Sole Survivors

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While “barefoot running” has become a fad phrase associated with spectacularly unattractive “five-fingered” shoes, it’s actually barefoot strengthening that will bring the greatest benefits to your life. You may not be able to play the piano with your toes, but you’ll find your feet can be very useful—if you train them. Feet contain some of the body’s most sensitive nerves (try tickling them) and intricate architecture (our feet house a quarter of the body’s bones); it only makes sense to give them special attention. In addition, strong feet support the body and are a good starting point for gaining better posture. And as with most other parts of your body, building strong, supple, balanced muscles in the foot can help prevent injuries to its ligaments, tendons, and bones.

Walking barefoot, even on terrain as unremarkable as your kitchen floor, will give your feet a chance to stretch, breathe, and deliver sensory information to your brain as they were meant to. That’s easy enough to try on your own, but if you really want to train your feet, here are nine exercises that, in total, should take 20 minutes or less. You can do them at the office or at home or, ideally, in a grassy park nearby, to begin the process of strengthening the foot, ankle, and calf for better functional movement.

Start out by doing them three days per week or so, with a rest day between each session, and make sure the area is clear of debris that could injure your bare feet.
Spell the Alphabet
Those who’ve been through any sort of ankle rehab know this foot-and-ankle warm-up drill: Write the alphabet with your big toe. Try it once forward and once backward. See how far you can spread your toes from each other while you do it. Then, try it in cursive. Repeat with the other foot.

Grab the Towel
Place your toes on the edge of a small towel. “Scrunch” the towel with your toes until all of it is underfoot. Try it for a minute with each foot. Work up to the ability to scrunch all of the towel underfoot.

Heel Warm-Ups
Heel warm-ups go a long way to prevent injuries to the lower calf and Achilles tendon. For this exercise, you literally balance on your heels and attempt to walk forward. Aim for 20 steps and see how far you can get.

Self-Massage Roll
This is my favorite of all foot exercises and warm-ups. Take one of those all-too-familiar rollers (use the strength of your choice, from foam all the way up to PVC piping—the firmer, the better) and stand on it, using a stick as a cane to help you balance. Once you gain your balance with the stick, try moving the roller back and forth and attempt to “walk.” Do this on a soft, forgiving surface as you may lose your balance.

Or try a safer version that simply massages but doesn’t require balancing.

Shorten Your Foot
The “short foot” exercise teaches you how to manually arch your foot, the skill humans lost in the transition from Paleolithic moccasins to Manolo Blahniks and steel-toed boots. Place your feet squarely under your hips. First, try rotating your knees out to see if you can create an arch. When you’ve achieved that, try again, but don’t rotate your knees this time—just arch your feet. If you can’t get an arch that way, dig your toes into the ground and try again. This is an exercise you can do anywhere—standing in line at the post office or grocery store, with or without shoes on.

Squatting is the mother of all lower-body exercises. The best squat for barefoot training is the one termed the “Hindu squat.” For this squat, you start on your forefeet or the balls of your feet, and begin with your hands held high. As you lower into your squat (shins stay perpendicular to the ground, knees no farther forward than your toes), sweep your hands down and back before lifting back up onto your toes.

Find a thick rope, curb, or bench and walk along it, balancing as if doing a tight-rope walk between two tall buildings. Find more and more difficult balancing acts.

While standing at the curb, waiting for the light to change from green to red, try single-legged jumps on to and off of the curb. Even with shoes, this one strengthens those very important calf muscles needed for barefoot running.

Once your feet are in better working order—flexible, sturdy, and responsive, with arches that can shorten on cue and toes that can wiggle independently—consider whether you want to let them run unencumbered by shoes. Start slowly, give your feet plenty of time to rest and recover, and never push beyond pain. If you do feel pain, consult a licensed professional (podiatrist or doctor), of course.

To start, try the shortest distance possible on the safest surface possible. Find out the next day what hurts, and locate the different muscles you’re engaging for barefoot running. Design your workouts to gently enhance those areas. Even 100 yards is not too short a distance to begin your barefoot practice. The worst mistake a barefoot runner can make is to expect to be at “shoe” speed in the first year. Think of barefoot running as something more akin to rock climbing, taking each step with care. When you’re truly ready to engage, resources ranging from Harvard’s Skeletal Biology Lab and Vivo Barefoot’s instruction-enriched website to Eric Orton’s training site or Christopher McDougall’s New York Times best seller Born to Run will get you on your way.

My own path to barefoot running started in a doctor’s office, where orthotics initially helped cure my feet of distress. But it continues blissfully on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach and Embarcadero sidewalks, where, after years of strengthening, I can now use my feet to propel myself forward without the help of supports, gels, inserts, or braces.

Always consult with your health care professional before starting a new health or exercise regime.

Susan Gerhard is a Bay Area–based writer and athletic trainer/coach. She is an avid barefoot runner.

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