I may be playing too much tennis

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I play tennis barefoot, which seems pretty extraordinary to many people. I’ve been doing it for about 9 years now, and never really had a problem. I’ve found descriptions of people trying to play barefoot and getting blisters—never happened to me. Wikipedia even has an entry about Calvin Coolidge’s son that says that he played tennis barefoot at the White House, got blisters, septic poisoning, and died from it. (This is actually false: all the contemporary news sources of the time say that he was wearing street shoes with socks—more anti-barefooting myth.)

So, do I somehow have extraordinary feet? Many newspaper articles about barefoot running will interview an anti-barefooting podiatrist, who will say that really only a small percentage of people can run barefoot. Here’s something from the Denver Post:

But experts caution that only a small percentage of runners can successfully train sans shoes.

“Your muscles, tendons and bones are balanced if your shoe is properly fit and your foot is properly supported,” said Eugene Rosenthal, a local podiatrist, who said he would never recommend running barefoot.

I doubt my feet are amongst that small percentage. So what is going on?

Well, I had been hiking barefoot for at least 4 years before I even tried playing tennis barefoot. As far as I’m concerning, hiking, on natural trails, is probably the best exercise for bare feet. The natural surface does a very good job of stimulating the muscles, tendons, and ligaments to strengthen themselves. Twigs and other irregularities stimulate the skin to build up the thickness of your sole. Thus, by the time I tried playing tennis, all the necessary connective tissue and thickened skin were already in place, and quite usable.

If I have no problems playing tennis, why, then, did I title this entry “I may be playing too much tennis?” When it is not summer, I generally play tennis about 2 hours a week, indoors. But during the summer, the group I play with switches outdoors, and we end up playing 5-6 hours a week. And what that does is wear down the thick skin on my soles, making my feet more sensitive.

That’s fine for everyday activities, and it is even fine for playing tennis on the (mostly) smooth tennis surface. But last week I took a hike in an area with a fair bit of scree-like stones, and I found my feet rather sensitive to it. I had done many parts of the same trail just a few weeks previously, and had chugged along quite happily. This time, however, I had to go quite a bit slower, at least to start out. (In the end, my feet did adapt, and it is not as if the hike was one painful or uncomfortable 6 miles.)

Hiking stimulates growth of a thicker sole. Tennis, while it strengthens the connective tissue, wears it down. It can sometimes be tricky to get the right mix of the two. (I might also add that it is tennis that the feet are not particularly adapted to—we evolved walking barefoot over various trails; we did not evolve playing tennis.)

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3 Responses to “I may be playing too much tennis”

  1. Andy Says:

    Just last night I addressed the question of playing tennis without traditional footwear to a barefoot group:

    http://groups.google.com/group/huaraches/browse_thread/thread/7fd3ec8b06f16a9f

    and someone found your this morning’s blog… Thanks, this is extremely useful — I might try playing in my Vibrams (VFF KSO’s), to avoid the issue of skin, and with my great aunt’s laid back group, to avoid initially the ribbing I’ll get from anyone else…

  2. Bob Neinast Says:

    I’d be very cautious using the Vibrams. You really need the skin of your sole to provide the feedback, and to prevent you from overdoing things. Your joints and ligaments will not complain until it is way too late. However, the skin on your soles will tell you when you have had enough and prevent you from going on and hurting the more internal structures. Over at Ken Bob’s site for barefoot running, we see time and again folks who start out with Vibrams and injure themselves from overdoing it because of insufficient immediate feedback. Lose the Vibrams.

    One other thing I noticed on the Google group was a claim that playing tennis barefoot might slow you down. I play (admittedly doubles) in a tennis ladder with other guys about my same age (though some are 20 years younger), and I regularly stay on courts 2 and 3 (out of 4), with an occasionally visit to both 1 and 4. I am pretty widely acknowledged as one of our faster or quicker players (I jokingly attribute this to the lack of weight holding down my feet).

    So, aside from the accelerated wearing down of the “leather” down there, I have no problem at all with all the sudden spurts and stops required in tennis. But, as I said in the original entry, I attribute that to having built up all the structures in my feet before playing tennis. I would caution against suddenly trying to play tennis barefoot if you don’t already go barefoot quite a bit.

  3. Andy Says:

    No worries. I have previously, knowingly subjected my soft tissues to a valuable lesson about how to overdo it in the VFF’s (mountain half marathon after insufficient buildup), so I’m more than cautious, but always adventurous! I’ll be sure to mix it up as things evolve, with shoes, VFF’s, barefoot. This 90+ afternoon, after playing a bit in court shoes I hadn’t worn since my feet started to develop, I had to “let the dogs out” and I hit baskets of serves in my socks.

    Thanks again!

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