In case the term "barefoot" is unfamiliar to you in the context of exercise, and you're suffering visions of losing all the skin on the soles of your feet to uneven pavements, let me enlighten you: for a number of years now, and for decades in elite athlete circles, the concept of running "barefoot" – either without shoes or wearing shoes that mimic going barefoot as far as possible – has been gaining credence as the best way to train and compete.
When it comes to running, the theory is that shoes structured with plenty of support encourage runners to strike the ground with their heel first, where a barefoot runner would hit the ground with the fore or midfoot first. We were not designed to run wearing shoes, so the logic goes that running barefoot allows our skeleto-muscular system to move as it was meant to, leaving the barefoot runner less prone to aches and pains and better equipped to perform at an optimum level.
If you have seen people in the gym wearing funny-looking Velcro shoes with an individual slot for each toe, they are barefoot converts and the shoes are the popular Vibram FiveFingers. The wearer is also engaging in the most recent stage in the barefoot experiment, which extends the concept beyond running and into other forms of exercise. The catch-all term is "barefoot training", which could mean lifting weights, doing circuits inside or taking part in one of the new barefoot classes on offer in a number of gyms. The added benefit is that if you're training inside, although there will be certain health and safety niggles if you're in a public space, you can ditch the Vibrams and exercise as nature intended, wearing no shoes at all.
"We need to get back to the patterns of movement our bodies have adapted to through the evolution of the foot," explains Stephen McKirgan, who launched dedicated barefoot training classes in London's Third Space gyms in December. "We are aiming to re-educate people on how to develop and use the senses they have in their feet. How can you expect somebody who has their feet bound by laces tied too tightly to be able to sense changes in surface variables and adjust accordingly? You can't." To address this, McKirgan, a personal trainer who specialises in working with the body's natural and holistic movements, has designed the barefoot classes to help clients develop their postural muscles, reduce overall tension, prevent injury and, ultimately, improve performance.
Virgin Active introduced a barefoot class called Willpower & Grace to its schedule last year. It is an energetic mix of aerobic, dance and yoga moves set to music, put together by trainer and dancer Stacey Lei Krauss, who has been teaching her willPower method in the US for more than 10 years. "Our feet are our base," she explained at the first class. "Everything else comes from there. But we've been hiding them away in shoes for years. We work hard on the rest of our bodies, but forget about the feet."
To show just how out of shape most people's feet are, she starts the class with some simple toe and foot stretches. Very few people are able to isolate and stretch their toes one at a time, as if our brains had forgotten entirely how to control them.
In fact, this is exactly what has happened. Consequently, when the muscles in our toes, feet and ankles are not working as they should, but relying on supportive footwear, they get lazy and in turn fail to work and develop the muscles that they support.
"When you are wearing shoes with a lot of support, it is as if your foot is trapped inside a plaster cast, and the muscles of the foot and ankle are not worked at all," says Gillian Reeves, Virgin Active's group exercise manager. "The muscles get weaker and smaller, just as they do with a broken leg or arm."
In addition to strengthening overlooked muscle joints, barefoot converts enjoy what McKirgan calls "increased sensory response" from direct contact with the ground. Think about how your body reacts when walking on an uneven or wobbly surface, or balancing on a swiss ball in the gym: the muscles in your legs and core work overtime to stabilise the body and prevent you from taking a tumble. If we free up the entire foot, we should enjoy greater balance co-ordination and control, because 70 percent of the information passed to the brain comes from the nerves in our feet, says McKirgan.
There are some significant drawbacks to going barefoot, which are always emphasised by any decent trainer. The craze has led to a large number of injuries, some serious, because people have been too keen to jump into it. Just as our feet and bodies have learnt to wear highly cushioned or supportive footwear over years, so they need to learn to relax and drop into barefoot mode gradually. "So many trainees are dependent on the shock absorption provided by a thick sole," says McKirgan. "This needs to be trained out of a client before they progress on to true barefoot training. Jumping right in causes all sorts of problems and potential injuries as the heel bone continues to try and absorb the impact."
This is for aerobic activities, but a similar problem occurs for weight lifters, when the reduced heel height of a trainer-free foot alters the way the body holds itself, and therefore the joint and spinal alignment. "The body needs to adapt and calibrate accordingly," says McKirgan, "but this is a good thing as when the body feels more confident and stable you can lift heavier weights."
Taking a barefoot class is a sensible way to ease yourself into the practice, but it's possible you've been taking barefoot classes for years if you're a yoga or martial arts devotee. It seems that the theories of safe exercising have come full circle – where once we delighted in the science which helped develop sports gear to cushion, protect and cocoon our feet and bodies, many trainers and athletes have now concluded that we are best left in our natural states, and that the foot itself is the piece of gear best designed to stand on.
Trainers aren't out of the picture entirely. There are sports that will always require special footwear, such as ballet and ballsports. And don't feel tempted to hit the park with naked feet. The shoes that mimic barefoot, such as the Vibrams, VivoBarefoot, Nike Free and Newton shoes, are the safe options to wear when you don't know what objects you might encounter underfoot.