Friday, 18 May 2012

The foot is a biomechanical masterpiece

What is the purpose of you taking off your shoes?
When I ask people to take their shoes off when training with me, most people question me in more of a derogatory than inquisitive way, so I try to keep my answer as short as possible by saying: "it makes your feet stronger."  While this is true, there are a few more reasons why we should train with bare feet.
Barefoot training improves mobility
How deep do you think you can
squat wearing Nike Air Max?
When you train without trainers, it allows you to sink deeper into your squats and lunges. The deeper you can sink, the better able you are to improve ankle mobility. Full range of movement in your ankles also improves your ability to sprint, run and walk pain and injury free. Barefoot training takes your lower limbs through their full range of motion, it builds strength and improves your balance and mobility. Most of the barefoot populations around the world can remain in a deep squat for extended periods of time with no discomfort while they cook, gossip, eat and poo. Not all at the same time of course. Most western populations cannot do a barefoot deep squat and if they can it will not be without discomfort. This is because we spend too much time in chairs and cushioned shoes. Barefoot squatting opens up the hip and the groin area and maintains good hip flexion which in turn helps prevent injury. This is particularly useful for runners who often have tightness in the hip area. Squatting is also good for your back as well as maintaining a good range of motion in the knees, ankles and feet. Being able to squat easily will have huge carry over to your general athleticism: the squat is required for jumping, running and lifting.

Barefoot training increases proprioception
Proprioception is a distinct sensory feedback mechanism that provides information to the brain about the body. It's a process in which the brain is stimulated to automatically adjust the body's posture. To keep it simple, it is the ability to sense where you are. When you run, walk, squat or jump, your feet are the only thing that touch the ground. Being barefoot will therefore help you sense where you are. As your feet hit the ground, your nervous system sends signals back to your brain. With too much cushioning under your feet, most of these signals get lost reducing the quality of the movement pattern. If these signals get lost, how can you expect to move efficiently? Well you can't. If you think I am crazy, try standing on one foot with your trainers on. Now try it with your trainers off. The foot  is a bio-mechanical masterpiece, if we cover it with thick soles and supportive padding we are limiting its potential and risking injury throughout the body.

How to spend more time barefoot 
Barefoot Olympic lifting
My advice is to assume the deep barefoot squat position several times a day, gradually building up your time in the bottom position. You can easily do this while watching TV, reading or chatting to your friends/family. In the beginning you may not have the flexibility in your feet and ankles to have your feet flat on the floor, if so try a small support under the heels. Gradually, as you get more comfortable in the posture, you will be able to lower the height of your support so that eventually your heels will be flat on the floor. Spend as much time as you can walking around the house barefoot, don’t trade your work shoes for house shoes at the end of the day, just go barefoot! When you are commuting to and from work why not wear a pair of minimalist/barefoot style shoes/sandals. VIVOBAREFOOT have a nice range and they even do smarter office style versions so you can wear them at work too. Try to do your fitness training barefoot too. Many lower body strength training exercises can be performed barefoot. Performing lunges, for instance, really challenges our balance and motor recruitment, much more so than wearing shoes. Olympic weightlifting is also an excellent choice for barefoot training. Running and sprinting can be done barefoot – that’s what we’re designed for. But when was the last time anybody did that? Most people I meet cringe at the thought of barefoot training, but strengthening your foot is an essential part of strengthening the entire lower limb. My clients do their training, mobility, stretching, and lower-body strength exercises barefoot. Here is why. Hammer toes, achilles tendinitis, corns, bunions, plantar fasciitis? It's time to remove those shoes. By having my clients take their shoes off and strengthen their feet, they regained balance and proprioception and their pains virtually disappeared. Now that their feet could move, they had less foot, ankle, knee, hip and lower-back pain. We may think it is more civilised to wear shoes and sit in a chair but our bodies would disagree. Our feet were never designed to be two dead animals on the end of our legs and our bodies were not designed to stay in one position for as long as we often spend seated in chairs. Any time we can squat instead of sit in a chair and any time we can move and be barefoot our bodies will be grateful for the change.

“The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet.” – Lao-Tzu

Now kick off those shoes and start using your feet!

Lea Bentzen

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