Rhythmic Physician: Shoes Or No Shoes?
Drummers have long debated whether or not to use shoes while drumming. So which is correct? To answer this question we must understand both the risks and benefits for either technique.
Biomechanically, walking barefoot is felt to result in a more natural gait pattern, allowing for greater rocking motion of the foot, eliminating the hard heel strike and thereby generating less collision force in the foot and lower leg. On the other hand, footwear protects the foot from cuts, bruises, and abrasions, not to mention puncture wounds, infection, cuts, frostbite, and parasite infestation. Unfortunately, many shoes can limit foot flexibility and mobility and are felt to lead to higher incidences of flat footedness or deformed toes.
So why the big debate regarding shoe wear with drummers? As a novice recreational drummer and full-time sports medicine physician, I have explored this question myself. Personally, I prefer to play barefoot in my home studio for several reasons. In my opinion, I have a better tactile feel and better control of the pedals while playing barefoot. I also have fairly large, wide feet and find it difficult to fit my feet on the pedals when I wear certain shoes. Playing outside my home I wear low-profile, lightweight athletic shoes with very flexible soles for primarily sanitary reasons and to protect my feet from unnecessary injuries or infections.
I have polled several drummers asking their preference. Their responses vary regarding preference. Myron Grombacher, Pat Benatar’s longtime drummer, has given me the most helpful insight into answering the question. He prefers drumming barefoot and heel down, but has used minimal-profile, flexible shoes such as Capezio-type dance shoes or gymnastics shoes at times. He also says there is greater control while playing barefoot, but cautions that your feet need to be conditioned to sustain the mechanical stress and forces on the feet while playing hard, fast, and for long periods of time.
Drummers need to understand as the foot is stressed, it will adapt to that stress by developing blisters in areas of increased contact and friction. These need to be cared for to prevent infections from developing. Calluses will soon develop to protect these same areas and also require some care if painful. Sweating is also a common complaint of barefoot drummers. Many control sweating by wearing a sock just by keeping a folded towel on the floor underneath a floor tom so the sweaty foot can be dried periodically. An ice bag on the floor that is easily accessible can also be helpful to cool the feet down while drumming.
There are a number of thin-soled, friction-reducing, minimally padded shoes on the market that offer similar flexibility and tactile control yet protect the feet from cuts, scrapes, and punctures or lacerations such as the Nike Free line or the Vibram FiveFinger-style shoes.
What a drummer decides to wear or not wear on their feet is entirely their own preference. There is really no medical evidence to deter or solely endorse either style of drumming. That said, drumming barefoot is not for the faint of heart. If you do choose to drum barefooted you must remember the feet have to adapt to the tremendous stresses that occur with playing hard for long periods of time. In short, the debate goes on.