A few years back, barefoot running was red-hot. Thanks to the book "Born to Run," soon to be a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, thousands of runners cast their shoes aside in the hope that the natural motion of the soft, perfectly balanced landing on the bare forefoot would make their debilitating foot, knee and hip injuries disappear, as it did for author Christopher McDougall.
As interest in barefooting snowballed, and manufacturers introduced "barefoot shoes" with no cushioning, Ken Bob Saxton of Huntington Beach, described as "the great bearded sage" of the barefoot movement in McDougall's 2009 book, grew worried.
"People get too excited when they take off their shoes and are doing too much too soon, not giving their bodies a chance to adjust to the new biomechanics," Saxton, who has run 109 barefoot marathons, said in an interview. "They should do five minutes at first, but they do their normal five miles — and get hurt. Barefooting's easy on the knees but stresses the calves and Achilles tendons — weak from years in shoes — more than landing on your heels. ... If we're not careful, I warned everyone, it will kill barefooting."
Two years later, barefoot running was over save for a few die-hards. But barefoot training is not.
Barefoot drills and exercises that strengthen the foot, increase ankle flexibility and improve gait patterns are working their way into gym workouts. Olympic runners use them to groove their gait pattern. The elderly use them to prevent falls. All ages use them to rehab nagging knee and hip pain.
Justin Sandherr, 30, a private wealth manager from Atlanta, uses barefoot exercises like spreading the toes wide and lifting and lowering the big toe and pinky independently and simultaneously to eliminate knee pain from a 6-year-old injury. "Regular weights don't stabilize my knee joint like the barefoot methodology does. There's a direct correlation: Work the feet, no more knee pain. I won't play basketball or snowboard unless I've been working my feet."
Retired teacher Susi Erwin, 66, an active skier, runner and two-time cancer survivor from Denver, says she used to fall a lot and once shattered a hip bone. For seven years she has been taking barefoot aerobics classes that start with six minutes of foot and ankle drills.
"It's not an age thing. I'm fit, but I'm a klutz," Erwin says. "Now I don't trip anymore. In fact, I can't remember the last time I fell."
Sandherr and Erwin both take classes designed by Stacey Lei Krauss, the founder of the Willpower Method, which has 1,000 certified instructors across the country. The functional-fitness classes often begin with foot strengthening and flexibility exercises, such as toe-tapping or spreading the toes.
"People told me that I was nuts back when I started this in 2000, but I felt there was something important to skin touching the ground," Krauss says. "A functional body must begin with a strong, flexible and injury-free foundation — the feet. You should have your toes spread wide for balance, in shoes that give them room to do this. ... When the feet are off-kilter, so are you."
Off-kilter feet lead to injuries to joints and muscles up the kinetic chain. Humans, with their giant brains perched high on two legs, are at risk of death with one bad fall. The feet, precise instruments of balance, movement and feedback, are the first line of defense. They are remarkably complex.
Each foot is made up of 33 joints, 26 bones and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments, and it is loaded inside and out with sensors. Researchers at the University of British Columbia made a huge discovery in 2002: 104 unique, ultra-speedy "mechanoreceptors" on the sole. They measure pressure and indention, which together tell you how to balance.
"These plantar nerves help you make microsecond adjustments that keep you upright and stable," says New York-based podiatrist Emily Splichal, who runs barefoot training certifications for medical professionals through her Evidence Based Fitness Academy. "Ever wonder what putting on shoes and socks does to this vital input? It blocks it — and forces the bigger, less-precise sensors in the ankle and lower leg to do the job instead."
That's why barefoot drills were long used by Brooks Johnson, former coach of Olympians at Stanford University and the Olympic Training Center for four decades beginning in the 1970s. "Putting padding between your foot and the ground weakens foot muscles and dulls the proprioceptive sensors that tell them when to fire." To speed up his athletes' sensors and fix their form, Johnson implemented a system of daily warm-ups and cool-downs of infield barefoot runs and drills that are still in use, including scrunching up towels and picking up marbles with their toes.
Barefoot exercises to regain strength
"When it comes to their feet, we need to treat everyone, including our older adults, like athletes," says Debbie Rose, director of the Cal State Fullerton-based Institute of Gerontology and the Center for Successful Aging. "And athletes need strength in all planes of motion."
These barefoot fitness exercises can help you get that strength.
Towel scrunches and marble pickup: To restore toes to their full function of gripping, lifting and pushing, and to counteract the tendency of toes to curl. Pull a towel toward you, then push it way. Then grab one or more marbles, and drop them into a cup.
Spread the toes: To enhance the toes' ability to keep you in balance while moving. Practice raising only the big toe and the pinkie toe, then touch both the the ground simultaneously while leaving the three middle toes up.
Ball arch rolls: Massages and strengthens a weakening arch. Move a ball back and forth under the arch.
Dorsi and plantar flexion: To loosen and strengthen stiff ankles. Loop a stretch band over the foot while sitting with an extended leg. Push the foot down so that the toes stretch toward the floor, then raise the toes toward your body by pulling the band. Also, while standing with your forefoot on a curb or step, do single-leg heel drops and raises.
Ankle circles: To increase ankle mobility. Circle feet clockwise and counterclockwise.