Sandy toes
The sand between your toes. Photo by iStock.
When, why, and how to shed your shoes

By Christopher Percy Collier
AMC Outdoors, September/October 2009

Going barefoot in the outdoors may at first seem like a throwback to the Stone Age rather than a healthy fitness trend. But exercising without the support of traditional footwear appears to be increasing in popularity and could benefit outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. The goal? Reducing pain, discomfort—and even injury.

The human foot contains 33 muscles, which, like the rest of the body, need to be exercised. According to some, including Harvard University professor Daniel E. Lieberman, who is researching the benefits of training barefoot, athletic shoes may actually create injuries rather than prevent them.

Such thinking is far from new, though. Teachers of yoga and Pilates have long recognized the value of maintaining proper foot strength. “Our feet may be the farthest from our brains,” says Pilates instructor Aliesa George, the author of Fantastic Feet! “But we can’t just stop paying attention to certain parts of our body.” In other words, if you’re not strengthening your feet, you’re ignoring an important element of fitness.

FANCY FOOTWORK “Shoes do the work that the muscles in your feet should be doing,” says George. The structure and support of traditional footwear comes at a price, possibly weakening the feet’s muscles. If they aren’t strong enough, you may experience foot discomfort and improper alignment up through your body, which can, in turn, lead to pain in the hamstrings, lower back, and knees, among other areas.

However, getting one’s feet into proper shape is easy. George suggests a simple regimen. For the exercises, done while seated, she recommends doing three to five repetitions with each bare foot, gradually working your way up to 10.

BAREFOOT WALKS Once your feet grow more accustomed to this less bridled environment, George recommends setting out for a weekly walk without shoes. Start with short jaunts of less than a mile on surfaces free of rocks and other hazards. “Barefoot walks on the sand will give you the greatest benefit with less risk of injuring your feet,” says George.

POINT AND FLEX Point your foot “like a ballerina,” then flex it to a right angle. “This movement works the muscles we use while we walk,” she says.

GIANT ANKLE CIRCLES Rotate your ankle clockwise then counter clockwise. Loosening these joints helps reduce injuries like a twisted ankle, but don’t overdo it: “Your ankles need to find a balance between strength and mobility,” she says.

FOOT CLENCH Simulate the act of clenching your fist, only with your feet. “This improves toe strength and works the muscles around the arch of your foot,” George says.

WINDSHIELD WIPERS Grab your big and pinky toes and spread them apart. Then move the middle three toes back and forth. “This strengthens the bottom of the foot and the arch,” she says.

FIRM FOOTING Once the feet have been strengthened, a longer hike without shoes can solidify the base you’ve built—and it needn’t be done without protection. Several manufacturers offer shoes that simulate being barefoot, with just a little extra padding. 

The Tarahumara people of northern Mexico are renowned for their long-distance running abilities, often covering dozens of miles in their bare feet or minimal sandals.
Though participating in outdoor activities without shoes may seem outlandish, athletes of various kinds have proven it’s possible to perform barefoot, including those who have hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail sans footwear. And for the average outdoor enthusiast interested in staying in shape, it makes sense to focus on conditioning that involves more than just the big, obvious muscles in one’s body. In other words: get the idea of whole-body fitness into your head and it will be a lot harder to ignore working out your toes.