As the barefoot trend increases across America and beyond the hippy culture, athletes have begun to question the impact that lettin’ the dogs out might have on their sporting lives. Grocery stores still might not be fans, but could taking the town barefoot help improve your surfing?
A recent study conducted by the Exercise and Rehabilitation Center at the University of Birmingham showed that people who walk barefoot often have increased ankle flexibility, less pressure exerted on the foot, and a shortened stride when walking. This can benefit the balance and steadiness of a surfer’s feet on their board.
“The more foot strength you have, the better you will be able to balance. I think if your feet and legs are stronger you are going to be a better surfer,” podiatrist Kent Feldman said.
Ankle flexibility is extremely important in the range of motion for the foot. According to a study conducted by the Journal of Joint and Bone Research, increased movement of the ankle joint allows barefoot walkers to have flatter foot placement when meeting the ground. This allows the foot to spread out, feeling the earth and reaching more surface area as opposed to being constricted to fit the specific mold of a shoe.
“If you are able to spread your toes more like your fingers then you have more pressure points that extend further out. Your toes are flared out and gripping the board versus crunched in and on the ball of your foot,” barefoot walker and Central Coast surfer Scott Weinhardt said.
According to the University of Birmingham study, barefoot citizens exert less pressure on the back and middle portion of the foot. Because of this flat contact between the foot and the ground, barefoot walkers distribute their weight more evenly throughout their feet than they would with shoes on.
Weinhardt said this could relate directly to surfing maneuvers. When exerting a lot of pressure slowly during a bottom turn, it helps to be sure your feet are flat and gripping the board with maximum potential.
In addition, barefoot walkers showed signs of a shorter stride, compared to those wearing shoes. According to the study at the Exercise and Rehabilitation Center, these changes in walking patterns can increase knee flexor movement. With more knee mobility, surfers have a larger range of movement and therefore can be better prepared to shift their weight upon their board.
“Being barefoot has caused me to be more mindful of my feet, where I take my next step, how hard I step and how fast. So with surfing, knowing my feet super well has helped me improve my skills. I can turn, cut and snap more easily since I have more conscious control of how I use my feet,” said San Diego surfer and avid barefoot walker Christian Salyer.
Unfortunately, increased mobility of the knees is linked to the onset of osteoarthritis, the breakdown of joint cartilage and bone. This can be very painful and harmful to the body’s ligaments and muscles. Although there are benefits to walking and training barefoot, it can be dangerous if the switch is attempted too quickly.
Born to Run, which details the lives of Central American tribes who run great lengths and distances barefoot, inspired many Americans to quit wearing shoes. They quickly experienced pain, torn ligaments, and frustration. In America, because of the cultural standard of wearing shoes and the country’s asphalt and concrete roads, making such a drastic transition to barefoot walking proves to be quite difficult.
“You have to take into consideration the surface that you are on,” Dr. Feldman said. “You are always going to have stronger feet if you go barefoot more. I would encourage people to do most of their barefoot activity on grass, sand and forgiving surfaces. That way you strengthen your feet, but you aren’t damaging your feet because of the hardness of the surface.”
It is still possible to go from shoes to comfortably walking on bare feet. By switching off between wearing shoes and walking barefoot during the week, one can gradually make the transition from feet squished into shoes to toes that are free and wiggling.
“You could personally evolve to going barefoot if you did it carefully. If you progress from one to the other, then your feet can adapt and get stronger,” recommends Dr. Feldman.
Although walking barefoot can be beneficial and improve foot strength, one must be careful how they attempt to transition to this uncommon pastime. It is not the direct gateway to becoming a professional surfer, but walking barefoot can help improve balance and stability on your surfboard.