As a biomechanics coach, I value an athlete’s ability to move on their feet. Our body is often compartmentalized into various sections. Arms, torso, and legs, or biceps and triceps. However, our body is an advanced network of processes that are designed to work in coordination with each other.
This can be easily identified by the fascia. The fascia is connective tissue that makes up the protective coating of muscles, but it also runs as deep as our bones. A root cause of a headache can be brought back as far as the plantar fascia, which make up the arch of the foot.
I heavily value looking after the feet, as they are the guaranteed point of contact to a surface in any athletic event. Force will always be distributed through the feet, and therefore the feet are always under pressure.
Let’s say that your plantar fascia is tight. This can result in an excessive inversion of the ankle. This simply means that an athlete will end up running on the outside of his or her foot. This increases the likelihood of spraining the lateral ligaments of the ankle. There is also an increased chance that the athlete may suffer a repetitive stress injury on the lateral chain. This includes the lateral ligaments of the knee or the hip joint.
Anytime an athlete’s walking or running gait is hindered, various joint issues can accumulate. The issues may limit themselves to the ankle, but often I’ve found that young athletes will struggle with lower back pain. All this from the simple stress of the plantar fascia!
The Barefoot Phenomenon
It’s little wonder that people have turned to going barefoot while training. The benefits are incredible.
Skin is sensitive to its environment. It’s a core part of how we discover as a species. When we wear shoes and socks, we take away so much of our ability to sense our positioning on the floor. We can become very unaware of how we’re moving.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been going for walks and keeping a pair of sandals in my back pack in case I encountered anything on the ground that could cause a cut on my feet. I noticed an issue on my first barefoot walk. I was walking toe-heel whenever I walked downhill. This isn’t a massive issue, but it does increase my chances of spraining my ankle.
If I carried on wearing shoes, I would not have noticed this and I would not have corrected my gait. I am more aware than ever of how I move on my feet. This is all because of the increased sensitivity of my feet when I take my shoes off.
Most shoes have an elevated heel, which can limit ankle mobility. But personally, I feel that the bigger issue is the weakening of the arches. We have two arches per foot. The first is through the middle of the sole, and the second is the accumulation of arches created by the joints of our toes. Collectively, they make one powerful arch. When we wear shoes with an elevated heel, we often rely on momentum to take us forward as we walk, and neglect to use the strength of the muscles in our feet. Underused muscles atrophy.
Some may argue that their shoes are flat, and therefore the arches don’t weaken. But their feet are still elevated off the floor, and thus people still land too heavily on their heel. This creates momentum which stops us from using the strength of our feet. This can also stress the Achilles tendon.
I try not to wear my sandals too much. I’ve found that sandals can cause an imbalance where people overuse the muscles of the toes and create an imbalance of the muscular structure of their feet. This can result in repetitive stress injuries.
Ground Reaction Force
Ground reaction force can be heightened by not wearing shoes. Shoes are too padded. They absorb the energy that could otherwise be used to help us move more weight.
Many gyms can be funny about their members not wearing shoes. It’s a health and hygiene concern. If your gym has such an issue, I suggest wearing shoes with a solid, flat sole.
Much like using a form roller, walking on solid ground can result in myofascial release for the soles of your feet. This is pretty much the process of massaging the soft tissue to release biochemical waste. The more varied the surface, the more benefit an athlete will get. Smaller and more narrow rocks will dig right into the soft tissue of the feet to get the desired response.
Proprioception is the stimulation of the reflex arc that is in place to help us prevent injury. When a ligament, tendon, or muscle is stretched, a sensory receptor known as a proprioceptor will send a chemical message to the central nervous system to process the information of this stress. This results in the stretched tissue contracting via the commands brought across by a motor neuron. Going barefoot can heighten the sensitivity of proprioception and therefore reduce injury risk.
Don’t Jump In With Both Feet
When the barefoot running craze took off at the beginning of the decade, many regular Joes instantly ditched their running shoes and pounded the concrete without further thought. A short time later, they were injured and couldn’t figure out why. If you are inexperienced with barefoot exercise, consider the following before you take the plunge:
- Your movement must be top notch. As mentioned above, ground reaction force is amplified when you take your shoes off. Fortunately, this often makes athletes more conscious of their walking or running gait. However, any imperfection that could cause referring pain may be magnified. Make sure your walking gait and running gait are good before you take your shoes off.
- You must learn to walk before you can run. My first barefoot walk was only 10 minutes long. Progress slowly at the beginning to avoid the damaging the skin of your feet or creating issues from a poor gait.
- Choose your surface wisely. A grass field is often ideal for beginners, but as you continue to practice, you may wish to slowly progress to pavement. If the location you’re in is often littered with broken glass or metal cans, it is best that you avoid barefoot running.
- Always wash your feet after barefoot work. This will avoid infection and dryness.
What is Rock Rehab?
Now that you know the benefits of being a barefooted athlete, you can magnify the rewards with rock rehab. Rock rehab is the practice of walking on rocks to magnify the benefits you get from barefoot work. The variety of rocks act as progressive steps. There are three primary surfaces I use with my athletes.
- Use larger rocks which are firmly positioned. As my rock rehab sessions take place on a beach, I wedge the rocks into the sand to stop them from moving. This allows an athlete to walk over them with less proprioceptive demands. This is the most basic stage of rock rehab in my coaching practice.
- Use larger rocks which are not in a fixed position. This requires more proprioceptive demands as the rocks are unstable. The athlete must be more cautious walking over these objects, but he or she will benefit from enhanced ankle stability and better balance.
- To really benefit from myofascial release, smaller rocks can be used. I would recommend rocks that are 2-4cm in diameter. The rocks must be narrow enough to push into the surface of your feet, but not so narrow that they cause a cut.
Rock Rehab in Practice
Rock rehab can be used to supplement a standard conditioning session. This may be in the weight room or on the track. Rock rehab can also be used as a standalone session for an athlete’s recovery. Rock rehab may be done prior to a session if an athlete has poor technique. This may be incorrect positioning during a squat, or the athlete may have an inadequate running gait.
Rock rehab can be stressful. If the athlete spends too long on a rock rehab course, performance may go down during the main part of a session. An athlete should do no more than one minute per set, and no more than three sets prior to intense activity. This will ensure that the feet are not too tender before the bulk of the workout.
If the athlete wishes to use rock rehab at the end of a session, it is important to be wary. Running and weight training are exhausting, and may lower proprioceptive capacity, resulting in lower stability. If the athlete wants to perform myofascial release work on the feet, prior to a workout, smaller rocks can be used. Furthermore, the athlete may also wish to walk on the rocks until he feels the trigger points on his or her feet dissipate.
As a Standalone Session
The first thing to consider is where a full rock rehab session stands within a training program. These sessions can cause a bit of soreness in the feet, be demanding on the structure of the ankles, and require adequate recovery. Therefore, if you have a rest day planned, do a rock rehab session as your last session on the day before.
The amount of time spent on rock rehab is also crucial. My athletes find that 20 minutes hits the spot. 20 minutes eases the trigger points, but does not cause substantial fatigue during the proprioception work.
Rock rehab partners well with many other recovery protocols. After rock rehab, an athlete may wish to participate in yoga, foam rolling, a standard sports massage, or another active release technique put in place for them by a physical therapist.
Below are two example workouts. The first is more centered around proprioception, while the second relates more to myofascial release.
Example Workout 1:
- Ease into the process of rock rehab with larger rocks that are in a fixed position. Spend four minutes walking on these rocks.
- Take a minute to recover. Contemplate the difficulty of the first set. If you feel that you can move up a level, initiate a four-minute set on the large but unstable rocks. If these rocks feel ideal for your capabilities, practice an additional set.
- Finish off with a set on smaller, sharper rocks for myofascial release.
- Now that you’ve spent 20 minutes on rock rehab, go about any rehabilitation or flexibility protocol that has been set out for you by a coach or therapist.
Example Workout 2:
- Start off on the smaller and sharper rocks. Go for two minutes.
- Rest for a minute, as the experience of the myofascial release may be unpleasant. After the rest, practice again for an additional two minutes.
- Attempt a four-minute walk on the smaller and sharper rocks to finish the myofascial release section of this workout.
- Take a minute to recover, and spend four minutes on the larger rocks to improve your proprioception. I would recommend using the fixed rocks, as your feet may be too tender for advanced proprioceptive demands.
- As in step 4 in the first example, go about your rehabilitation or flexibility protocol that has been set out for you by a coach or therapist.