Why Are Martial Arts Practiced Barefoot? 4 Secrets of No Shoes Combat

If you’ve ever watched a judo tournament or some guys doing judo in the gym, you’ll have quickly noticed that there’s something a little different from most sports going on. Nobody’s wearing shoes! Now, this might seem surprising for a martial art but is it?

Martial arts are practiced barefoot because going barefoot indoors is common in Asia, it improves your ability to train your foot posture and your muscles, and it improves the way you feel and perceive your surroundings.

Before we take a closer look at that – we’d actually like to look at something else first, the science of why going barefoot is good for you, whether or not you’re practicing judo.

Why are martial arts practiced barefoot? - CraftofCombat.com
Why are martial arts practiced barefoot? – CraftofCombat.com

The Science In Favor Of Going Barefoot

Daniel E Lieberman et al published a paper in Nature back in January 2010 which came to a startling conclusion. They contended that if you ran barefoot instead of running in shoes, you were less likely to damage your feet.

The paper, “Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners”, outlined the basic but obvious idea – the foot did not evolve to wear shoes. Instead, it evolved to be used by itself. For millions of years, humanity had no access to Nike or Adidas, and they ran with no shoes at all.

Running Causes The Most Injuries When The Foot Hits The Ground

Lieberman and his colleagues came to the conclusion that when we’re in motion, the most likely cause of injury is from when our foot hits the ground. They came up with a fairly complicated mathematical equation that showed this is when most force is placed on the body when it’s moving.

What they discovered was that when we wear shoes, and in particular, when we wear cushioned running shoes – we feel the impact less on our feet, so we are more inclined to put more force directly on the foot and thus cause more injuries.

How much more force? 30% more!

The Proof Is In Kenya

The paper went on to examine the feet of a group of Kenyan athletes who had never worn shoes and compared them to various groups of feet from athletes to ordinary people around the world that had used shoes.

They found that the Kenyans’ feet and general foot health were much better than in the other groups.

Lieberman was so enthralled by his discovery that he began to go barefoot himself all the time too, He also continued to study foot health in Kenya and elsewhere.

He discovered that calluses, long-derided by the cosmetic industry, acted as a protection for the foot but did not, as some believed, reduce the sensitivity of the feet.

In fact, no matter how thick the callus – no sensitivity was lost. This is because calluses are made of similar tissue to hair and nails that easily transmit vibrational signals to the nerves below.

Avoiding Arthritis and Falls

He also realized that he might have stumbled onto a solution to a vexing medical problem, “why have there been huge increases in arthritis of the knees ever since World War 2 ended?” It was the damage caused by wearing cushioned shoes when walking. These shoes became available at the same time that the problem began to accelerate.

Lieberman went on to theorize that the decline in balance that people typically experience when they get older is also possibly caused by the cushioned soled shoe. He contends that if your feet can’t feel the ground beneath them properly, your brain may not get the correct messages about where to position your body.

In fact, there are still large swathes of the world where people go barefoot practically for all their lives and Lieberman is now trying to study whether the benefits of going barefoot last into your old age.


4 Reasons Why Martial Artists Go Barefoot

Now that we have a strong scientific rationale for going barefoot, we want to examine the reasons that are commonly offered from within the sports to explain the reasoning for why martial arts (such as Judo Tai Chi, Jiu Jitsu and Karate) are barefoot. These reasons, of course, were advanced prior to Lieberman’s research and yet, they do have areas of crossover.

Asians Take Their Shoes Off Inside

From Indonesia to Japan, throughout much of Asia you simply wouldn’t dream of going inside someone’s home or business without removing your shoes.

The origin for this custom seems to be that in foregone times, homes would be built on an elevated platform above ground level. This is a practical step which keeps animals, floods, etc. out of your home to some extent.

So, the when you stepped up from the dirt outside, you didn’t want to bring it inside someone’s private space and sully it – so you would kick your shoes off.

In modern Asia, this tradition persists, outside nearly every home and business is a shoe rack. You are expected to remove your shoes before you enter though most businesses will provide you with plastic slippers which are considered “clean” rather than expecting you to go barefoot.

However, if you’ve ever seen these slippers, you’ll know that it’s not possible to fight in them or practice judo – you’d fall and hurt yourself.

Also, in some Asian cultures, feet themselves are considered “offensive” and while you can’t remove your feet – removing your shoes, shows that you would, if you could.

It’s Easier To Develop The Correct Posture For Your Feet

Buldt et al, in a paper for La Trobe University in Melbourne, called “The relationship between foot posture and plantar pressure during walking in adults: A systematic review” found that there is a strong relationship between overall balance and the ability to learn decent posture for the foot.

Get it wrong and you put too much plantar pressure on your feet, which causes pain. In fact, plantar problems can become fairly severe is not attended to.

When you learn a martial art, such as judo, there is a lot of emphasis placed on learning to position your body correctly. It would be much harder for a judo instructor or fellow student to observe what you were doing with your feet, if they could not see them clearly.

It is also easier to learn and maintain a specific posture when you’re not changing your shoes every time that you do something. After all, a new shoe will be shaped differently and weigh differently to the last and this could change your practice.

It’s Easier To Train Your Muscles When Working Out Barefoot

It’s not just in the martial arts where people go barefoot, more and more body builders and weight trainers are moving to a barefoot style of practice and that’s because it’s easier to train your muscles when you’re working out with no shoes on.

This is for two reasons:

  1. As with posture training – barefoot training is consistent, it means you are more likely to do the same, correct, thing over and over again because you’re not varying the way your feet are confined
  2. The feedback loop – recent workout theory suggests that when you cover the foot, you dampen its ability to send proper messages to the brain (this ties in with Lieberman’s research too) and thus you’re restricting your body’s ability to learn.

It Improves Your Perception Of Your Surroundings

We like this a lot. There is a common meditation regime which begins by examining the sensations in your bare feet before moving your focus up your body.

You can check out a mindfulness exercise focusing on your feet in the video below as an example.

We can see how, particularly in Eastern cultures, a mindful approach to your sport and your body would lead to a higher level of sense of your surroundings while you are barefoot.

Theoretically, your bare feet are going to be more sensitive and relay more information to your brain. A good judo practitioner ought to be able to exploit this information to be able to better position themselves in a bout and to help them recover their balance more easily.


Conclusion

The original martial arts practitioners may not have had Lieberman’s research to inform them of why going barefoot is a good idea, but they did well to follow their intuition!

The reasons we cited about Asian traditions, feet posture, muscle training and how the perception of our surroundings improve are all backed by science. Perhaps we might all be better off going barefoot a little bit more often.

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