I work out barefoot almost daily during Muay Thai training and began wondering: what is this doing to my feet?
The benefits of wearing supportive sneakers and workout-specific shoes (boxing shoes, spin shoes, etc.) seemed very obvious to me, but it was unclear if there were any benefits to workout barefoot. After doing some research, I was pleasantly surprised to find out there are several advantages (in addition to the justification for a cute pedicure)!
Even if Muay Thai isn't your sport of choice, there are benefits to adding barefoot workouts to your routine.
The major reasons are to promote stronger foot muscles, improved balance and enhanced sensory feedback. Working out without shoes engages the intrinsic muscles of your feet, leading to better overall stability and a more natural connection between your body and the ground. This can contribute to better biomechanics, reduced injury risk and a more holistic approach to strengthening your entire lower body.
Let's break that paragraph down. Here are some of the benefits of working out barefoot:
Improved Balance and Stability: Working out barefoot engages the muscles in your feet and ankles, enhancing overall balance and stability. Barefoot workouts have been shown to increase muscle strength and endurance, stability, proprioception, and coordination. By increasing these components, it can also decrease the chances of injury.
Increased Sensory Input: Barefoot training heightens sensory feedback, allowing better awareness of body positioning and movement, which can improve overall coordination.
“The increased sensory feedback from the sole of the foot may lead to better body awareness and coordination and enhanced neuromuscular control,” he said. The reward: improved balance, agility, strength, and stability. And working out barefoot can be good for the foot itself, too.
Strengthening Intrinsic Foot Muscles: Without the support of shoes, intrinsic foot muscles are activated, contributing to stronger arches and better foot function.
Better Biomechanics: Barefoot workouts encourage a more natural gait and promote proper alignment, potentially reducing the risk of injury by improving overall biomechanics.
Enhanced Proprioception: Barefoot exercises enhance proprioception, the body’s ability to sense its position in space, leading to better control and coordination.
Increased Ankle Mobility: Barefoot training can help improve ankle flexibility and mobility, which is essential for various activities and exercises.
Foot and Toe Flexibility: Going shoeless allows your toes to spread naturally, promoting flexibility and helping prevent issues like bunions and hammertoes.
Joint Health: Reduced impact on joints is a potential benefit, as working out barefoot may lead to a more natural, shock-absorbing interaction with the ground.
Improved Posture: Barefoot exercises encourage a more upright posture, as the body adjusts to a more natural stance without the support and cushioning of shoes.
Mind-Body Connection: Being barefoot fosters a stronger connection between your body and the ground, promoting mindfulness and a deeper engagement in your workout.
photo courtesy of Mariana Osorio
Hit House’s group workout classes are heavily influenced by Muay Thai, which is traditionally practiced barefoot for several reasons:
Cultural Tradition: In Thailand, where Muay Thai originated, it is deeply rooted in cultural traditions. Practicing barefoot is a longstanding aspect of the sport's heritage.
Better Connection to the Ground: Being barefoot allows fighters to have a direct and better connection to the ground, enhancing stability, balance, and agility during movements and strikes.
Foot Conditioning: Muay Thai places significant emphasis on the use of kicks, knees, and clinch work. Training barefoot helps condition the feet, strengthening them for powerful and effective strikes.
Fluid Movement: Barefoot training enables fighters to move more fluidly, pivot easily, and adapt quickly to various stances and techniques, contributing to the dynamic nature of Muay Thai.
Increased Sensory Awareness: Practicing barefoot enhances sensory awareness, helping fighters feel the surface they are on and improving their ability to respond to subtle changes in the environment.
So should you always go barefoot? No way!
Just because Muay Thai is practiced barefoot does not mean every combat sport or exercise should be performed barefoot. Barefoot training can be incorporated into a variety of workouts—it’s for more than just walking or running. This includes strength training, yoga, and Pilates. Here are a few types of barefoot training exercises and how they can benefit your fitness routine:
Squats: Squats are a great barefoot exercise that can help improve your lower body strength and mobility. When performing squats barefoot, you engage the muscles in your feet and ankles. This helps to stabilize your body and maintain proper form.
Deadlifts: Deadlifts are another lower body exercise that can be performed barefoot. By removing the barrier of shoes, you improve your body mechanics. It also helps engage the muscles in your feet and ankles to maintain balance and stability.
Yoga: Yoga is a popular workout that can be easily adapted for barefoot training. Practicing yoga barefoot can improve your balance and stability. This leads to an increase in your flexibility and range of motion.
Plyometrics: Plyometric exercises, like jump squats and box jumps, can be performed barefoot to improve your explosive power and speed. By training without shoes, you can engage the muscles in your feet and ankles. This impacts and helps absorb the impact of the exercises.
Balance training: Barefoot training is ideal for balance training exercises like single-leg stands and stability ball exercises. By removing the support of shoes, you can engage the muscles in your feet and ankles as well. This in turn maintains balance and stability.
Here are a few recovery tips for taking care of your feet, ankles, and calves after barefoot workouts:
1. Stretching: Perform gentle stretches for your calves and ankles to improve flexibility and reduce muscle tightness.
2. Self-Massage: Use a massage ball or foam roller to massage your feet, paying attention to the arches and heels. This helps release tension in the muscles.
3. Elevate Your Feet: Elevate your feet to reduce swelling and promote blood circulation, especially if you’ve had an intense workout.
4. Ice Bath or Cold Compress: If you experience inflammation or soreness, consider an ice bath or applying a cold compress to reduce swelling and numb pain. If you are local to New York City, treat yourself to a day pass at BATHHOUSE or World Spa.
5. Hydration: Stay well-hydrated to support muscle recovery. Proper hydration is essential for maintaining the elasticity of muscles and tendons.
6. Compression Gear: Consider using compression socks or sleeves to provide support and improve blood circulation in your calves and ankles.
7. Foot Soaks: Soak your feet in warm water with Epsom salt to relax muscles and alleviate soreness. This can also help with overall foot care.
8. Proper Footwear: Wear comfortable and supportive shoes, especially if you need to walk or stand for extended periods after your workout.
9. Rest and Sleep: Ensure you get adequate rest and sleep, as this is crucial for overall recovery and muscle repair.
10. Gentle Exercises: Engage in gentle ankle and calf exercises to promote mobility without putting excessive strain on the muscles.
As always, remember to listen to your body, and if you experience persistent pain or discomfort, consult with a healthcare professional. I am not a doctor; just someone who enjoys Muay Thai and pedicures. :)
Author: Dana VanPamelen is a co-founder of Hit House, a Muay Thai influenced fitness studio in Manhattan. She's been training since 2011 and her favorite move is the teep.
Here are links to the resources and interesting articles that I found while researching for this article: