Most triathletes spend a lot of time, energy, and miles in search of the perfect shoes for pounding through the run section of a triathlon. So when it comes to strength training, it’s easy to go with what’s in your closet (likely cushioned running shoes). But if you’re going to take the time in your training schedule to do strength training, it’s worth giving what you put on your feet another glance.
Let me preface this response with the following disclaimer:
I am a 40-year-old female with pristine feet for an endurance athlete. I have all my toenails, I have no calluses, and my feet have been ergonomically cradled in heat-molded, carbon-soled cycling shoes for every significant workout of the last 20+ years of my life. And I cringe whenever I see a triathlete exit the water onto a gravel path to T1 or slip a sandy foot directly into an unsocked cycling shoe.
In triathlete speak, this cyclist is very, very soft.
Needless to say, I have an army of sneakers, sandals, and flip-flops, and I love each and every one of them in all but one location: the strength room.
One of the hallmarks of a strong, efficient athlete is fine-tuned proprioception. Another phrase for proprioception is body awareness, specifically when in motion. Shoes, unfortunately, tend to dull the proprioception of our ankles, feet, and toes, leading to less activation and total body connectivity when moving. Think about attempting to tie your shoes while wearing gardening gloves. We lose this same dexterity and precision when we strength train in our running shoes.
So what’s the implication if wearing shoes replaces the need for natural mobility and flexibility below the knees? We adapt to the support that our shoe provides, which our muscles come to expect in order to operate properly. We also place the surrounding tissues and bones under increased stress to provide compensatory neuromuscular awareness. This is the perfect storm for an overuse injury (volume of repetition) or overload injury (volume of specific force).
I often hear from my clients that their gym won’t allow bare feet for safety or hygiene reasons. The reality is that your Nike Vaporflys aren’t going to prevent a dropped dumbbell from breaking your toe, and your feet typically have fewer germs than your hands. With that said, home is the ideal place to gently start your shoeless routine. Then, as you become more comfortable and proficient in movement, chances are, you’ll find a space at the gym where barefoot training makes sense.
Now, do I think athletes should only train barefoot? No. Are minimalist shoes or Chuck Taylors a better option than running shoes? Yes, most definitely. And do I have my triathletes train in their running shoes sometimes? Absolutely. I just think our bodies are better connected and prepared to perform when we allow the neuromuscular system to send and receive direct feedback. Choosing key strength sessions or at minimum, one training block, during the race prep season to open those lines of communication in your bare feet will surely pay off at the starting line this year.
Kate Ligler has specialized in endurance training in both functional strength and conditioning, as well as technical program creation for cyclists, runners, triathletes, and multi-sport endurance athletes for well over a decade. She is a NASM cPT in addition to a NASM CES (corrective) and PES (performance) specialist.