Victoria Saitta is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about her or to work with Coach Victoria, check out her coaching page.

Our Feet Tell a Story

If someone were to ask an individual, “What do you picture when you think of a strong runner’s physique?”, typical answers may be “Strong legs,” or a “Toned core.” What many would not answer is, “Strong feet.” Feet are so critical to our everyday activities and without question, our running. 

I am no palm reader, but I do believe our feet tell our story. Same example goes when someone says, “They had a very strong hand shake and rough calluses, they must be a rock climber.” Our feet are a direct correlation to our lifestyle. They are the foundation on which we stand and move on, and with self-awareness, strengthening techniques, and proper care, our feet can improve our running performance.

First, I ask you to build awareness of your own feet. Take a look at your bare feet and examine them. What do you see? What can you comfortably do barefoot? What do your footprints and strides look like when left in the sand (or flour thrown on the floor)? Now take those observations and figure out how they may tell your story.

For example, I have tender feet in the winter, but in the summer, I can walk on gravel no problem. On my left foot, I have an unusual callus. I have a footprint that shows I have a strong, prominent arch. My footprints show that I toe slightly inward, with my left, if being lazy. There are many subtle signs that our feet will show us if we make sure to pay attention. 

Now that you have been able to examine your feet, can you make any connections? I know that the unusual callus on my left foot is a direct correlation to an old injury that occurred just under my left knee, leaving nerve damage down through to my pinky and adjacent toe. Due to the damaged nerves, I have less control and struggle to move these two toes independently. Whereas, I have no such issue with my right foot. It has caused my foot placement to be slightly off and has thus, affected my pelvis and lower back area. My left hip is very slightly set back, whereas, my right hip compensates for the left side. Therefore, if not properly taken care off, this causes fatigue and toenail concussion after very long ultra races. 

I started to recognize, through self-awareness and uneven muscle fatigue, that something was off, and began to incorporate nerve rebuilding techniques with bands for the two toes during my stretching time. When I went down to the beach for a run, I would start out with conscious core exercises. I would let myself mindlessly walk for several strides through the damp sand, stop, look back, and examine my foot prints. My left toe was slightly more inward than my right. Then, I would re-establish, make sure I had good posture and move forward consciously, concentrating on engaging my core and relying on it to propel me forward, all the while, focusing on my hips remaining even. When I did so, my footprints where equal and my left toe had no inward pull. Doing these exercises, and finding a trusted chiropractor, has been very beneficial for my running and ability to stay on the trail longer. 

Using your Feet as your Guide

There is no general rule I can give for a simple fix, as every-body is unique. However, I can help provide advice to guide you in the right direction of fixing an issue or continuing to build in the right direction. 

  • Good posture is absolute key. If you wish to have outside help, yoga can be amazing for posture and correct movement. It really does help to have an instructor available to oversee your “skeleton” and help place you in the right direction for your stretching. 
  • Muscle memory is very stubborn and hard to re-train, but with persistence, it is achievable.
  • Remaining self-aware is very important. “You have to learn how to walk before you can run”, is a commonly spoken quote, but I would argue, “You have to learn how to correctly walk before you can correctly run.” Make sure to keep checking on your feet and your footprints. What are they trying to tell you? 

Some of the best advice I can give is to take your shoes off! Going barefoot is the first step to building stronger feet.  Stretching should be done barefoot. Take time to walk in the garden, on the grass, or at the beach, barefoot. You are allowing your feet to breathe and to feel the earth. Many benefits can be transferred from the earth’s energy through our bodies, but we need to be barefoot and in contact to receive those energy benefits. You are also allowing your feet to naturally use their muscles by moving and reacting to natural terrain.

Being barefoot on natural terrain may be difficult for some individuals at the beginning, and we call this the “winter feet” syndrome. Your goal is to obtain “summer feet.” Summer feet are nicely callused and capable of stretching and gripping onto different types of terrain comfortably. 

Building Foot Strength

There are a bunch of great activities that can help build foot strength, but you must build up to it if you are not used to being barefoot. If you are not typically barefoot, start slow and easy. Go to the park and stroll through the grass or take a barefoot walk on the beach in the sand, and if you do, stop wearing slippers or socks in the house. We are breaking into spring time, and temperatures will be warming up, so many of these activities will be manageable. Unless you are a lucky one that lives in a year-round warm environment! 

Now that you have been using your bare feet, step it up a notch. Start to jog on the grass or in the sand. Jog on a track barefoot. Work on some up and down hills. You will notice that uphill is easily run by being on the balls of your feet, versus the typical heal to toe movement (this will initially cause calf muscle fatigue – but do not worry – you will build up strength in time). Downhill, you will notice when barefoot, you cannot slam your weight down. Instead, you will learn finesse in moving and “sinking into” the downhill momentum. 

Slowly, do these new exercises. You do not want to injure or strain anything. Humans have 26 bones, over 30 ligaments, and 2 main tendons in each foot. Very complex for such a small area. These ligaments and tendons should be allowed time to slowly adjust to your foot being in its natural state, as most of us wear shoes more often than we go barefoot. Over time, you will notice you’re feeling more capable and confident in striding out. Strains and injuries can occur if you do not take the time needed to adjust and build up foot strength. 

Keep it fun and barefoot for a while. Deep sand, if you can find any, is such a great foot strength builder, as well as one heck of a leg workout. If you feel so inclined, slacklining is a fun way to build up foot and leg strength and improve your core balance. They sell thicker slack lines for beginners and can easily be set up between two trees. Balancing boards, such as an Indo Board, are good for foot muscle building. You will notice, once you can get over the fear of falling and can comfortably balance, that your toes will “grip” the surface. This is HUGE! The ability to stick or grip, means you have very strong feet. All these activities are fun and can be incorporated into your training and have beneficial effects on your running performance. 

Choosing Running Shoes

Now that you feel more comfortable being barefoot, let’s take a look at your running shoes. There are so many options out there and so many different types of feet. What works for me and, may be my strong opinion of “what is right,” may not be right for you. What I will say is, get to know your bare feet before you shove them into a running shoe. If we throw our feet into any old running shoe and ignore the simple movements of our bare foot, we may be on the road to a numbed and injury-provoked experience. 

For me, I ran in Vibram Five Finger shoes for years. I then moved more north, to a colder environment, and during early morning runs, my feet would be numb, evolving into me dodging gravel because it hurt to run on. I took myself down to the local running store and bought a pair of New Balances, because I thought they were a good running shoe brand. Well, every run in those shoes was awful. When I would get home and take them off, it felt like someone was taking a screwdriver and stabbing it up through my heel. I felt very disheartened. I soon looked into Merrell Barefoot running shoes, which offered more protection than the Vibram Five Fingers, but less heel cushion than the New Balances. They were satisfactory, yet still, I felt that I was dodging gravel and not striding out. Eventually, I came across Inov8 shoes, and fell in love, and to this day, I still wear them. They offer just enough protection, but not too much. For me that is the best fit. 

All the brands I mentioned, I do not mean to impose any negative or positive judgments upon. Finding the best running shoe is like Cinderella and her glass slipper, the perfect fit. It is a very personal endeavor, and each runner will have their own opinion. Just make sure to know your foot, your proper foot placement and movement, and allow this to guide your shoe decision. Trial and error will be a huge component as well. 

Caring for your Feet Pre and Post-Run

Lastly, give love and attention to your feet. Maintaining proper foot care for your hard-working feet is important. Before and after your runs, give your feet a quick massage. Dig your thumbs into the arch of your foot and rub up and down. Massage the pads and heels of your feet. Throughout your leg stretches, point and flex your toes to awaken and stretch all those ligament and tendons. You will find that your calf muscles, as well as your thigh muscles, control a lot of the flexing movement in your feet. Feel how everything is connected and works together, and plan on maintaining that awareness throughout your running. 

Incorporate foot ice baths into your recovery regimen. It can be as simple as finding a cold stream to dangle your feet into (your whole body will benefit too if you feel brave enough to submerge), or simply throw some ice into a bucket of cold water. Ten minutes is just enough time to aid in recovery and bring some inflammation down, if any is present. If you live near the ocean, well, you lucky duck!  Go soak your feet in the salt water after runs and the cold salt water will do your feet wonders. If you do not live near the ocean, simply add Epsom salts to your foot bath and you will have the same beneficial effects. 

All in all, I hope this article inspires you to take your shoes off more often and to portray connections on how a stronger foot can improve your running performance. Our feet can tell us a lot if we pay close attention. A solid foundation is of the upmost importance to long-term success. So, remember to take care of your feet, for they are your base for running. 

Victoria Saitta is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about her or to work with Coach Victoria, check out her coaching page.

strong running feet