Transitioning To Barefoot Shoes: 5 Exercises To Help Speed Up Your Transition

March 20, 2022
Inside this article:

This is a guest post from the awesome Holly Middleton at. Holly is a movement coach based in Vancouver, Canada. She is a certified personal trainer and physiotherapy assistant focusing on restoring good foot function to alleviate aches and pains throughout the body. She helps active people restore their body's factory settings by helping them move better. To find out more about her approach, Anatomy in Motion by Gary Ward, visit her website. Enjoy! - Adam

So you want to transition to barefoot shoes but you know that your feet need some help? To get you all set for your new barefoot shoes we want to help you restore what’s missing from a lifetime of conventional shoes. You’re likely missing mobility and strength which can set you up for aches and pains during your minimal transition if your feet aren’t prepared. Switching to barefoot shoes can take you far. However, improving how well your feet move allows them to work harder for you and give you more stable and confident strides. At the transition stage most people are missing mobility in their foot joints, oppositions in movements between various parts of their feet, good big toe function and a wide, stable tripod. Getting good at these movements will make you and your feet strong, stable and resilient.

You’re going to need a soft ball like a tennis ball, a doorjam, a small rubber band and two small towels or pieces of cloth.

Get your mobility back

Most of us have lost mobility somewhere in our feet. To help smooth out your transition to barefoot shoes and allow your feet to get stronger, restore the movement in all parts of your feet. Your feet need to be mobile (think able to form themselves over anything you walk on) AND have the opposition movements that keep you stable on your feet. More mobile feet means more stimulation to the muscles, which helps make them stronger. 

Open up the joints in your feet with these two mobility exercises.

  • Restore the oppositions in your foot with your hands: Restore the dome shape just behind your toes by holding onto the ball of your foot from the inside with one hand and outside with the other hand and making a dome shape and then an inverted dome shape.
  • Release the joints in your feet with a ball: using a tennis ball or other soft pliable ball, place it under your feet and push some of your body weight into the ball for 5 seconds. This is NOT a massaging action. Melt your feet into the ball allow your foot to fully form over the ball. Move the ball to another spot and repeat. Make sure to hit all areas of your feet including near the heel and under the toes. Spend more time in spots that are more sensitive. Try doing it with knee bent, knee straight and foot turned in or out.

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Move your big toe better

Your big toe is a very important contributor to good foot function as well as good balance, getting muscles like glutes to wake up, and having an effortless walk. In fact, your brain devotes a lot of real estate to this one body part, for good reason! 

Let’s restore the movement in your big toe and help your brain devote more of its attention to using what it has to offer. 

  • Stimulate the muscles around your big toe. Find a doorjam. Prop up your big toe against the wall and let the other 4 toes rest against the floor. Bend your knee and let your body move towards the wall. Relax your foot, your arches and your toes as much as you can. Move in and out of this movement. Let the knee rotate inwards (yes, it’s supposed to do this!) Then switch it up, put your big toe on the ground and prop up your other 4 toes on the wall. Repeat the knee bending and relax your foot, arches and toes.
  • Learn to lift your big toes: most of us struggle to lift our big toes and therefore have trouble getting the big toe to extend (important for good push off with the back leg and getting into a good heel strike position). With a small rubber band, loop it around the tips of the big toes and lift your big toes off the ground. If you’re having trouble getting the toes to lift, shift your weight more evenly across your feet and try again.

Teach your foot to help you walk

Most of us are unable to form a rigid shape with our feet and legs making it a challenge to actually get a good push off from the back leg. We’ve gotten out of the habit of using our feet and legs for what they’re meant for, pushing us forward! 

This exercise will help get that back leg and foot working FOR you. Especially important if you have bunions, lower back pain, tight hip flexors or tight calves.

  • Get your back foot pushing your forward: Put one foot forward the length of your normal stride. Straighten out your feet so that the second toe is facing straight forward. Bring your whole body forward over the front leg while bringing the back heel up a tiny bit so that the ENTIRE ball of your foot stays on the ground. Relax your toes on the ground. Make sure you keep the ball of your big toe AND the ball of the baby toe on the ground. If either comes up, you’ve gone too far. Move forward and back in this motion. Extra points if you can straighten your back knee as you come forward.

Teach your arches to drop and lift

Most of us have lost a couple of basic movements in our feet: pronation and supination. Pronation is when your arches drop to the ground and your foot gets longer and wider (think pancake shape). Supination is the opposite, when your arches all lift up off the ground and your foot gets shorter and narrower (think suction cup shape). 

Let’s teach our feet to make these two important shapes.

  • Pronate better: Put one foot forward the length of your normal stride. Place a towel under the heel from the back and another under the toes from the front. As in the previous exercise bring your body forward over top of the front leg while staying upright. Fully relax your front foot and let the arches drop down to the ground. Bring your body forward and back, relaxing the foot each time. Get even more pronation and get the knee involved by rotating your body towards your midline as you come forward, letting the knee go where it wants to go as you relax your arches.
  • Supinate better: standing with feet at hip width apart and a towel under your heel from the inside. Shift 95% of your weight onto the foot. Let the pressure under your foot travel sideways into your heel and straight your knee as you shift. Once you are comfortable with this movement, straighten your knee while rotating your while body including the chest, pelvis and leg in the direction you’re shifting (it’ll feel like a golf swing). If you find that the ball of your big toe is coming up off the floor, place a towel under the ball of your big toe from the inside and keep an awareness of the ball of the toe and towel never losing contact.

Get more stable on your feet

Having a stable, wide tripod under your foot is essential to good balance and being able to fully take advantage of all the muscles you have in your foot. Like the foundation of a building, a wonky foundation makes for a wonky structure above it. Most of us have narrow tripods and can benefit from getting a much wider base of support. Ideally our tripod should be under the ball of the big toe, ball of the little toe and centre of the back of your heel. 

This exercise will remind your nervous system of where the floor is and how much nicer it is to have a wide, stable tripod under your foot.

  • Restore your tripod: Put one foot forward the length of your normal stride. Place a towel under the ball of your baby toe and another under the ball of your big toe. This should bring the outside of your feet up off the ground and letting the arch under the remaining three toes have space to drop to the ground. Bringing your weight forward and back like you did in your pronation exercise, let the foot relax and allow your nervous system to discover what a wider tripod can feel like.

Want extra credit?

Try this free course Refurbish Your Feet. It includes videos of the exercises in this article and incorporates the movements of the entire leg and hip, which are common sources of lack of good foot function and associated aches and pains.

Photos courtesy MVPhotography