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.)