Every runner that I know puts a value on injury prevention. When you’re healthy, your running is uninterrupted, consistent, and you start making bigger strides toward your goals. Whether that’s qualifying for the Boston Marathon or finishing your first 5k, staying injury-free is a big part of running success.
One path toward injury prevention that’s commonly promoted is barefoot running or running in more minimalist trainers. If you’re at all familiar with my philosophy of moderation with minimalism, you know that this isn’t a surefire way to stay healthy for life.
The problem with barefoot running is that there’s a huge risk of injury to your lower legs when you don’t have the support of proper running shoes. I love the feeling of grass between my toes just as much as the next runner, but I won’t risk plantar fasciitis for the label of “barefoot runner.”
Besides, there are easier and more effective ways to get the benefits of minimalism without the injury risk.
2 Quick Fixes for Form and Foot Strength
With no barefoot running, you can still develop a more efficient stride, get stronger feet, and put less stress on your legs while running. My favorite strategies:
Shorten your stride. A lot of runners over-stride and have a very low cadence. When you’re over-striding, you “reach” out in front of you with your leg. This puts your leg far in front of your center of mass and creates a lot more shock to your foot and leg when you land.
Instead, focus on landing underneath your body. By not over-striding, you’ll dramatically reduce the energy that’s absorbed by your knees and hips. While the jury is still out on whether this will ultimately reduce injuries, I’d advocate this strategy for new runners or those rehabilitating an injury.
A side benefit of shortening your stride is that you’ll likely also increase your cadence, or the number of steps you take per minute. A quicker cadence of about 170-180 steps per minute will further reduce the stress on your legs.
Strengthen those legs! If you think that your legs get enough exercise by running, you’re wrong. You need to develop the muscular strength to withstand the miles of pounding that your legs inevitably have to endure.
A simple way to get strong is to warm-up with lunges in multiple planes of motion before you run. After you finish, 10-20 minutes of core and body weight exercises can build the resiliency that you need to remain injury-free.
My favorite body weight strength routine focuses on the hips and glutes, two problem areas for most runners. Since weak glutes and hips have been implicated in a majority of running injuries, this is a great routine for all runners. I call it the ITB Rehab Routine since it was initially created to help treat my IT Band Syndrome.
Bonus: do some of these exercises barefoot to develop additional strength in your feet. It’s safer than barefoot running.
For foot-specific strength, I have two exercises that only take a few minutes. The first is fun: spread a bunch of marbles on the floor in front of a chair. Sit down and put a mug or cup next to your feet. Then practice picking the marbles up with your toes and dropping them in the mug. Repeat on both feet 2-3 times.
The second exercise has you sitting on a chair again with a towel in front of you. Put your foot on one end and using your toes, scrunch the towel closer to you. Do this 2-3 times and when it gets easy, put a heavy book or a small weight on the other end for added resistance.
These simple strategies accomplish the same things as barefoot running: increased foot and lower leg strength, less impact forces on your body when you run, and ultimately a more efficient running stride. The benefit is that the injury risk of barefoot running is removed.
Since so many runners overdo their first barefoot run, prepare yourself first with these strategies or skip the barefoot running altogether.