Barefoot Training and Parkour

Published 26. January 2012.

Ryan Ford from APEX Movement released a two-part series on adding barefoot (and minimalist) training into Parkour practice. Much of what is discussed will be familiar to those who have read anything by Daniel Lieberman or Lee Saxby but it also includes some useful recommendations for selecting appropriate footwear (similar to what I've recommended when asked) for Parkour. It does lack a discussion of technique, but the video (above) from Lee Saxby does an excellent job of covering the key points. In any case it's very good to see well respected (and highly visible) members of the Parkour community promoting the benefits of training barefoot (or as close to it as possible).

I would like to add some observations from my own experience, but first some (quick) background on my own training history. From the outset of my Parkour training I was exclusively training with Vibram's KSO shoe for close to a whole year. It was only later that I added in more traditional options (Feiyues and more recently the Inov-8 230s). This probably would have ended badly, but (fortunately) I had spent the past 1-1.5 years walking around all the time in minimalist shoes. If it weren't for that I would have likely have quickly stalled my progress due to a long-term injury. Even after that baseline of exposure to barefoot conditions I still found that after a particularly long days worth of training my feet would be feeling pretty sore.

The recommendations mentioned during the second part of the video are all excellent. I have an additional, if a bit odd, of a suggestion that has helped condition my feet a little more. If you spend a lot of time sitting during the day consider trying out a standing desk and be barefoot (ideally) or wearing minimalist shoes while working at it. It won't necessarily condition your feet to handle bigger impacts, but your feet won't feel nearly as sore/tired at the end of a long day of moving about. Plus we should all try to sit less anyway. There are lots of ways to achieve it, personally my setup cost $20 and works perfectly.

I have some general suggestions and tips from my own experience (some are mentioned in the video) in no particular order:

  • Drill small drops often. Doesn't matter if you've been doing them all the time before in other shoes, the mechanics will most likely be slightly different and require more consistency to avoid landing painfully. Keep the volume (repetitions) low but work on them every day if you can.
  • Train vaults that require landing on a single foot (this applies to big strides too) sparingly, especially at first. I found that any day where I worked on a lot of speed vaults that my feet would feel particularly sore.
  • Rail precisions are going to be noticeably harder, because you absolutely cannot land anywhere near the arch and expect to stay on the rail. On the upside with practice your rail precisions should become extremely accurate for the very same reason.
  • Working on footwork drills that require precise foot placement will teach you a lot about how you can and cannot place your foot safely. Uneven surfaces and odd angles are especially helpful. personally I played "the ground is lava" game on small root systems that I found around campus. There are a lot of ways to do this, be creative and have fun with it.
  • Pure barefoot Parkour training is particularly abrasive on the feet so do that very sparingly. Ryan's suggestion to confine that to warm-ups is excellent, especially if you practice any type of quadrupedal movement during it. Wall-runs and tic-tacs are particularly nasty and I've personally only met one guy so far whose feet seemed to handle it okay (and he had 3+ years of barefoot experience prior to bringing it to Parkour).
  • It pays to be extra vigilant about looking for edges and corners on anything you are jumping to, they might hurt a little when you're wearing thicker shoes, but man do they really hurt in any kind of minimalist wear. Because of this training (reasonably sized) precisions on rocks is extremely beneficial, as they will teach you how to handle all kinds of odd landing angles and differences in surfaces.
  • Listen to your body, if your feet are feeling pretty sore the next day take a day off (maybe more) of training. Bones take a long time to strengthen and an even longer time to heal.
  • Last but definitely not least run barefoot. As with everything else progression is key, start out very small and gradually ramp up the distances. For a greater challenge try running on trails instead of pavement. I'm a bit torn about their comments towards Vibrams. On the one hand I completely agree with the two big weaknesses mentioned: uniform sizing and potential to damage/break individual toes (rails are really good at that), but at the same time I've spent a long time training with them and have no huge complaints. The articulation of the toes in practice is actually more of cost/benefit situation than something that is absolutely bad for you. You can definitely catch individual toes while doing things, but in my own experience the worst that I've done is stubbed them (occasionally). At the same time the individual toe pockets, mostly the big toe, offer interesting control options while moving along rails, traversing, and climbing. The bigger issue that Vibram's have as a Parkour shoe is their durability. Most of the designs, due to the articulated toes, will tear along the inside of the 1st and 2nd toe pockets (primarily from wall runs, tic-tacs, and traversing) well before the rubber on the sole even nears wearing through. I've been testing out the KSO Trek for a long time now to see if they address this problem (so far they do), but that's a subject for a different post. There are probably better overall minimalist options, but unfortunately I haven't had the opportunity to test any of the others so I cannot confidently give out any suggestions.

Personally, I think I will be trying out the Inov-8 F-Light 195s next to see if they are properly minimalist (the 230s have some padding in the heel) soon. I was very happy with the way the 230s performed and for that matter, how long they endured (it took 6 months for this to happen). If they are at all like the 230s then I will quickly be recommending them as an all-around good choice.

[Site related news: New theme and layout is up. What do you think about it? A proper banner is in the works, but I'm curious about the feel of the rest of the site content.]

Update -- Some nice training from a couple of the kids at Parkour Visions, both wearing VFFs: