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My journey to Barefoot Strong

When I was a teenager I spent most of my time training barefoot whilst doing Karate. I never really thought about my feet whilst running up and down a hard floor doing typical body weight circuit training such as sprinting, burpees, squat thrusts, mountain climbers and completing complex movement patterns known as Katas - this was simply the way it was, you trained barefoot.

When I qualified as a YMCA Level 2 Exercise to Music instructor in 2005 I distinctly remember my Aerobics instructor telling us to ‘look after our feet because if you hurt your leg or arm you can show the technique on the other ‘good’ side, but if you hurt your feet you cannot teach anything’. At the peak of my studio class teaching career I was teaching approximately 25 -30 classes a week, mainly high impact classes such as BodyCombat, BodyAttack & Aerobics on a hard, usually concrete, unforgiving floors. I noticed early on in my career that BodyAttack did not agree with my shins and I stopped teaching that after a year, I interpreted this bio-feedback and recommendation as always wear good supportive, cushioned ‘bouncy’ trainers. At the start of every new class timetable I would invest in x2 pairs of trainers approximately every 3-4 months. Back then my trainer of choice were Nike Shoxs with a high, bouncy cushioned heels. I would wear one pair when I was teaching my morning classes, and change to the other pair in the evening. I thought I was being diligent and looking after my feet (but mainly my knees). Unfortunately over the years I have had many exercise induced injuries, ranging from sprained ankles, shin splints, lower back and hip pain, escalating to lower back surgery. Looking back over my fitness career I would predict that 10% of those injuries were unlucky and 90% was ego related and pushing too hard when I should have been listening to my body.

Dr Splichal says:

Because the feet and hips are so closely related you want to consider their function together. If a person has tight feet and ankles they typically present with restricted hip mobility. Similarly if someone has flat feet that are unstable, the hips are unstable as well.

- I now wonder if I had spent more time and attention to caring for my feet, could I have prevented some of those injuries?

Lockdown gave me the opportunity to teach online Zoom classes where I didn’t have to wear shoes due to good old health and safety and I knew my floor was definitely clean. It is a requirement to wear shoes in all gym/leisure centre studio classes except for Yoga, Pilates and BodyBalance. As I didn’t have to concern myself about this working in my own gym space, I started teaching all of my classes barefoot - this was mainly Body Conditioning, Legs, Glutes & Abs, HIIT & Athletic Stretch. I like to do a lot of balance work in my classes and always prided myself on having good balance. However, the first thing I noticed was how bad my balance was barefoot and how unstable my ankles were - they would literally shake and my arches would cramp up when I stood on one foot. I also noticed how close together my toes were. I’m embarrassed to say my feet were simply not on my radar. Post back surgery I’ve invested a lot of time in my back strength, hip mobility, glute strength but my feet... nope! So, I started to incorporate some tennis ball foot rolling work into my Athletic Stretch classes and some toe stretching exercises that I came across in Dr Kelly Starett’s ’Becoming a supple leopard‘ book. Luckily during Lockdown my clients were up for anything and seemed to have a love/hate relationship with the tennis ball foot rolling but thankfully said they all felt better after doing their foot rolling.

A year has now passed training solely barefoot, I have even done Crossfit metcons without trainers and I have seen a massive change in my feet: they are wider, my toes have space between them and my daughter says I have ‘lizard feet like freaky hands!’

In March 2021, I completed a Piede Pilates course solely working on the feet and the ‘foot to core connection.’ I never thought about the feet as having a ‘core’ and when I spoke to my Chiropractor about this, she said ‘you wait, once you start looking into the feet it is going to change EVERYTHING you do.’ She was right, but it’s early days. The Piede Pilates course led me to the work of Dr Emily Splichal who is a Podiatrist and Human movement specialist whose research is “expanding into the new area of anti-aging medicine known as movement longevity” Anti-aging and movement longevity = my undivided attention! I read Dr Splichal’s book in 2 days and started doing all of her exercises on her website The five minutes of daily foot rolling/pumping seems to have had the most benefit to my rapidly adapting ‘freaky lizard feet hands’ it’s hard to say specifically, and without sounding airy fairy, I simply feel better connected to the floor and grounded. I have an inclination to lock out my left knee and when I walk barefoot this doesn’t happen. I am not a runner, but there are a lot of minimalist shoes associated with barefoot running. For the last 5-6 years, my workout trainer of choice has been the Nike free 5.0 which Dr Splichal mentions in her book as being a good transition shoe to use before you try a barefoot minimalist shoe. I realised that I have never transistioned from a Nike free 5.0 and maybe with all the barefoot walking around the house, training barefoot and doing my foot rolling, it would probably be a good time to actually transition to a barefoot shoe.

My Chiropracter recommended Vivobarefoot trainers which I was aware of from listening to Dr Chaterjee’s podcast, but I felt drawn towards Vibram fivefingers shoes perhaps because they look more like ‘freaky lizard feet hands’. I was gifted a pair of Vibram fivefingers indoor training shoes for Christmas which felt like a protective extension of my foot, but I was so comfortable training barefoot in my own gym I hardly wore them. However, If I ever went back to teaching studio classes again and had to teach classes with shoes on, the Vibram fivefinger indoor training shoe would be my trainer of choice. Please note, I‘m convinced that if I hadn‘t not have done all of the barefoot work since Lockdown 1 that this transition would have hurt my feet so much I probably wouldn’t have worn them.

After going for a family dog walk and kicking off my supportive trail running ‘foot prison’ shoes and walking barefoot my family were slowly meandering away from the ‘weird barefoot hippy’ I thought I’d better invest in an outdoor minimalist shoe and decided to purchase the Vibram five fingers hiking shoe. These are amazing and suit me down to the ground as I do a lot of dog walking in the woods and along the coastline.

Next month I’ll be doing a course run by the Foot Collective who are natural podiatrist and I’m looking forward to seeing what they have to say about foot health...

In the meantime, I’m wearing my toe stretchers in bed and doing my toe isolation exercises every day as I’m determined to be able to Mexican wave my toes. I now don’t care what your Crossfit Fran time is or how fast you ran the London marathon, can you lift up your 3rd toe up off of the floor whilst keeping all of the other toes on the floor?

Freaky toes, here I come....

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Fabian Halliburton
Fabian Halliburton
Dec 07, 2021

I'm interested in a few of the products you've mentioned in this 'article.' - 1). Vibram 5 fingers hiking shoes. 2). Toe separators. 3). Vivo barefoot trainers. 4). The book: 'Barefoot Strong.' I may actually purchase all of these tbh. You're providing a lot of education Claire.


I love this!


Claire Carty
Claire Carty
Apr 15, 2021

Toe Separators Here you go @Louise Norman

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