This Simple Exercise is the Key to Injury-Free Running

An expert coach says the key to running injury-free starts with training your feet

You’re a runner, so let me ask you; what kind of aches and pains are you dealing with right now? Maybe you’re feeling a pull in your IT band when you walk up stairs, maybe your hamstrings are feeling extra tight, or maybe you’ve been dealing with a bit of plantar fasciitis.

I’m only throwing out a few examples based on some of the minor injuries that I’ve personally dealt with in the past. According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, about 70 percent of the running population becomes injured at some point or another.

Based on that statistic alone I’m guessing it’s safe to bet that if you’re not dealing with running-related pain at the moment, then you have at some point in the past, and if you continue to run, probably will at some point again. That is, unless you make some improvements in your training technique.

Because injury is such a widely predominant issue for so many runners, when I spoke with expert running coach Eric Orton I couldn’t wait to ask him what he felt was the best strategy for injury prevention.

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Orton is the former fitness director for the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, author of The Cool Impossible, and most recently, the founder and director of the Jackson Hole Running Camp; a three-day, running-intensive camp set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

His top injury prevention tip: train your feet.

“A big part of my philosophy is to train the feet,” he said. “My training techniques rely on the fact that the health of a runner is directly related to the health of their feet.”

It’s like that saying, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” All of the muscles you use for running are interconnected, and since your feet are the first part of the process they should be your first focal point when it comes to developing strong, efficient running form.

“Stronger more stable feet provide proper stability and strength through the hips,” Orton said. “It starts taking care of all the injuries that runners tend to have. If more runners trained their feet those injuries wouldn’t be so common.”

Orton says that strong feet and proper form go hand in hand. In The Cool Impossible he explains how to achieve proper running form using different drills and exercises in great depth, but for those looking for an exercise they can do today to help increase their foot strength Orton recommends simply balancing on one foot while barefoot.

“Have the awareness of what your toes are doing to stabilize your body,” he said. “Once you have that awareness, now balance with your heel elevated on the ball of your foot. Experience how difficult it is, naturally having to use your big toe for stability.”

Orton says this is an important practice for runners because at some point or another you will ask your body to be in that position while running. “We try to avoid that in various ways with all of these built up shoes but regardless of technique or your shoes you will be in that position at some point,” he said.

So, working on improving your foot strength is one thing you can do to help prevent injury, but what if you’re currently dealing with an injury? Is there anything you can do to speed up the recovery process?

 “Understand rest. Rest is when you get better,” Orton said. “Building rest days and rest weeks into your training is super important because that’s when your boy rebuilds and regroups. It comes back stronger.”

Orton said that he always advises his athletes to be smart now rather than having to be forced to be smart later. “If you feel like something is up, err on the side of rest and let it calm down and try not to push through it and you’ll recover faster.”

Related: Avoiding Injury: When In Doubt, Rest