Barefoot Training in the Martial Arts

No Shoes is Good News!

Most Students of the Martial Arts train barefoot when they are indoors. And, most martial art systems train 80-100% of the time between four walls and on a soft mat. So, for many, training without shoes isn’t much of a challenge.

In the Martial Science, we spend 80-100% of our time training outside. We still support the barefoot training philosophy and motivate students to do the same – even when training in the park.

Why should you go shoeless? Because wearing shoes just does not look cool with your uniform.

Okay, I do believe that shoes serve a purpose and some shoes do not look as ridiculous as a pair of over-cushioned running shoes (Tabi and Five Fingers for example).

I do however, prefer being without shoes. I love to run barefoot, hike, climb and generally just not wear shoes at all. In fact, I spend about 75% or more of my time without any shoes and prefer to stretch this into my sporting activities. I am not the only one.

* Abebe Bikila, Olympic marathoner, won the first of his consecutive gold medals without shoes.

Research barefoot running in Google and you will get a lot more hits on shoeless wonders like Abebe. For example, Michael Warburton published an online paper titled, “Barefoot Running.” Warburton points out that the extra weight of shoes is worse than a few pounds around the waist. Extra weight means more energy is spent. As part of your stride, weight on your feet must adjust to a constant increase and decrease of speed.

Research shows that two 10-ounce shoes will make you more than five percent less efficient. That is good to know – especially when you consider the micro-movements the body has to make to keep from suffering an ankle injury.

Internal, External and Spatial Awareness

Next let’s talk about proprioception and don’t worry if you haven’t heard that word before – neither has Microsoft.

Proprioception (pronounced PRO-pree-o-SEP-shən), from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own” and perception) is the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body.

Let us associate the senses with Mind, Body and Spirit and break them into three categories (only for the sake of learning this concept):

01 External (sight, taste, smell, touch, hearing and balance) – Body
02 Internal (senses that help us to perceive pain) – Mind
03 Spatial (sense that shares feedback in relation to our world) – Spirit

Proprioception is a sense that helps us to verify where the limbs of our body are located in relation to each other and space around us. It also helps determine if we are moving at the correct speed or using the correct amount of force.

In the Martial Science – we consider Spirit to represent life-spirit and interaction with the living world around us; people, nature and animals.

We get feedback from the world around us in order to adjust and improve our lives. Well, your body needs to do the same thing in order to function properly.

If you did not have proprioception and I put a blind fold over your eyes, you would just fall over. The police test proprioception to see if someone has had too much to drink. This is because you lose this sense when you have had too much alcohol. That is why they ask you to walk on a straight line without looking at your feet. Without proprioception, we must look at our feet in order to walk.

If you watch a baby move his hands around trying to grab for something, you will notice that his hand movements stutter as they begin to learn how to develop hand and eye coordination. Every time that they reach for something new, they are creating new data and feedback to build on.

The skill to spin a sword or catch a Frisbee both require that you have a very specific SENSE of the exact positions of your limbs, your muscles and joints involved. The development of this skill has to reach level 4 of the natural learning process:

1 You are unaware of your incompetence (you don’t know you don’t know)
2 You are consciously incompetent (you know you don’t know)
3 You are consciously competent (you must think as you act)
4 You are unconsciously competent (you can act without thinking)

Let us assume that you are a martial artist that would like to have natural cat like reactions. Not only that, but you want good timing, and to be able to kick with deadly accuracy.

At first, you are going to be unaware of the fact that you cannot kick properly or with precision (1). Then you see someone kick the way you would like to and begin to understand that you do not currently have the skills you desire (2). With some training, you can kick a bag or target on command (3). Finally, with years of practice, you can kick without thinking. You react naturally (4).

This sense must reach autopilot so that you can then focus on other important areas of performance, such as contemplating alternative strategies, observing your environment or punching while kicking.

A more modern way to label proprioception is to call it movement intelligence. This is of course with the belief that proprioception is focused on feedback. When the body moves, information is sent to the brain for further investigation, calculation and adjustments.

There’s more to it than meets the eye and foot coordination.

Studies researching ankle injuries suggest that our reflexes play a bigger role in staying injury free. When you wear bigger shoes, you are not going to have as much development around the core areas of your foot and ankle. Shoes alone could be the cause of many ankle sprains, knee injuries and back pain.

Here is a quiz. Pain caused by ankle sprains has to do with:

A Strength
B Endurance
C Flexibility
D Balance

The correct answer is D – balance / proprioception.

Having a strong ankle, physical endurance or flexibility will not save you from an ankle sprain if you have not also developed the neuromuscular system to react naturally. Shoes just do not help us with this development as much going barefoot does. Imagine wearing a shoe on your hands.

Going barefoot helps to improve proprioception because you can feel more of your feet, develop more muscle memory and thus increase chances of reacting naturally. The more you can FEEL the better, as this will create more signals and thus more data. In the end, that = more balance.

It all happens so fast and on such a micro level that it is not something we can consciously adjust to in the now.

Since most martial artists already train barefoot, I am suggesting that you also do the same when you are in the park training, or lounging around the house. If you want improved kicks, you need to start from the ground up. The more often you kick and train barefoot – the better.

NOTE: You must train with shoes too if you expect to know how to move in a real life situation (we do not go barefoot in the mall). Balance is key – but before you put on the iron man suit – consider training what is inside it first.

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3 thoughts on “Barefoot Training in the Martial Arts”

  1. I just want to comment that I think barefoot training is good for learning balance barefoot, but for example when I began in the martial arts I spent most of my time training kicks indoors without shoes on, but when I tried the same kicks outside on pavement with shoes I was off balance, forgot to pivot my non-kicking foot, and of course realized the difference between training/fighting with and w/o shoes by falling on my rear and nearly twisting my knee out of place. However where I live at, I wouldn’t even consider walking/running barefoot because of the hazards and risk of infection, and when your training in public where appearance may matter to some folks than you could say wearing a martial arts uniform at all looks kind of silly. ( which I do anyways : ))

  2. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the reply and pointing out the importance of understanding the difference between training barefoot and living in the real world.

    Yes, it is important that you also know how to move with the restrictions of the many shells that we put on our bodies. Compare tight jeans to a traditional martial arts uniform.

    A large part of our self-defense philosophy is based on the fact that you will fight how you train. We often train students in exactly what they wore to class in order for them to understand the limitations of their clothing.

    The concept is that you will perform better if you train what is underneath first, in order to build a stronger foundation that will add support when you have on shoes. It isn’t a replacement for the obvious need shoes have in our daily lives.

    It is about the almost invisible reactions our bodies can develop without conscious thought – which require one to go barefoot to develop.

    It also must be noted that not everyone trains in the martial arts in order to fight or prepare for a fight. Most of us focus on training for the development of Mind – Body and Spirit. The concept of going barefoot is simply to add value to our lives. If you research the science behind going barefoot, you will discover the benefits as related to our bodies (decreasing knee strain, reducing risk of injury, improved back recovery, lowering the chance for flat feet, saving time not having to tie shoes).

    Do I want you running around in strange places barefoot? Most certainly not. Common sense is required. I don’t go anywhere in the city barefoot – especially not in Bangkok where I am right now 🙂

  3. Great answer from a great teacher I assume. I’m now considering factoring your program into my budget somehow. Which raises a question….Compared to my usual 60$ per month for ongoing training that my Sifu usually lets me pay whenever I have it , this fee for your program seems astronomical. I’m not saying that it is, but how could someone on a lowly student income like myself make this affordable without sacrificing my current regimine. And do you offer payment plans or student discounts, because I really don’t have an extra $500 and with school expenses it’s difficult to accumulate that much by “saving”. I’m sure you will have a good answer for this, but what I am not looking for is the usual ” well you could spend $60 per month for the rest of your life or pay $500 for a lifetime worth of knowledge, plus the testing fees, gear, and trips to where ever you may be to get some personal training” spiel. Because I really don’t want to be limited to only one martial art, and I don’t like feeling restricted from knowledge that I would use and appreciate because of my meek financial situation. And I want to emphasize that for sometime now I have wanted to join but have not for that reason. Thank you Sensei..Respects

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