Thoughts on Footwear

It’s important not to leave your martial arts at the dojo door. All too often the training floor and ‘real life’ serve as different worlds, never touching but allowing people to transition back and forth.

The problem with such a separation is that training becomes something abstract. Something that exists while wearing a white gi, colored belt, no shoes, and a well established sense of space. The experienced practitioner will realize that it is crucially important to take concepts, both mental and physical, out of the dojo and into day-to-day activity.

Acquiring a mindset that follows the martial way involves honing the natural abilities of perception and preparedness. Today I’d like to focus on one little matter that many people overlook – footwear.

The Old School

Most martial arts training is done barefoot. Why?

The answer is a two-parter. First, a lot of training (both now and back then) took place indoors. This is more true to Japan than Okinawa, but true for both nonetheless. For Japan, most techniques required secrecy from other clans. Therefore it was prudent for them to train behind closed doors in buildings with high windows. In Okinawa there was a lot of backyard training done during earlier generations, but things ultimately moved indoors similar to what we see today. And, as is still a part of Asian culture, people take off their shoes when entering a building to avoid tracking dirt and damaging flooring.

Second, people simply didn’t have a lot of money to spend on shoes, so they went barefoot. The main shoes of the common class were predominantly Geta and Zori, both of which were designed for environmental needs.

the zori are the very standard sandals you see in the black and white photo above. Geta are of wooden construction and involve raised platforms. Due to the changing weather patterns of Japan, individuals used geta to stay out of snow, rain puddles, and mud while gaining an element of traction in those slick conditions.

The martial tradition of no shoes (or at maximum sandals) is still with us today and is an ingrained part of traditional training. We shouldn’t, however, assume it is the ultimate option in footwear for real life. After all, don’t you think low ranking Japanese soldiers would have loved water proof hiking boots with traction soles and a lightweight steel tip toe?

The New School – Embrace Your Options

You and I are part of the new school, and we have more options that we know what to do with. Every mall contains 20-30 shoe stores with walls of shoes spanning the gamet of casual, hiking, work, dress, running, skateboarding, and who knows what else. They are all specially designed to optimize performance and comfort for various activities.

A lot of people think that bare feet provide the best feedback to the ground, and they’re right. Unfortunately, most ground these days involves some sort of concrete, hardwood, or blacktop. As good as bare feet might be for gripping grass and earth, they are not particularly good for negotiating loose gravel on a sidewalk. In fact, that’s a really quick way to get your soles torn up. In our modern day world, the best option is the scientifically designed rubber found on the bottom of most sneakers. After all, people don’t drive their cars on bare rims for a reason.

Thinking Self Defense

When considering real self defense or life protection, shoes are where it all starts. How you interact with the ground is going to greatly effect what you are capable of. As discussed previously, the most important factor is what kind of grip your shoe soles will give you. If you spend all day on the beach, I give you my bare foot blessings, but for the rest of us we have to consider different surfaces. Furthermore, we have to consider the day-to-day dress we have to wear for responsibilities such as work, weekend excursions, dates, etc.

Some people worry that shoes will hinder kicking, but I think the opposite is true. In classical Okinawan karate, there are a lot of toe kicks that are used to penetrate vital points. It can take many years to develop the kind of conditioning required to make toe kicks work. However, if you happen to be wearing shoes with a decent sole (or steel toe), you can immediately begin to penetrate without damage to your feet.

Other more typical kicks benefit as well. Good shoes protect both the instep and ball of the foot while providing a solid base with your support leg.

What about other shoes though like high heels? We can’t all go around in hiking boots all day. Heels and other less stable shoes come with the added responsibility of knowing their strengths and weaknesses.

On the plus side, heels offer a great resource for stomping and thrust kicking (especially to the feet, shins, knees, and even groin). The problem is that they are a real hassle to run in, and offer very little in the way of grip and traction. Furthermore, it can sometimes be difficult to kick them off when in a panic and hurry without injuring oneself.

Modern sandals and flipflops suffer from some of the same problems. They provide little in the way of traction and can’t really be kicked off to any benefit (as in to distract an opponent). In fact, as you twist and turn in a grapple situation, they will likely get caught up in your toes and create additional pain.

Every other kind of shoe can be analyzed in this fashion, and should be if you intend to wear them regularly. This includes kung fu shoes, Vibrams, Crocs, and Ugg boots.

Final Thought – Reverse It!

So far all we’ve talked about is bringing the dojo out into real life. What about bringing real life into the dojo!? Of course I don’t suggest you start wearing shoes on your training floor because that is both a faux-pas and destructive to the floor, but that doesn’t mean you can’t train outside. Find some open space and feel what it’s like moving around, trying techniques, and gripping one-another in a non-dojo environment. Heck take it one step further and wear street clothes.

You may be interested in what you find, and at the very least it will be a fun change of pace!

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