The fact that running is (often painfully) hard on the body is an accepted fact. But celebrity run coach Eric Orton says it doesn’t have to be.
Orton, who rocketed to fame as Christopher McDougall’s coach in the phenomenon Born to Run, just released his own book, The Cool Impossible. In it, he says the problem is that most runners, from beginners to elite athletes, are just doing it wrong, starting with a training component that’s normally completely ignored—strengthening the feet.
“If we see our feet as the foundation of our body, the analogy is easy,” Orton says. “A good strong foundation supports the rest of the body. The problem is that everybody has weak feet.”
Orton came to this conclusion after years of observing his own progress and the many athletes he trains. While research studies validating his foot strengthening regimen don’t exist (yet), he says the approach is key when it comes to injury prevention.
“If we’re not using our feet appropriately, every time we strike the ground, we’re not supporting ourselves well,” he says. “So the muscles commonly associated with running—like the calves, quads, and glutes—can misfire. Some muscles will overwork, some won’t be used properly—and that’s the dysfunction we commonly talk about with running injuries.”
And having strong feet isn’t just about not getting hurt. Orton says it will also create an equilibrium that takes away the tightness in the body that most runners accept as inevitable. “That’s the holy grail for runners,” he says.
So how do you go about building muscle in your toes? Orton lays out a program of barefoot strengthening exercises using a slant board in The Cool Impossible, which he says runners should work into their warm-up before hitting the street (or trail) every day. They may look simple, but they’re tougher than you think.
And while it may take a while for runners to get turned on to the idea, Orton says it’s only a matter of time. “We’ve all been told how important our core is for so long, and now, whether they strengthen it or not, everyone knows how important it is. Ten years from now, I think everybody will know about foot strength, too.” —Lisa Elaine Held