Shoe companies spend millions of dollars designing footwear intended to enhance athletic performance. They all claim to help you run faster, jump higher and cut sharper. Why is it, then, that more athletes are starting their workouts without shoes?
Though it might seem counterintuitive, training barefoot serves an important purpose. By ditching footwear for their warm-up, athletes are better able to increase their foot and ankle stability. The end result is a healthier, more explosive athlete. Here’s why you should lose the shoes for your next warm-up.
A Persistent Problem
TEST Football Academy, a training facility in Martinsville, New Jersey, has been helping athletes train for the NFL Combine since 1992. Past trainees include Patrick Peterson, Joe Flacco and Stevan Ridley, and the current crop of prospects includes Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones. Every prospect who walks through the door at TEST begins his training with an extensive movement screening process, which is where the inspiration for the shoeless warm-up was born.
Deficiencies revealed during the screenings vary widely among the prospects. Some guys have tight hamstrings, others have weak cores, etc. However, one problem plagues almost everyone.
“What we found in our screening process with our athletes is that we see ankle mobility issues in about 95 percent of the guys,” said Kevin Dunn, Owner and CEO of TEST.
NFL prospects are some of the most in-shape people on the planet, yet nearly all of them have the same deficiency. How does that happen? “A lot of times, these athletes are getting their ankles taped before every practice and every game. That takes away a lot of the mobility, that takes away a lot of the stability,” Dunn says.
There’s no doubt football players’ feet and ankles are heavily fortified every time they step on the field. Most college programs require players to either get their ankles taped or wear ankle braces at every practice and game to avoid injury. In addition to the tape or brace, players must pull on a pair of socks and stuff their feet inside their cleats. And the issue isn’t limited to football players. Other athletes—such as basketball players—wrap their ankles prior to competition.
The result is essentially a DIY-cast around the ankle, which is good for preventing injuries like ankle sprains, but not so good for strengthening the small muscles in that area.
“There are plenty of muscles inside your foot and around your ankle that help with the proprioceptive feedback of knowing where you are in space. If you’re wrapping up those ankles, you’re taking away your body’s natural ability to do that,” Dunn says. Think about athletes who are rehabbing after a lower-body injury. Most of their rehab exercises are done barefoot, since that’s the best way to strengthen the small muscles in and around the foot and ankle.
Stiff, immobile feet and ankles also place more stress on your other joints, so even if taped ankles help you avoid an ankle sprain, they could contribute to issues in your knees or hips. “We look at the body as a closed chain. When we start seeing ankles always wrapped, and then linemen wearing knee braces, and we go up one more joint and we’re seeing a lot of hip issues. Labral issues, rotator cuff issues, piriformis overactivity,” Dunn says.
Continually wrapping your feet and ankles might be good for preventing a specific type of injury, but it leads to weakness and inflexibility that not only can cause injuries in other parts of your body, but also reduce your athletic performance.
Strong From the Ground Up
There’s little doubt that increased foot and ankle mobility and stability will boost your performance. Your feet and ankles are the foundation for every athletic movement you perform. Your feet strike the ground when you propel yourself through space, and your ankles fire first when you make triple extension movements.
“It all starts at the lowest part of the chain. In triple extension, we think of the ankle as almost like a hammer to a gun. That’s the first thing that explodes and hits the bullet to get these guys literally launched out of their stance in their 40-Yard Dash,” Dunn says. “Getting a solid shin angle is almost a direct result of ankle mobility.”
TEST isn’t the only place where we’ve seen shoeless warm-ups. We watched NBA star Luol Deng perform a barefoot dynamic warm-up at EFT Sports Performance, for many of the same reasons that motivate prospects at TEST. “There’s a thing called proprioception. That’s your brain sending a signal to your foot to actually fire. The more we can utilize that, the more we can make it fire, the faster, the stronger the foot is going to be. Also it works on stabilization and balance all the way up the posterior chain, in the ankle, knee, hip and core,” says Elias Karras, Deng’s trainer at EFT.
The barefoot or shoeless warm-up kills two birds with one stone: it helps you get warmed up for your workout; and it helps you build foot and ankle stability while you perform a variety of movements—something you might be missing out on.
RELATED: Luol Deng Dynamic Barefoot Warm-Up
Lose Your Shoes
Most types of dynamic warm-ups can be performed shoeless. If you want to give it a shot, you can either warm up in your socks or completely barefoot—whatever’s more comfortable. Obviously, you should perform your warm-up on a forgiving surface, such as grass or turf. Here are a few different dynamic warm-ups you can try sans shoes to get you started: