By Ben Greenfield
With the surging popularity of barefoot running, it would seem that for the triathlete, barefoot running currently ranks up there with all-you-can-eat buffet coupons, a Clydesdale triathlete cycling in front of you on a windy day, and unicorns that toot free energy bars.
But although I didn't grow up in a small pack of wolves or come from a remote tribe of natives living at 18,000 feet of elevation, I will readily admit that I can understand and agree with the benefits of barefoot running, especially the part about making your feet strong.
After all, if you spend all day in big, padded shoes, each of your feet will be like the little fairy tale princess who is never allowed to venture outside the confines of the mighty fortress: really weak (but still pretty hot) and easily wounded, bruised or broken by the slightest of encounters with the roughness of the real world (like witches or dragons or big rocks). In other words, you need to treat your feet more like a fairy tale peasant ready and willing to traipse naked and dirty through the forest and fields.
The problem is, even though barefoot running is really good for strengthening and stretching the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones in your feet, it's pretty dang inconvenient at times.
Take my house for example. Outside my front door is a world of concrete, pavement, broken glass, small stones and pine needles that turn a casual barefoot running attempt into an adventure in pain management and self-wound care.
So in order to turn my feet from a princess to a peasant, I have to tack an extra 10-15 minutes onto a barefoot run to drive, bike or run to a soft, grassy park, take off my shoes, pray there are no sprinkler heads, then run around and around and around until I'm dizzy and bored, and finally spend the time investment getting back home.
But shouldn't it be possible to get the foot blessing benefits of barefoot running without actually barefoot running? You bet! Here's 3 ways to do it:
1. Calf Raises and Single Leg Balancing: Both of these activities can easily be done in the comfort of your own home. Perform calf raises while in the shower (work up to 50 double leg or 25 single leg), and single leg balancing while brushing your teeth. Once single leg balancing gets easy, try to shift to your toes, and also try to do more difficult activities on one leg, such as dumbbell curls, typing on your computer, or making love. Of course, this strategy requires you to walk around your house without your shoes on, but that's one place where your pretty princesses will hopefully be safe.
2. Bosu Ball or Balance Disc: You'll find either of these balance devices at most gyms, and you can easily buy them at a sporting goods store. Stand on either for 3 sets of 30-60 seconds on one leg with your eyes closed. For added difficulty, add partner taps, in which a partner attempts to throw you off balance with light shoulder taps. You can also do exercise like dumbbell curls and dumbbell presses while you stand on these balance devices.
3. Jump Rope: Repetitive impact with a plyometric hopping motion like jump rope will stress and strengthen the bones and soft tissue in your feet, and teach your joints to absorb impact properly similar to barefoot running. Practice both double and single leg hopping, and if you¹d like to count like a schoolgirl, knock yourself out. If you don¹t have a jump rope, try jumping jacks in your barefeet or socks. I actually do these in my office, and I haven't been fired yet.
Today¹s high-tech, ultra-supportive shoes can definitely leave your feet weak, just like that fairy tale princess. But a consistent combination of the activities outlined above can leave you with strong feet without actually requiring you to do barefoot running. And if you are a princess reading this article, my sincere apologies. I'm sure you're good at other stuff.