A friend introduced me to barefoot Parkour a few years ago. It’s quite difficult. In high-impact discipline practised on concrete, railings and walls, taking off your shoes seems like the last thing you’d want to do. The question of what was better for Parkour – thin, light martial arts shoes or heavily padded running shoes – was still very much open back then. But the benefits were clear immediately.
For one, my landings got better. Quickly. To figure out why, imagine yourself dropping off of a wall and landing on your bare heels, on concrete. Exactly. More subtly, but more importantly, my footwork began to get lighter, more controlled, and more responsive. The feedback wasn’t quite so intense, but it was there, and as I walked, ran, jumped and climbed, it gradually refined my every move.
Perhaps even more valuably, barefoot training made my ankles more vulnerable. It’s easy to forget quite how much modern shoes limit our range of motion, but do away with them and you’ll find there’s a wide range of motion that you haven’t necessarily got full control over. You need that control. The ankle is an extremely mobile joint, and it needs to be, because the knee isn’t. By learning to use the ankle within its full range of motion you not only increase its natural potential for absorbing and redirecting force in many different directions, you also protect your knees from forces in directions it can’t deal with.
Last of all, but perhaps most easily forgotten, is the immediate feedback. Not the kind that helps you get it right later, but the kind that makes sure you get it right now. Plenty of people having noticed that balancing along a railing seems easier in bare feet, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. Parkour is, above all, about interaction with your environment, and our feet are our main point of contact. Where precise footwork and small obstacles are involved, being able to quickly identify exactly where you are, how you’re balanced, what surface area is available, and what the grip is like is essential. Training barefoot means training this sense, training your awareness and enhancing your proprioception, and in Parkour that has very direct application.
Let’s put all this aside though, because this isn’t just about physical gains. It’s also about the experience, and that’s what training barefoot is – an experience. I defy anyone to go running barefoot on a beach on a hot day or take off their shoes and do some tricking on warm grass and tell me it doesn’t feel good. The same applies to moving in an urban environment – it just takes some time to adapt to.
Barefoot Parkour is hard, and I’ll still be slipping on some minimal shoes when it comes time to land on some railings or train out in the snow. But for that awareness, for the sensation of having reclaimed what in our society has become almost a sixth sense, there’s nothing like it.