Every year, 75% of runners get injured at some point in a given year. The other 25% are lying. Now, if you run 1.75 miles each year before giving up your New Year’s resolution, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about runners who regularly run at least several miles each week. Various strains, sprains, and knee and shin pains pay visits to nearly every runner and every run. But why is this? Does it have to be this way?
The truth is, most of us aren’t ready to run. Sure, you may be in pretty good shape. You may have a premium gym membership that gives you the tanning bed for “free” once a month, you drink diet soda, and you eat avocado toast at brunch. I get it. You make some “healthy” decisions. This doesn’t mean you are ready for the rigors of jogging for miles and miles.
Running is a primal activity. If you had two healthy legs, you ran every day as a kid. You chased, played tag, ran away from scary dogs, and ran around the wet surface of the pool despite the lifeguard yelling at you to walk, again. As a parent, I’m convinced it is genetically encoded into each toddler that one must run away when asked to do, well, anything productive. That ability to run has never left you, or so you think.
With running, the landing leg has to absorb at least 3x your body weight. No offense, but you’re a little heavier than when you last ran away from your super-soaker-wielding brother. That, along with the fact you don’t run as much as you did when you were a kid, and your aging muscles have stiffened to the consistency of beef jerky, running just isn’t as easy as it used to be.
If you are a competitive runner, these feelings tend to show up around high school and only get worse from there. Fortunately, there’s a field called exercise science, and sometimes we learn a thing or two about injury prevention. Preventing chronic pains and injury is none more important than for runners. We know that strengthening certain muscles and moving them in certain directions can be instrumental in preventing many of those unexplainable minor pains that pop up during a run.
Running is, of course, always done with shoes for safety reasons. It would be nice to run barefoot, but rocks. And unfortunately, much of these pains can be blamed on shoes. Notice I didn’t say bad shoes, because all shoes are bad. Shoes are foot weakening and movement-altering devices. They may stop a rock from gashing your foot or help bring the dog’s poop onto your living room carpet unbeknownst to you. Still, they do disconnect the foot’s relationship with the ground. This weakens the internal foot musculature and alters its natural movement mechanics.
This altered state for the feet often results in pain over time. That’s why all people, especially runners, need to be barefoot as much as possible and as long as it is publicly appropriate (I live in Kentucky, that answer may be different between you and me). This will help strengthen the foot muscles and maintain or restore the body’s natural motions, which are ideal for reducing pain.
Beyond that, I’ve got five barefoot exercises that every person, especially runners, should do on a frequent basis.
- Heel and toe raises. This is your classic calf raise, accompanied by the less common toe raises. It should really be called the ball of your foot raise, but that’s a weird name. This exercise combo is simple but can help improve the always-needed ankle mobility. This mobilizes and strengthens the ankle complex and can dramatically reduce the onset and symptoms of shin splints and other common ankle and lower leg issues.
- Single leg RDL. This is my personal favorite exercise of all time, for now at least. This is a fantastic exercise that accomplishes a lot of things at once. Foot, ankle, knee, hip, and low back stability, hip mobility, and total body balance and coordination. Mastering the single-leg RDL is a must for all.
- Inline lunges. These are harder than you think and are the ultimate evolution of lunges. But technique makes all the difference. Be sure to keep the chest up, pushing up with the planted heel, and not the ball of the foot. The moving knee should land right next to the arch of the planted foot. That is the most crucial part. Come down slowly and up explosively. When done correctly, this is a killer glute exercise and will also improve leg balance and stability.
- Cossack squats. One of the downfalls runners experience in their training is they commonly perform too much forward and back movement. Runners use their side muscles way more than they think. Cossack squats, or lateral lunges, are a great way to strengthen the muscles geared toward lateral movement. A must-do exercise for high-performing runners.
- Pendulum swings. This is my favorite warmup exercise. It creates powerful hips and flexible, strong hamstrings, all while replicating the sequence of a running motion without the high impact. It’s also a great finisher at the end of a workout.
Here’s a quick example of these exercises from my Instagram.
These exercises aren’t an exhaustive list, as there are many more that runners should include in their workout routines. But these five exercises are, in my opinion, the best bang for your buck and should serve as a strong foundation for healthy running. Pay attention to your technique, and learn to master these movements whether you are an athlete or are looking to get back into shape. Once you perfect the technique, start adding some weight and strength to these movements. Happy running!