Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Kung Fu -- Barefoot or Minimalist Shoe?

Well, folks, it's still on my mind.  What does a new barefoot running adherent do about shoes for Kung Fu training?

Responding to my last post, Barefoot Josh asked in the comment section, "Do you have to wear shoes for Kung Fu?"

This is a very good question.  Don't think that after all this barefoot running I haven't had the notion to train barefoot in Kung Fu.

I have already mentioned that I asked my sifu about it and he said that he was of the opinion that shoes were better for Kung Fu training.  He is an expert with a lifetime's worth of martial arts experience and has tried many things, including training barefoot, so I respect his opinion.

And I have already mentioned that Kung Fu is traditionally trained in shoes but I didn't know why.

So, I went out a-Googling to try to glean some insight from what's published out there on the Internet about it, which isn't too much, but there is some.

First I'll show you the information I found and comment on it, and in the end I'll tell you what I've concluded.

(Disclaimer -- My writings and thoughts on this topic are horribly unscientific and incomplete, and I am a know-nothing, so all this is just my personal musings and brain-ramblings and ought to be taken as completely non-expert opinion in the matter.)

Why Do We Train Kung Fu in Shoes?
There are two main answers I have got for this question so far.  One is that martial arts such as karate and tai kwan do, which historically had been trained and practiced in a dojo indoors, developed a custom of practicing barefoot because of the Japanese and Korean custom of not wearing shoes in the house, and to keep the mats clean.

Kung Fu, on the other hand, was a martial art of the street.  It was martial arts for the people and it was practiced outside where it was dirty and cold and shoes were worn for that reason.

The other reason put forth for training in shoes that I've been able to find in my Internet-surfing is that because of the fighting and self-defense nature of Kung Fu, it's practical application is likely to occur on the street if one was being attacked and got in a fight.  Usually in that circumstance a person would be wearing shoes, and if you had been training in bare feet at your school on the one hand, you might get thrown off balance by the fact you were wearing shoes at the time you got attacked on the other.

One of the more interesting and cute articles I found about the custom of wearing shoes for Kung Fu practice was on Kung Fu magazine's site in an article called "Monk Takes Off His She: My Life as a Shaolin Shoe Salesman," by Gene Ching.

The information I was looking for, however, was more along the lines of how shoes were part of or were necessary to form optimal technique.  I didn't find anything like that, really.  The answer to wearing the shoes just seemed to sum up as, "because that's how it traditionally was practiced," but did not ever really specify if the shoes were intrinsic to the art itself or added to the functional aspects of training and development of the form in the sport.  So, I decided to dig a little deeper.

Pros and Cons of Barefoot vs. Shoes in Martial Arts Training
In my continued readings of forums and articles on the subject, I did pick up a sense that there is a continuing dialogue going on within the martial arts community over the benefits/drawbacks of wearing shoes vs. going barefoot for martial arts training in general.

The people who prefer training barefoot value it for many of the same reasons barefoot runners value it -- because of greater foot strength and conditioning, more subtlety, greater balance, less equipment, better understanding of the body, room for adaptability, feedback from the environment. (For more, see "Barefoot Training in the Martial Arts: No Shoes is Good News!" by Rick Tew.)

Likewise the people who prefer training with mat shoes value it for many of the same reasons runners who like to train in shoes value it -- protection of the foot from diseases, cuts and abrasions (one of the biggest complaints about barefoot training is that foot cuts and mat burns are common in beginners), greater stability, shock absorption from training on hard surfaces like wooden floors. (For more, see "Martial Arts Training Shoes: Four Compelling Reasons to Wear Them," by Ed Sadler.)

In this one article I found, "Mat Shoes vs. Barefoot Training," by J.P. Alvarez, over at Suite 101.com I learned that martial arts which have traditionally trained barefoot are being replaced by using shoes to train.  Little by little the shoe companies are designing martial arts shoes.  It sounds like right now this martial art shoe category tends to be minimalist and light, but I fear the shoe industry grabbing on to this trend and starting to develop shoes that spring-load your kicks and give you greater stability, etc..., just like the shoe companies did for the runners.

In fact one of the sensei's quoted in the "Mat Shoes vs. Barefoot Training" article even said that he thinks there will be a new era of mat shoes as men and women look to be more hygienic and avoid the spread of disease and frequent toe injuries.  He also predicts that athletic companies will probably start designing shoes tailored to the needs of martial arts students because of this new trend.

By far, the most thorough article I was able to find was from an April 2000 issue of Black Belt Magazine which was on Google Books, "With or Without Shoes: 9 Experts Debate the Pros and Cons of Barefoot Martial Arts Training" by Adrienne Lee Bell.  That article quoted experts from the various disciplines in the martial arts.  It seems like a barefoot runner taking up one of the disciplines that trains barefoot would be right at home and something of a traditionalist.  But a barefoot runner who took up Kung Fu, where the training has been done in shoes, would be breaking with tradition.

In the end, it seems like cross-training in both shoes and barefoot might be a good choice.  That way the student could get the foot conditioning and strengthening and other benefits of barefoot, while getting the practical knowledge of training in shoes.

What Shall I Do?
Well, after all my research, and all my experience learning how to barefoot run this past summer, I have a great desire to train my Kung Fu barefoot.  I believe there will be great benefits to my Kung Fu form by including barefoot training, just like I believed my running form would improve if I tried barefoot running. But since the tradition is to train in shoes -- I shall also need to conform to that tradition in order respect my Kung Fu school and sifu's protocol.

I have been thinking that one thing that is putting me off from barefoot Kung Fu training is similar to something that puts established runners off from trying barefoot running.  Because of the principle that one must develop the foot strength gradually and not do too much too soon, the established runner is often not inclined to try it because he/she would have to cut back on mileage and temporarily "lose" what they have gained in their training thus far.

I feel the same way about my Kung Fu training.  Perhaps I could not get through a full class barefoot at this point.  In that case, the same principles that govern learning to barefoot run might also apply in learning to train barefoot Kung Fu.  In the article above, the beginners complain of foot cuts and mat burns and that is why they run out and get mat shoes for their martial arts training.  But from what the more advanced practitioners say, this is less of a problem when the feet have been conditioned for it.  I think that, just like with barefoot running, one should transition by incorporating just a little bit of barefoot Kung Fu at first to allow the feet to adjust to the new task.

So, I will find a more suitable training shoe than an old running shoe for my Kung Fu classes, and I shall begin to add some barefoot Kung Fu practice at home.  In the beginning, I might do as little as ten minutes of practice barefoot and gradually build to longer and longer amounts of time.  In the meantime, I will train in a minimal shoe while in my classes at the Kung Fu school, which will allow me some of the flexibility and benefits of barefoot, if not all of them.  A cross-training approach.

I feel very strongly that I must get out of the shoes I've been wearing ASAP.  In that case, I am leaning toward the Feiyu martial art shoe.  They are inexpensive, generally praised in the reviews (although I have heard complaints about lack of arch support, which for me would be a good thing), and have the right kind of grip for the mats.


Unknown said...

I love wrestling shoes and think they would be great to run in as well as other martial arts and are easy to find.

Avocational Singer said...

Thanks for the tip, Angie Bee. I know you know your stuff so I will take a look at some wrestling shoes too!

Junk Miler said...

Ballet shoes! That meets the footwear requirements of the barefoot runner: total flexibility of the foot, zero cushioning, and it's goofy!

If it's tradition to wear shoes in Kung Fu because it was taught in the street, then the tradition is also for it to be taught in the street. Why is that tradition breakable but not the shoe tradition?

Also, if part of the reason behind training in shoes is to simulate the likely conditions of a fight, you should be training barefoot. If someone were to attack you, what would most likely be on your feet?

Loving the Kung Fu posts.

Avocational Singer said...

BF Josh, I think I read in one of the articles that the needs of a shoe for the martial artists are like the needs of a ballet dancer, so you're on the right track there.

Glad you like the Kung Fu posts. There will most likely be more of them because the intensity has been stepped up due to the beginning of black sash training.

Running Diva Mom said...

Just found your blog! Keep up the great work! :)

Avocational Singer said...

Welcome, Running Diva Mom! Nice to meet you!