When running coach Eric Orton got an e-mail from a writer named Christopher McDougall in 2005, he had no idea that it would land him in a book that launched a revolution. Yet even as Born to Run took off, and the barefoot craze with it, Orton quietly shook his head. Everyone missed the point. It wasn’t the shoes that mattered. It was what was in them. If your feet are weak, Orton believes, injuries will follow. If they’re strong, they won’t.
New research is confirming Orton’s theory. A 2014 study found that by increasing foot strength, athletes also improved their one-legged-long-jump, vertical-jump, and 50-yard-dash times. Last year, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers proposed a whole new paradigm: the foot-core system, which stresses intrinsic muscles like the abductor hallucis and the flexor digitorum brevis that have been “largely ignored by clinicians.”
Orton still coaches, and he recently founded the Mountain Running Academy in Jackson, Wyoming. Here are five exercises from his book The Cool Impossible ($16, Penguin Random House) to help you run injury-free.
Using poles for balance, stand with your right forefoot on a stability disc ($35; freogear.com). Extend your left leg forward, then squat as if sitting in a chair. Do three sets of 25 on each leg.
Slant-Board Leg Lifts
Stand with your left forefoot on a slant board ($40)—essentially an angled balance board—with the slant facing right. Lift your right leg sideways. Repeat with the slant facing left. With forward slant, lift your bent knee up toward your chest. Do 25 reps per leg per position.
With your left forefoot on a stability disc, lift your right knee up toward your chest. Rotate your right hip 90 degrees to each side, keeping your knee as high as possible. Do three sets of 15 rotations for each hip.
With your left foot on the floor and your right leg on an exercise ball, roll the ball backward and squat your left leg. Do three sets of 25 on each leg. Harder: stand on a slant board. Hardest: stand on a stability disc.
Stand with your right forefoot on a slant board. With the slant facing left, hold for two minutes per foot. Repeat with the slant facing right and then front for two minutes each. Harder: one pole. Hardest: no poles.