Foot Strength

by Running Ambassador Eric Orton While in Urique, Mexico the days before the 2006 Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon race (which would become the Born To Run story), I spent every possible moment watching and interacting with the Tarahumara Indian runners. I wanted to know how they’d become such amazing endurance runners. What gave them the ability to run a hundred miles, more, in a single day over such extreme terrain? I found their special “sauce.” It’s not some extra muscle or anatomical advantage. It’s 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. 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 own athletes. Rather than being revelatory, my time in Mexico was more affirming of the new “sauce” I had developed in my own coaching. That said, in the field of coaching runners, one that is both an art and a science, affirmation is a beautiful, powerful 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, who is a kind of grandfather of the tribe of Indians, offered to make Barefoot Ted his own pair of huaraches. In his late fifties, sporting a Yankees baseball cap over his still jet-black hair, Manuel had run in the first Leadville 100 mile 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. Feet square, his butt sitting low, almost touching the ground, he sawed away at the old tire tread with his serrated knife. 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 like a lean at the waist. Manuel’s ability to remain in a squat for close to an hour while working with his hands demonstrated remarkable stability, mobility, and muscle equilibrium. In the following days, running the same trails that Manuel and the other Tarahumara ran, there was no doubt where he had developed this strength—and it reinforces my belief in the central role that foot strength plays in athleticism and a strength foundation. The trails through the steep canyons around Urique are far from the well-tended, frequently traveled paths that we are accustomed to in the United States. They’re rough, uneven, and strewn with rocks and boulders of every size and shape. To run along these trails demands not only your attention, but also the ability for your feet to land on rocks at various angles, and then toe off to advance forward. Further, when crossing the Copper Canyon terrain, it’s rare for both feet to be landing on level terrain. More often, I found myself landing with one foot on a slanted rock, then another on the path. This requires balance, lunging, and squatting. The Tarahumara do this kind of running repeatedly, day after day, on long runs, up and down mountains. They do so in their worn-out flat huaraches, their feet and calves the only shock absorbers they have. It’s rare for people to talk about 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. Most athletes don’t think – its simply not in our consciousness – that we can train our feet, but we can, and we should think of 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. A lack of foot strength reduces our stability, and stability is the foundation you need to propel yourself forward efficiently. By training the foot, you allow the muscles in your leg to “fire” as they should. This activates more muscle fibers in your legs AND hips, creating muscle equilibrium. It is not about building bigger muscles; rather, it is about inviting more muscles to the party to create better strength, power, and stability. And this all begins at the feet. Eric Orton is the coaching star in Born To Run, author of The Cool Impossible, and a Toe Sox athlete ambassador. He runs in the Tetons and coaches runners, of all abilities round the World.