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Why Soccer Players Should Be Training Barefoot

Updated on October 22, 2018
Dawson Davis profile image

Dawson is pursuing a bachelor's degree in exercise science, and then a master's in athletic training at the University of Central Missouri.

A Look At History

What do some of the most top-notch soccer players in the world (such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Wayne Rooney, The Hulk, etc.) have in common? Yes, they all make a ton of money; but, they all have played barefoot soccer. On top of this, they have all played street ball (this is something that the United States is struggling to adopt).

Does barefoot training increase our ability, or does it hinder, or even both? Let's check out the statistics. According to the National College Athletic Association (NCAA), 65.6% of all soccer injuries occur to the lower limb extremities; 12.2% of this statistic comes from lateral ankle sprains. While also, hamstring muscle strains were 7.5%, and groin muscle strains were at 5.5% (2004/05-2008/09).

Why does this matter? In the field of sports medicine, professionals in this field try to decrease the rate of injury (pre-season, in-season, and post-season). Studying how the body reacts and can be strengthened, can inform players of exercises that they can bring up to their strength and conditioning coach, athletic trainer, or if neither of those is available, their coach(s). In addition, knowing what the body does help players understand their [muscles] functions and when a professional is not present, they can apply their understanding to alter their workout to better their overall health.

Gait and Function

According to MatchFitConditioning, modern shoes alter one's gait-- "one of the most complex motor functions in the human body." Eighteen of the nineteen tendons that reside in one's foot are attached to the toes; and most shoes have toe springs, which results in one's toes rolling forward during the walking phase.

Just like any other muscles, the muscles in one's feet and ankles must be trained. The function of skeletal muscles is to produce force, but also to act as shock absorbers. When not trained properly, the force is transferred to the nearby joints, tendons, ligaments, and surrounding connective tissue. The ankle and feet are designed to withstand an incredibly high amount of force, and when they aren't, this causes trouble to parts in the body that aren't supposed to be handling necessarily that exact function. The amount of force exerted onto the foot while running is approximately five times the body weight (i.e. a person weighing 140 pounds, or 622.75 newtons, would experience 700 pounds, or 3113.76 newtons, of force) (MatchFitConditioning).

When one is running barefoot, one is using a midfoot to forefoot striking pattern; as to compared to running with shoes on, one is using a rear to heel striking pattern. This foot striking position results in a shorter stride length and a higher cadence (step frequency). Running barefoot reduces the initial contact force due to the higher level of pre-activation in one's calf muscles. In addition, running this way lowers peak torques at the ankle, knee, and hip.

When running barefoot, one's proprioception awareness increases. The sensory feedback activates a series of eccentric and concentric muscle contractions that reduces impact transmission and allows for shock absorption. When trained properly, the foot will disperse pressure to a wider area, functionally avoiding injury. In terms of how this makes players better equipped for the pitch, this allows the body to sense when it is in a "high-risk" position, and the split-second decision could literally make or break one's resilience when it comes down to avoiding tearing one's anterior cruciate ligament (ALC).

Should Players Be Training Barefoot At Practice?

According to the Journal of Sports Medicine, "At initial ball contact, a bigger plantar flexion angle at the talus joint results in higher foot rigidity and less give during the collision in barefoot kicking, as high-speed video pictures suggest." (Nunome et al., 2006). The ANOVA showed a higher velocity when kicking barefoot than kicking shod. An analysis and cohort study of the injuries during the Japanese National Beach Soccer Championships in both 2013 and 2014 shows that 58 injuries occurred in 54 matches. Of these injuries, 34.9% occurred to foot/toe, followed by the lower leg (22.2%), thigh (11.1%), and ankle (1.6%). The most common type of injury was contusions (60.3%), followed directly by lacerations (14.3%), and sprains (6.3%).

Anne-Marie O'Connor, a podiatrist who has worked with high-profile Premier League clubs for 10 years, states that "Soccer players have quite bowed legs. If you stand on one leg and kick with the other, your weight's always going to be on the outside [of the leg], so over a period of time the bones will evolve into that shape." The way that a player strikes a ball will have the lasting effect on the shape of their legs, and this certainly details why.

If individual players are screened and cleared properly by a medical professional, barefoot training should be allotted during practice(s). In the beginning, the training should begin slowly to adapt and train the five layers of muscles located underneath the foot. Simple exercises, such as jump roping and jogging for half of a mile, should be considered when first starting out with this type of training (please note: I do not recommend high-intensity anaerobic exercises, start out slow to avoid injuries). According to the United States Soccer Players, players should begin to jump rope between five to ten minutes. This exercise will allow players to develop their quickness, foot coordination, and proper kinesthetic awareness skills (2009). Jumping rope on grass or any uneven surface is not recommended, but rather recommend jumping on a firm and even surface.

Once players begin to start strengthening the intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscles, as well as calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes, then a progressive exercise plan should start taking place: eventually working to sprinting and scrimmaging. Barefoot scrimmaging should only be taking part for 15-20 minutes at the start, allowing the players to start using their proprioception awareness and unexpected directional changes (change in speed, velocity, and acceleration).

Neymar training barefooted
Neymar training barefooted | Source

To Wrap Up...

I am not recommending players to go and start playing barefoot soccer immediately; but moreover, recommend strengthening the muscles of the foot. You will benefit getting back to the basics, and building the foundation of strength and conditioning. Your ball skills and balance will certainly increase by taking care of your health; lowering the risk of injuring your hip and knee joints. It is a no-brainer to invest in this opportunity!

References

Baur, J. (2011, April 27). Home. Retrieved from http://www.stack.com/a/barefoot-training-proceed-with-caution

“Figure 2f from: Irimia R, Gottschling M (2016) Taxonomic Revision of Rochefortia Sw. (Ehretiaceae, Boraginales). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e7720. Https://Doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.4.e7720.” doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f.

Matchfit Conditioning. (n.d.). Why Footballers Should Be Training Barefoot (When Possible). Retrieved from https://www.matchfitconditioning.com/blogs/fitness/why-footballers-should-be-training-barefoot

Men's Soccer Injuries. (n.d.). Retrieved October 08, 2018, from https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/NCAA_M_Soccer_Injuries_WEB.pdf

Nunome, Hiroyuki, et al. “Impact Phase Kinematics of Instep Kicking in Soccer.” Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 24, no. 1, 2006, pp. 11–22., doi:10.1080/02640410400021450.

Williams, T. (2018, July 08). The World at Their Feet: How Footballers Look After the Tools of Their Trade. Retrieved from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2784336-the-world-at-their-feet-how-footballers-look-after-the-tools-of-their-trade


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