Our Feet Are Our Super Shoes

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Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind.

Over the past 25 years, Eric has coached Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles.
Eric is the coach in the international bestseller, Born to Run, and has written two books: The Cool Impossible, and Born to Run 2: The Ultimate Training Guide.

The majority of runners do not have the strength they need to become the runners they want to be. They have been brainwashed into thinking muscle tightness, poor mobility, pain, and discomfort are just “part” of being a runner.

The more we run, the more we hurt. 

I was recently at a 2-day run relay event, and the longest line at the race expo led to the injury management tent.

This is the norm, but it doesn’t have to be this way, and what you are about to read could transform your running if you let it.   

But let me first tell you a story.

Copper Canyon.

Run Free

I stood at the starting line of a fifty-mile race, the culmination of a week-long dream journey for me as a runner and a coach. Save for my shirt and shorts, my hydration backpack, and fuel in my pockets; this was no ordinary race.

Far, far from it.

First, I was in the tiny remote village of Urique, tucked between steep cliffs and a river, in the Copper Canyons of northwestern Mexico. There was no grand race gate, no timer microchip on my shoes, no firing of a gun, and no mass swell of athletes tripping over each other to get ahead.

In fact, we had to recite the words ‘lost and die’ as a possibility that would be “my own damn fault.”

There were only a couple dozen runners, a simple, foot-drawn mark on the dirt road in the center of town to indicate a starting point, and a tall, sun-bleached blond American nicknamed Caballo Blanco to shout ‘Go!’.

The runners that day were not my usual competitors either, and that was the point, really. This was a race to bring together two cultures, one old, one new, both with a devout love of running and running at the extreme, over very long distances.

In that race, we faced 50 miles in the stark, hilly landscape of the Copper Canyons. Those of the new culture were among America’s best ultramarathoners, including the dynamos Scott Jurek and Jenn Shelton.

Those of the older culture were the Tarahumara Indians. Dark and tawny-skinned, their legs rippling with muscle, they wore loincloths and brightly-colored, long-sleeved shirts that billowed when they ran.

Their shoes, or more appropriately huaraches, were simply a flattened, foot-shaped cut-out of tire tread lashed to their feet with leather straps.

People running with huaraches.
Photo Credit: Luis Escobar

The Tarahumara, whose true name is the Rarámuri (or “Running People”), came from a collection of isolated, secret tribes who lived in the Copper Canyons, surviving not much differently than they had for hundreds of years.

They were known, most of all, for their amazing feats of endurance running, able to seemingly journey forever over parched and rocky trails amid some of the most forbidding landscapes on Earth.

I had known of their legendary feats for over a decade, but to be with them in the flesh, as I had been for several days now, remained a wonder.

While in Urique, the days before the Copper Canyon race, I spent every possible moment watching and interacting with the Tarahumara. 

I wanted to know how they’d become such amazing endurance runners. What gave them the ability to run a hundred miles, or more, in a single day over such extreme terrain into their fifties, sixties, and seventies? 

I found their special, secret “sauce.”

It’s not some extra muscle or anatomical advantage. It is many ingredients blended together: running early and a lot as children, their diet, their terrain, their shoes, the games they play running, a whole lifestyle built around movement. 

Huaraches.

But this sauce isn’t magical or surprising. Much of what I observed in the Tarahumara I had already come to learn was essential for my athletes and something YOU can have too. 

Rather than being revelatory, my time in Mexico which became part of the best-selling book Born To Run, was more affirming of the new “sauce” I had developed in my own coaching.  In the field of coaching runners, one that is both an art and a science, affirmation is a beautiful thing.

In terms of strength, the Tarahumara have it in all the right ways for endurance running. 

This first became clear to me when Manuel Luna, who was kind of the grandfather of the tribe, offered to make Barefoot Ted his own pair of huaraches. In his late fifties, sporting a Yankees baseball cap over his jet-black hair, Manuel had run in the first Leadville 100 ultra race featuring the Tarahumara.

While making Ted’s pair of huaraches, he remained in a squat on the side of the main street in Urique. With his butt sitting low, almost touching the ground, he sawed away at the old tire tread with his knife that would soon become the sole of Ted’s huaraches.

Not a big deal, you say. Attempt a simple deep squat on your own; see how close you can bring your butt to the floor in a squat without your knees going inward.  Or maybe your squat is more of a lean at the waist. 

Manuel’s ability to remain in a squat for close to an hour while working with his hands demonstrates remarkable stability, mobility, and muscle equilibrium. 

In the following days, as we ran the same trails that Manuel and the other Tarahumara ran, there was no doubt where he had developed this strength, stability – muscle equilibrium – and it reinforces the central role our feet play in running health and performance.

Manuel, squatting while making the running sandals.
Photo Credit: Luis Escobar

True Strength

Stop.

Reach down and take your shoes and socks off and balance on one foot. 

Not too hard, yeah, but notice how hard your big toe and the arch have to work to just stabilize your balance. 

Now try lifting your heel slightly off the ground and stabilize on your forefoot only.

Not so easy, actually very challenging, yet with every running step we take, we are asking our leg and foot to be stable in this position. 

An amateur runner will take between 1,500-2,500 steps per mile. That’s 39,300-65,000 steps for a marathon.  Foot strength is the ‘true strength’ we need.

How we use our feet directly relates to how we stabilize and use our running muscles. Simply put, we are only as strong as our feet. 

Yes, your feet. 

Bare feet on a dirt road.
Photo Credit: Luis Escobar

It’s rare for people to talk about endurance runners needing to be athletic – and the strength that comes with that.  It’s rarer still for foot strength to be in the conversation. 

Bizarre, really, since the design of our feet, from toes to arch to heel, is integral to our ability to run. You could argue that they are our lifeline as runners, just like finger strength is a rock climber’s lifeline.

Climbers train their finger strength all of the time; why don’t runners train their feet with the same vigor?

Our feet, with their many bones, joints and muscles, tendons, and ligaments, are key to running with strength and equilibrium. 

Most runners don’t think – it’s simply not in our consciousness – that we can train our feet, but we can, and we should think about doing so with the same level of purposefulness that we pay to “the core.” 

For runners, the feet are more than a key part of our strength. Everything starts with them.  They set the stage, good or bad, for the whole leg, and we want to set a very, very good stage.

A lack of foot strength reduces our stability, and stability is the foundation you need to propel yourself forward efficiently and in a healthy way. 

A person running barefoot on grass.
Photo Credit: Luis Escobar

Without it, you are no different from a house with a weak structure with a welcome mat inviting in IT Band syndrome, tight hip flexors, Achilles issues, shin splints, and general aches and tightness. 

Over time, things will collapse, and this points to how foot strength sets the stage for everything else. It does so because of its interconnectedness to the rest of your lower body, from ankles, calves, and knees to your glutes.  

As runners, this interconnectedness makes it impossible to separate foot strength from leg strength and stability.

Utilizing the foot properly helps you activate and fire muscles all the way up your body. This helps create muscle equilibrium and takes away the tug and pull of dominant and weaker muscles that cause tightness and dysfunction.

These issues could result in a parade of problems that most runners deal with and lead to standing in the injury management line at the race. 

This is not a function of being a runner but a function of not using your body well. It doesn’t have to be this way, and using your body well starts at the feet.

Here are a few simple but potent foot core exercises to help you get started and rebuild your foundation from the ground up.  

Foot Core

#1: One-Leg Barefoot Balance:

  1. Balance barefoot on one foot on a hard surface with your heel slightly elevated off the floor to stabilize only with your forefoot.
  2. Use a chair, poles, or the wall to help you stabilize when needed. 

How Many: 2-4 sets of 30-90 seconds per foot or until fatigue. 2-3 times per week and/or done as a run warm-up before you head out the door.

Awareness: You will feel it where you need it. Some might struggle with strength in their feet; others might be stronger in their feet and feel more fatigue in their calves and glutes. 

Note: This is not a calf raise exercise with the up and down movement of the foot. There is no movement, just stabilization.

#2: One-Leg Side Lift:

  1. Balance barefoot on your right forefoot using a chair, poles, or wall to help stabilize. DO NOT try and do it without this balancing help.
  2. Keep your right leg straight, and raise your left leg sideways.
  3. Raise your left leg only as high as you can while maintaining level hips, and then go back to the start position.

How Many: 2-4 sets of 15-20 reps with both legs or until fatigue. 2-3 times per week and/or done as a run warm-up before you head out the door.

Awareness: This is a stabilizing exercise for the stance leg, not a range-of-motion exercise for the moving leg.

#3: One-Leg Knee Lift:

  1. Balance barefoot on your right forefoot using a chair, poles, or wall to help stabilize. DO NOT try and do it without this balancing help.
  2. Keep your right leg straight, lift your left knee in front of you as high as you can, and then back to the start position. Keep your movements slow and controlled.

How Many: 2-4 sets of 15-20 reps with both legs or until fatigue.  2-3 times per week and/or done as a run warm-up before you head out the door.

Awareness: This is a stabilizing exercise for the stance leg, not a range-of-motion exercise for the moving leg.

Try these exercises out to help build your foot strength and lay a solid foundation for your running.

Runner's legs.
Photo Credit: Dillon Deloge
Photo of author
Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind. Eric was one of the coaches who pioneered the online coaching industry and has operated his run coaching business for the last 25 years helping Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles, Ironman triathletes, cyclists, etc. His study of ancestral cultures, like Mexico’s legendary Rarámuri ultrarunners, has made him one of the foremost authorities on running, evolutionary biomechanics, and human performance. Eric is “the coach” in Christopher McDougall’s international bestseller, Born to Run, where his coaching was instrumental in helping Christopher complete the epic adventures described in his books, Born to Run and Running with Sherman. Eric is author of two of his own books: The Cool Impossible which has been published in 7 languages and 15 countries, and Born to Run 2: the Ultimate Training Guide. Eric travels the world speaking and coaching clinics on running. He is the former Director of Fitness at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and currently lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

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