Change of Pace: Barefoot Training 101 for Over-Pronators

This blog started as a means to track my experience training for the NYC Marathon back in 2004. Over the years it’s evolved based on my flights of fancy and changing interests (lately, gardening). Today I revert back to my fitness focus for the pleasure of sharing what my group fitness program is offering.

Last week my Mount Tabor Runner’s Boot Camp class joined me at my house for a evening clinic focused on barefoot training. We learned about the foot’s role in running, self diagnosed our foot types (mostly over-pronators but nothing extreme), and learned about the three stages of training to wake up our feet and stabilize and strengthen our lower extremities from the ground up. It’s important to note that I have expressed anti-barefoot sentiments in the past, mainly because I think the shoes are dumb and I don’t like “lifestyles” and “movements” that advocate for a way of being without evidence or proper conditioning. But last year I took an intensive program offered by the Evidence Based Fitness Academy that changed my way of thinking about barefoot training. This program, under which I’ve become a “Barefoot Training Specialist” formed the basis for our training.

Barefoot Exercise Workshop

The purpose of this workshop was to learn about the interconnection between the foot and ankle and lower extremity, recognize foot imbalances and how they affect alignment and performance as runners, and learn how to progress our barefoot training, using the three steps below. This was an introductory course on the very basics of barefoot training. If you have injuries or are new to exercise, consult with a certified personal trainer, doctor, or physical therapist before beginning a new program.

Here we are doing our single-leg stance squats
Here we are doing our single-leg stance squats.

Remember that these steps do go in order – don’t move on to really hard strength exercises until you have worked on Steps 1 and 2. The exercises below are good for people who tend to overpronate a bit.

Anatomy 101: Our foot has three sections and each has a function in movement. The rearfoot links your foot to the rest of your leg and is the initial contact with the ground. The midfoot plays a role in shock absorption and absorbs the energy from the rearfoot as it strikes the ground. The forefoot plays a role in propulsion. It releases the energy absorbed by the midfoot. Toes provide additional balance and stability.

Step 1: Mobility We use myofacial release or trigger point therapy with dynamic stretching to address foot mobility. Certain muscle contractions cause adhesions or knots in our foot and lower body muscles, which affects the muscle and surrounding tissue’s ability to fire and thus our performance.

Equipment: All of the items below can be beneficial for getting your own “knots” out of your muscles and realigning your muscles fibers. Simply put the balls on the floor and roll your feet over them, or roll your legs on the foam roller using your body weight to provide pressure.  Focus on bottoms of feet and your calves from all angles.

  • Trigger release balls (try “Rubz,” only $7 at the link below or for sale at local running stores: http://www.amazon.com/Due-North-Foot-Rubz-Massage/dp/B002QEY6NK)
  • Tennis balls
  • Foam rollers: These can cost alot or a little. The only difference is that the expensive ones may last a little longer, though if it’s just you using it (versus at a gym with tons of users), you should be fine with a cheaper one. Some are also less intense and forgiving, like the white one, than others that are harder, like the black one (http://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=3407871)
  • “The Stick”: I love my Stick! It travels easily and allows you to really dig in. A bit more of an investment, but it will last forever. They will have them for sale and to try out at the Shamrock Race number pickup event (https://www.thestick.com/)

    I've never smiled like this using the Stick. I'd describe the sensation as 'good pain.'
    I’ve never smiled like this using the Stick. I’d describe the sensation as ‘good pain.’

Tip: Wearing shoes all day makes our feet become “lazy.” A technique we didn’t discuss in class is re-sensitizing the bottoms of our feet. Walking around barefoot is the way to do this. Try walking and performing the other exercises below on different surfaces to wake your feet up (wood floor, grass, rough sidewalk). This reconnects the nerves on the bottom of your feet to your brain and thus improves performance.

Step 2: Stability Now that we’ve worked on improving our mobility and range of motion in our feet and lower extremities, we need to establish stability in these now “loose and relaxed” muscles. People who pronate, in particular, already have loose feet muscles (generally speaking) compared to the more rigid high arched foot – but the exercises below are good for all runners. Strengthen the muscles that control movement as you run:

  • Reverse heel lift. Stand on the edge of a curb, heels hanging off the edge. Lift onto toes and slowly lower, focusing on the lowering phase.
  • Backward walking on treadmill. Use this as a warmup, go for 10-15 minutes at a low speed.

Strengthen the muscles that provide power as you run:

  • Heel lift with small ball between your ankles/heels
  • “Short Foot.” This exercise strengthens the muscles in our feet that provide stability, specifically the ones that absorb shock and support the arch. Sounds good for runners whose feet tend to roll in, don’t you think?  (Learn how here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDitRaQRxs4) (If you really want to nerd out:  http://blog.evidencebasedfitnessacademy.com/)
    This is what the "short foot" exercise looks like. It's not only good for the foot; it also triggers deep hip muscles and engages your glutes!
    This is what the “short foot” exercise looks like. It’s not only good for the foot; it also triggers deep hip muscles and engages your glutes!
    • Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 4-5 times. Do one foot at a time.

Step 3:  Integrated Foot Strength Let’s put it all together! Only progress to the next exercise after you’ve mastered the one before. Obviously we do these exercises (and everything above) barefoot.

  • Single leg stance. Do “short foot” to activate your foot muscles and ‘turn on the foot girdle’. Then stand on one foot and hold. Practice balancing. Then switch to the other side.
  • Single leg stance while lifting the other leg in a backward diagonal direction, up and down.
  • Single leg stance with deadlift.
  • Single leg stance with side lunge.
  • Single leg stance with reverse lunge.
  • Add a dyna-disc or balance pad when the above exercises are no longer challenging (http://www.amazon.com/Dyna-Disc-Balance-Cushion-Royal/dp/B00077E32C).
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