Posted by: pointlenana | February 2, 2016

Exercise Of The Month – Feb 2016: Strong Feet

This month’s exercises come from Eric Orton’s book “The Cool Impossible”.  Orton is the guy who coached Chris McDougall as he was writing Born To Run.  The premise of these exercises is that strong feet will help ward off problems further up the legs.  I’ve been doing these for a few months and believe they help, but I think they are a very powerful exercises – like a chainsaw is powerful.  Within 2-3 weeks of doing them 3-5 times/week as described in the book, and progressing the load too quickly, I’d given myself some plantar fasciitis in each foot.  By backing off to once every 3 days, progressing more slowly, and viewing it as a project that will take a year, I seem to have found the sweet spot where I get stronger while continuing to run/train, without causing injury.

I’ll describe the simple version of these exercises – The Cool Impossible has ways to progress beyond these, mentioned briefly below.  The sequence involves balancing on the ball of each foot, in three positions, and then balancing again while doing three movements with the other leg.

To do these, you need a slant board.  You can make your own easily, or buy one online – here’s a fancy one from Eric Orton, or one I’ve seen in gyms.  Those both cost a lot, so I “made” my own “fully adjustable” slant board with a small piece of plywood I found in the basement and a piece of 3M non-skid tape I bought for a few $ at a hardware store.  To do these exercises, I prop one end on a couple pieces of 2×4.  It’s not unstable like Eric Orton’s and it’s not pretty, but it works and doesn’t take up much space.

This is my “slant board”.


You will also need two sticks/poles to balance with.  Ski poles would be fine, or trekking poles with rubber tips might work better for your floor.  Broom sticks would work too, or maybe a couple piece of pvc pipe.  The poles are for balance, not weight-bearing, so just about anything will do.

The exercises are done standing on the ball of the foot, heel elevated, in 3 positions on the board:  uphill (perpendicular to the slant with big toe up the slant), downhill (perpendicular with big toe down the slant), and forward (parallel to the board, ball of the foot at the top of the slant).  Here’s a link to a video of someone going through this whole sequence I’m about to describe.  (He does it in slightly different order – starts with the forward position – and finishes with an extra lunge exercise I don’t describe here.)

To do the balance portion of the exercise, balance in the uphill position on each foot, then downhill on each foot, and finally the forward position.  Keep your heel elevated and leg straight, to get your glutes engaged in driving you up away from the floor.  Use the poles to help maintain your balance, but grasp them very lightly and don’t lean on them.  Ultimately it’s your foot and especially your big toe that should keep you balanced.  You want to work up to balancing for 2 minutes on each foot in each position (12 minutes total) but I’d recommend starting with 15 seconds per foot and progressing slowly from there – maybe add 15 seconds every 2-3 weeks.  It will probably feel easy and you will think you can do more, but that’s how I got in trouble.  Even 3 months after starting these, my calves still get sore 6 to 24 hours after doing this exercise.

The movement portion of the exercise consists of balancing in the three positions again (and using the poles to help with balance), but moving the non-supporting leg while you are balancing.  Although you are moving the “other” leg, it’s still the balancing leg and foot that should do the work.  The movement just makes the balancing leg deal with extra instability.  So, starting in the uphill position (big toe up the slant), keep the other leg straight and raise it up sideways/away from the balancing leg – basically a sideways leg lift.  Hold the position for a moment, then lower the leg – one rep.  You want to work up to 20-25 reps per foot.  You only do this leg lift in the uphill position.

Eric Orton calls the second movement “Frog Lifts”.  Switch to the downhill position, bend the non-supporting leg back 90 degrees at the knee, and again lift it sideways/up away from the body.  20-25 reps per foot.

Finally, in the forward position, lift the non-supporting knee straight up bringing the knee high up towards your chest.  This mimics your stride and the balancing glute should be very engaged when your knee is up.

So, someone who is just starting might do the following sequence:

  1. 15 seconds uphill static balance on each foot
  2. 15 seconds downhill static balance on each foot
  3. 15 seconds forward static balance on each foot
  4. 5 leg lifts on each foot
  5. 5 frog raises on each foot
  6. 5 knee raises on each foot

Again, I would progress very slowly.  I’ve been alternating increasing the static balance and the movement reps.  For example, I went from 45 seconds of balancing and 10 reps to 60 seconds and 10 reps for 3 weeks, then 3 weeks of 60 seconds and 15 reps, then 3 weeks of 75 seconds and 15 reps, etc..  The goal again is 2 minutes of balancing in each position on each foot, and 20-25 reps on each foot for the three movement exercises.

Although I’ve found that it’s really easy to do too much and get into trouble with these exercises, once I slowed down I’ve found they’ve helped eliminate some foot pain I was having before.  Thinking of “strong feet” as a long-term project has helped me do an appropriate amount vs. too much.

These are the basic exercises.  At the eventual 2 minutes per position and 25 reps per movement, this sequence will take 15-20 minutes to complete.  Eric Orton’s book describes the progression beyond that as follows:

  1. for the balance portion, move from 2 poles to 1 pole and eventually to no poles.
  2. once no-pole balancing has been mastered, adding a 2nd round of movement exercises this time balancing (ball of the foot again) on an unstable surface like a stability disk/wobble board.

You shouldn’t progress from one phase to the next (e.g. 2 poles to 1 pole) until the full 2 minutes seems easy.  I am a long way from that.



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