No matter how great a runner you are, you’re going to have to take some time to let your body adjust to running around in Vibram Five Fingers, even more so when completely barefoot. The benefits of learning to run in the barefoot style are pretty substantial, but the potential risks of approaching this endeavor carelessly are equally significant.
You’ll never reach your endurance goals if you are hampered by injuries, and minimalist running will help you with that – but, only if you approach it conscientiously.
If you are new to the minimalist running trend, then you will have to come to grips with the fact that you can’t immediately run the same kind of distance that you are used to doing in cushioned shoes. Well, you could, but then you will likely spend the rest of the week laid up in bed with muscle tears. In fact, your well defined runners muscles are still one of the biggest roadblocks towards reaching your barefoot mileage goals.
According to Dr. Michael Nirenberg and Dr. Benno Nigg, while walking in shoes, only the tibialis anterior (a shin muscle) and triceps surae (calf) muscles are needed.
You see, there are about 20 muscles within our foot and 12 muscles from our leg that attach to our foot. So, while wearing cushioned shoes only a couple of those different muscles are needed to facilitate human locomotion. What do you think all of those other muscles are doing in the mean time? Well, if they aren’t ever used they body lets them shrink to maximize efficiency. And, if you have elevated heels under your feet, your calf muscles will shorten in length as well.
So, what can you do to improve your foot strength?
Your best bet is to approach this like a weightlifter would approach a strength training regimen. Don’t try to do too run farther than your body is capable of, and get adequate rest so that your muscles have time to adapt.
One of the most obvious signs that you are doing too much distance early on is that your calf muscles are incredibly tight and sore. You will be using those calves much more now, so treat them well or you’ll risk developing antagonistic shin splints.
The muscles and tendons surrounding the bones on the top of your feet will also develop tendinitis and swelling if you do too much. The foot no longer has a cage of support and protection around it, and is forced to act as the interface between your body and the ground. The torque generated from pushing around several hundred pounds of weight at speed and high repetition is a lot to ask of your newly awakened feet.
Ultimately, to strengthen your foot muscles you will need to use them for their intended purpose.
For runners, this primarily means running or walking barefoot or in minimalist shoes. Once you take off the foot coffins you have been use to, your body will take care of the rest. I don’t think you need to resort to isolation weight-lifting for calf muscles, or weighted foot lifts, just kick off the shoes and start a gradual running progression.
Just remember to eat well and get plenty of sleep, both essential ingredients for building muscle and repairing tissues. Finally, pay attention to your body’s signals and be reasonable when it seems that it is telling you to take it easy. For many, pain is an annoyance to be ignored or pushed aside. However, if it’s just a training run, maybe consider doing yourself a favor and listening to your body this time.