Barefoot therapy

How to shuck your shoes, at least some of the time

Ok, so you’ve read all about the benefits of barefoot running, the debates in running magazines, the Tarahumara (who generally run in sandals, not barefoot) and Barefoot Ted. In your mind there’s a vision of yourself running barefoot for miles across the countryside.

But in reality outside awaits a world of concrete, ice, blistering hot pavement, angular gravel, thorns, glass and many other hazards to your feet.

So, just how does an outdoor athlete go about shucking his shoes?

Dr. Phil Maffetone, health and fitness expert and author of “In Fitness and In Health” and “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing,” advocated barefoot exercise long before the current hype. Best known as the fitness coach for six-time Hawaii Ironman Triathlon Champ Mark Allen and ultramarathon record-holder Stu Mittleman, Maffetone also pointed out years ago that scientific studies showed alarming injury rates among runners wearing the most expensive shoes.

A good place for many aspiring shoeless athletes to start, he says, might be with barefoot therapy.

“Even a short amount of barefoot time initially can bring tremendous benefits in correcting and preventing foot and ankle problems. These types of problems also can cause chronic knee, hip or back problems,” says Maffetone. “Just 10 to 15 minutes a day can help balance and strengthen foot and leg muscles, allowing the whole body to better balance on its own natural support systems.

Maffetone suggests starting by spending more time barefoot indoors for a few days both at home and at work. Once you’re comfortable with that, venture outdoors, on a safe surface such as grass, sand or the sandy edge of a dirt road. Slowly work up to being barefoot much more of the time on your feet.

Your barefoot time can be done separately as therapy, or as part of your workout as a warm-up or cool-down, though doing so after your workout may have more benefits in resetting your feet’s sensory system after spending time in shoes.

Most of us have been wearing oversupported fitness shoes for many years. Although the foot can quickly adapt to barefoot walking — and even running — muscles, tendons and ligaments in the feet, ankles, calves — and even other areas we may not consider like our jaws — may take some time to rehab.

But not as long as you may think.

“Despite being bound for years by shoes that don’t match the needs of our feet, being barefoot can quickly help restore foot function because the muscles respond beginning with your first step,” Maffetone says. “During this process, it’s very important to find the best shoe for your feet.”

Over time many athletes who have access to safe barefoot environments may be able to build up to doing entire workouts without shoes. However, for many, shoes will remain an integral part of workout life. That’s why Maffetone says it’s important to find the right shoes, those without too much support, cushioning and other gimmicks.

“Look for the flatter more flexible, less soft shoes,” says Maffetone. “The answer may end up being cheaper models, so-called racing flats, or even shoes that are not marketed for your sport. In addition, use comfort as your guide, and realize that most people wear shoes that are too small for their feet.”

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