for their help in seeing that the field is safe, you’ll probably get it. If you can’t use a field, don’t substitute your indoor basketball court – that surface is too hard. But, if you have a matted surface that is used for gymnastics or wrestling, consider that an excellent alternative. Ultimately the best surface and one a lot of you have, is an artificial turf field. That is where we train our high school teams; artificial turf fields is where I've trained hundreds of NFL athletes barefoot.

If you have the luxury of a turf field that you know is free of debris – all warm ups should take place barefooted.  A lot of your running should take place barefooted – reminding the athletes that this is to strengthen their feet. And add foot mobility exercises - for example, have the athletes take a tennis ball and roll their feet over it to keep the foot mobile. They need that mobility along with the stability developed with barefoot warmups and running. Remind your young athletes that as soon as mobility and stability in the feet deteriorate, the ankle, knee and hip positions and impacts change and this can make them more prone to injuries.  Also remind them that they need to strengthen the muscles that are their base of support.

"It’s not the shoe on the foot   -   It’s the foot in the shoe that makes the difference!"  Martin Rooney

Rooney’s 5 Rules for Barefoot Health

  • Time should be spent out of shoes each day working on either strength or mobility.
  • Shoes should be selected for feel and comfort, not look.
  • Lower body lifting sessions should be performed barefoot as much as possible.
  • Warm-ups should be performed barefooted as long as the surface allows.
  • Barefoot training should progress slowly and gradually as like any other form.