Sissy feet are a righteous, justified reason to wear shoes for MMA training. I have them now. I haven’t always. Perhaps wearing shoes is just a holdover habit from the 90s when sneakers became a fashion anchor of pop culture, or maybe it was the elephant patterned Nike wrestling shoes that Caol Uno wore when he danced across those small wrestling circles on our reclaimed high school wrestling mats. With a different high-fashion, athletic outfit every time he visited the gym, he was a harbinger of what Japan would become as far as fashion standards, but I digress…(Check out “Nike 10AC”. I was quite proud of myself when I had the epiphany that caol is “10AC” backwards. Good stuff indeed.) Vanity ensemble or sissy feet?
In my defense I practice footwork more so than the average martial artist or sneaker head. Mat burns are not to be taken lightly. It’s a first degree burn when it occurs. It’s a third degree burn under the embers of shower spray later that evening.
Points of Consideration
“If you want a companion scar to complement the cauliflower ear, play compulsively with zippers.”
1. Top of the list then. Foot protection. Bent toenails can occur. Primping is paramount. If your nails are too long a shoe’s toe box becomes a torture device. Conversely, donning long toenails when training with a partner who has shoes on can quickly become its own version of Friday the 13th B-Movie fodder. Winnow your search to the correct size by starting a 1/2 size down from your usual trainer size. This is just a place to begin. Each brand approaches sizing differently. Try the shoe on. Move about a bit. Cut side to side, and step hard into the toe box. If your shoe has a synthetic upper, as more shoes these days are being designed with, take into account the stretch or lack thereof in the upper. Generally speaking synthetic material uppers do not stretch as much. Thus a fit that falls on the snug side will not afford you much breathing room even after you’ve put some time in with them. An unfavorable stitch pattern across the instep of a synthetic shoe can be a painful binding point when abruptly changing direction. I have shelved new shoes for such infraction. Leather will stretch, thus I will err on the snug side when choosing a new pair of shoes that feature a leather upper.
2. Wrestling shoes will often feature a suede-ish toe wrap that rounds down over the front and sides of the top of the toe box and intersects the outsole as it curls up from beneath the bottom of the toe. This feature allows for you to have traction when rolling up onto the ball of your foot as you shoot, but also provides for a forgiving sliding surface when you sprawl toes down so that your feet will slide behind your opponent’s drive and not get hung up on the mat (exposing your legs for re-shots etc.) Caveat emptor, shoes will vary depending on brand and model.
3. Shoes will protect your feet from Draconian burns. If you have dry or poorly conditioned feet, fissures can form between your toes and on the ball pad of your foot quite easily. Especially if you are predisposed to movement or footwork drills. It is usually the case that your feet will adjust to the surface friction over time. If dedicated you can cultivate callouses that can cut a throat. Watch the front kicks to the face!
4. The athlete’s first step is instrumental in most human powered sports. A quality pair of shoes will enhance that first step. To be sure, a well fitted toe box complements movement, while a loose fit leads to toe jam in the truest sense of the phrase and possibly blistering to boot.
While enhanced traction is generally a plus for beginners, learning footwork and round kicks can be detrimental depending on the outsole shape and the surface on which they will be operating, i.e. a wood floor all but necessitates a shoe, while a soft foam mat will hold on and refuse to let go. I have heard anecdotal stories of novices attempting to throw round kicks and tearing the ligaments in the knee in the process. Owed to a lack of understanding of weight distribution when pivoting that is quite possibly a rare case or an embellished account, but a cautionary tale nonetheless. On balance shoes are a net positive for traction in my considered opinion.
5. The argument can be made that shoes are a liability when playing at leg submissions. They are. As with any handicap though, a shoe can be viewed as an opportunity to be technically better when training. A good sweat can mask your lack of proficiency, and I suppose your opponent’s. Where lubrication can help to sink an RNC, sweaty feet are just that much more difficult to gain purchase on.
6. They won’t be used in actual MMA competitions so why get used to a crutch? Point taken.
7. Model and make go a long way to defining the usage experience. Zippers are anathema. My training partners will tell you that I have been know to “zip whip” them. Zippers are pointed and protruding so they can be cosmetically unforgiving. If you want a companion scar to complement the cauliflower ear, play compulsively with zippers. If you are going to perform with zippers on your shoes make sure that they are covered. Most contemporary shoes with zippers conceal them beneath a stretch material with a velcro tab or closure. Indeed this solves the “zip whip” problem, but leads me to my next bullet point.
8. “Velcro” also known as a hook and loop fastening system is destructive to skin and polyester alike. This truly genius, modern invention decidedly falls short where combat sports are concerned. Velcro rash has claimed many lives, while maintaining an inferior status to road rash, it rivals a raspberry.
9. If you are going to wear shoes, make sure that they have a low profile. I have observed people wearing running shoes when training. I’ve seen ankles roll. Footwork intensive stand-up in conjunction with ‘ol skool Resilite wrestling mats that feel of a sweetheart’s warm embrace as they melt into quicksand compression in the late August sun, can break your bones, your heart. A shoe should have a minimal profile height for said safety consideration, but also for effective energy transfer with all of the bouncing, jumping, hopping. One can actually feel the increased effort that it takes to jump rope on mats in shoes with running shoe type cush.
10. Sharp edges on the outsole can be destructive to the underlying surface depending on the quality and finish of the surface being used. Sole color can leave semi-permanent marks as well. A black sole on white mats will not endear you to your instructor. Lesson learned for you. You’re welcome. My consultation fee is invoiced and in the mail.
11. The height of the shoe is also a worthy consideration. Traditional boxing shoes run midway up the calf for more support of the ankle and lower shin, although contemporary boxing shoes are becoming more popular in 3/4 and even ankle height. These cuts provide more maneuverability. It ultimately comes down to preference.
A lighter weight shoe is a benefit as well. A few ounces may seem negligible, but multiply that weight by the number of times you lift your foot in a training session and you will quickly realize that lighter is better.
Verdict: Do your own cost/benefit analysis. I personally prefer shoes for pure wrestling, boxing and kickboxing unless I am planning on really getting after it during the kickboxing sparing session. For the other combat sports and serious MMA sparring I choose to remain barefoot for the aforementioned reasons, and for the courtesy of my partners.
I find that an all purpose wrestling shoe satisfies my needs in an ankle height. I like the ankle support and the unrestricted lower leg flexibility that is not to be had with boxing shoes, but if I want to add some flair I’ll wear boxing shoes when I box if for no other reason than salutation to the purists and the gear heads in Japan. I’d be lying if I said that it isn’t like that. It is!