This is a more complicated question than it first appears. If you spend much time watching karate on TV or in the movies, you’ll know that in most dojos people fight with bare feet. However, is that a hard and fast rule? Or is it one that can be broken?
Can you wear socks or shoes in karate? You cannot normally wear socks or shoes in Karate competitions but you can do so for practice, as long as you seek permission from your dojo. You could be permitted to compete wearing socks or tabi boots on medical grounds, as long as they were adjudged to be safe.
So, let’s take a look at why barefoot practice is preferred in karate but what your options might be for socks or shoes.
Do You Have To Be Barefoot For Martial Arts?
No, you don’t have to go barefoot to do martial arts but it is recommended in most dojos, there are sound reasons to learn your art barefoot and while this may not seem very practical in street fighting terms – most people don’t learn martial arts so that they can get into a curb side brawl.
There are also some martial arts that require you to wear shoes. For example, wrestlers normally wear shoes because there’s a good chance that their opponent will end up stood on their feet – that could result in a nasty injury to the foot if it’s not protected.
If you really can’t go barefoot, your first option might simply be to choose a martial art where everyone keeps their feet covered.
Also note that Japanese and Korean martial arts tend to be the strictest about their “no shoes” policy, Chinese martial arts tend to be less fussy though going barefoot is often the norm, it’s not a strict rule and other suitable footwear is often permitted.
Why Would You Want To Learn A Martial Art In Bare Feet?
There are good reasons that you ought to go barefoot when learning martial arts. Some of which were fully understood during the development of the martial arts system and others are just coming to light thanks to scientific discovery.
- Shoes can injure your feet. This might sound a little crazy but the most force that is placed on the foot is not through kicking your opponent but every time that the foot comes into contact with the ground. Cushioned shoes don’t protect your feet and legs from that force, what they do is ensure that you feel it less. That, in turn, encourages you to put your feet down even harder. This causes damage that can last a lifetime.
- It’s good manners. Martial arts that originate in East Asia have a tradition of removing shoes because in those societies it’s simply polite to take your shoes off whenever you are indoors. Some cultures see the feet as almost sacrilegiously dirty and all of them expect you to take your shoes off when you enter a building.
- You can work on your posture more easily. When your sensei can see your feet, they can help you to stand properly, and how to move your feet into the correct posture. It’s much harder to do this when your feet are hidden away in shoes.
- You can train muscles more easily when you are barefoot. Muscle memory is the key to becoming a great fighter in any martial art. When the muscles of the feet are visible, again it’s easier to train them into consistent performance. It’s also worth noting that for some reason, our feet are particularly good at sending feedback to the brain when there’s no shoe between them and the ground. This also helps with muscle training.
- You can learn to perceive your surroundings better. This involves using mindfulness and meditation techniques to better understand your body and your feet as part of your overall fighting eco-system. It’s not a guaranteed benefit but one that can be developed if you so choose.
- There may be longer-term health benefits. It’s too early to say for certain but going barefoot as much as possible may help you avoid developing arthritis in the knees in later life.
Reasons That You May Not Be Able To Do Karate Barefoot
There are some good reasons not to go barefoot though and most of them are due to infectious skin conditions on the feet which could be passed on to other members of your dojo including these common issues:
- Severe fungal infections of the foot. Athlete’s foot is generally a minor inconvenience but occasionally it can turn really nasty. If you’ve got athlete’s foot, see a doctor and ask your sensei if you can wear shoes until it clears up.
- Warts. Warts can be really unpleasant visually and may even cause you pain. Warts are caused by a virus and can be severely contagious. A doctor can often help remove a wart that is particularly problematic, and they may go away on their own but going bare foot with warty feet is not a healthy option.
- Severe fungal infections of the nail. This can be deeply unpleasant. Nails can be pulled off, there may be an unpleasant smell and overall this can be passed on to others. Socks or shoes will act as a barrier to prevent transmission.
A Reason That You Might Not Want To Do Karate Barefoot
There’s a good reason that you might not want to practice karate barefoot all the time too, wearing shoes or socks offers a better simulation of conditions outside the dojo.
If you were to learn karate with shoes or socks on, you might be better prepared for a street fight than if you always learn with bare feet.
That might mean that in particularly dangerous places, you could persuade your karate instructor to allow you to spend at least some time practicing for these situations.
So, Socks Or Shoes For Karate?
OK, if you’re going to wear socks or shoes for your karate practice, what should you choose?
Socks May Not Be The Best Idea
Wearing socks in any kind of sporting situation is not a great idea. There is simply too much potential for you to end up sliding around on the floor and hurting yourself and in the middle of a kick, the consequences could be catastrophic.
However, in the last decade or two there have been companies making socks with built in grips on the bottoms so if you must wear socks, you should probably opt for these rather than ordinary nylon or cotton socks.
It’s fine if you want to wear socks inside your shoes, too. It can certainly help soak up some sweat and reduce the potential damage to the lining of the shoe.
Shoes That Have Been Well-Chosen
The Japanese style “tabi” boot or to give its full name the Jika-tabi, is the best for this purpose. They are modelled on Japanese-style split-toed socks and are said to be great for balance. They have a rubber sole which will enable your foot to grip much better than in socks.
It’s not OK to buy the tabi boots with reinforced or steel toe caps though, those could cause a serious injury to someone else during training.
Practitioners of the Bujinkan Budu Taijutsu martial art wear tabi boots as a standard for their practice and claim to be the “true ninja” of the modern martial arts world. So, they have that going for them too
If you can’t find tabi boots locally to you, try vibrams, which are shoes that are modelled to act like replacement feet. They allow freedom to move all the toes individually and while they take a little getting used to at first, in the end they’re like the perfect glove for your feet.
An Important Note On Wearing Shoes For Karate
One of the reasons that you practice martial arts barefoot is that the foot is considered to be a “dirty” part of the body in East Asian traditions.
If you want to be allowed to practice in shoes, they should be bought specially for this purpose and they should be kept as clean as humanly possible. This is both good manners and safer for you and other members of the dojo who might be injured by dirt from your shoes.
Can you wear socks or shoes in karate? You shouldn’t for competition purposes but otherwise, as long as your sensei agrees, you can. It’s better to go with some tabi boots or vibrams rather than socks, which are prone to slipping on the floor. Then as long as you keep them clean, you ought to be able to practice karate in shoes without a problem!