Better Feet, Not Bare Feet

Photo: Courtesy Breakthroughs

Photo: Courtesy Breakthroughs

A little strengthening of your feet and lower legs will pay big dividends.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the benefits of running barefoot. Advocates of barefoot running say that running in shoes prevents all of the little muscles in the feet and ankles from functioning as they were designed to do. As result, these muscles become weakened and the runner’s stride becomes less stable and powerful. Over time, running barefoot corrects this problem.

All you have to do to demonstrate for yourself the truth of this story is run barefoot one time. The next day your feet and lower legs will be sore. That’s because you’ve forced the underutilized muscles in these areas to earn their keep for once. It’s a pretty eye-opening experience.

But barefoot running has a downside. For most runners it’s just not very comfortable when done on the surfaces we usually run on. It tends to become less uncomfortable over time, but except in rare individual cases, running barefoot on asphalt never feels as good as running in shoes on the same surface.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get the “gain” of running barefoot without the pain? Well, you can. There are various ways runners can strengthen their feet and lower legs so that they can use the muscles of these areas as they were designed to be used even when you wear shoes for running.

One of those ways showed up at Competitor’s office recently. Breakthroughs is one of a few businesses that create foot-strengthening tools for athletes. They are very simple and provide noticeable benefits with a small time commitment. The kit I tested out contained a small foot “ramp”, two small balance disks (one for each foot), two PVC tubes (each about 12 inches long and 5 inches in diameter), and a couple of retractable hand poles that are used to aid with balance when you’re standing on the disks or pipes. There’s also a DVD that demonstrates how to use all this stuff.

A typical exercise consists of standing (barefoot, of course) on the disks while using the hand poles to aid with balance and performing squats. The first time you try any of the exercises shown on the DVD is a humbling experience. But that just reveals how much you stand to gain by using the tools to improve your foot strength and balance. As a runner you should be strength training regularly anyway. Incorporating a few exercises with Breakthroughs equipment into your program will give you benefits you’re not currently getting from it without greatly increasing your time commitment to strength training.

Of course, strengthening your feet and ankles is not an exact substitute for barefoot running. Shoes also add weight to the foot and alter stride mechanics To minimize these effects, complement your foot strengthening exercises by running in the lightest and lowest-to-the-ground shoes that are comfortable for you.

[sgi:MattFitzgerald]

Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.

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