“In the first year after you took up running – what did you learn most about – shoes or your feet?” This was the simple question I asked the audience at my recent talk at the Dublin Marathon Expo 2014. When I asked “Was it shoes?” all the hands went up and when I asked “Anyone learn more about their feet?”. Not a single hand went up.
I was among those not putting their hand up – in my first year running I became an expert on shoes and had so many that my club-mates in Crusaders AC called me ‘Imelda Marcos’. So I was a runner who really loved his shoes. Yet, over the years fortunate meetings with more experienced running coaches opened up my mind to the possibility that perhaps we are getting it all backwards. After all, no race has yet been won by a pair of ‘unmanned shoes’ – so the real brunt of the work is done by our feet. To borrow the title of Phil Maffetone’s 2004 book – it’s time to ‘Fix your feet’.
Every minute invested in your toes is hundreds saved on supports and treatment in the long run and getting checked is easy. But today I want to introduce you to one of the most novel techniques that has hit the world of running – the so-called ‘toe-ga’ or ‘toe drills’. Let’s start with why these drills are important and a bit of history about how they came about and then we’ll finish with some videos to help get you started.
The importance of toes
Today we are left with the impression that the shape of foot we have is pretty much predetermined and once we have a certain shape we need certain artificial supports.
This view was already put to bed in 1935 when Dudley Morton, an American medical doctor, in his landmark publication ‘The Human Foot’. Among many other interesting details about feet, Dr Morton showed that most injury problems and movement dysfunctions start at the ‘root of the tree’ – our feet and are generally caused by dysfunctional position or mobility of the big toe joint (the first metatarsal joint).
Dr. Morton analysed the density of the bones in the human foot and found that almost all of the weight-bearing ability of your foot resides in the big toe joint. The smaller toes on the other hand are flimsy and weak and cannot tolerate much loading. This is a very interesting fact for runners – because every step we run we are putting more than two times our body-weight through the bones of the feet.
Coaches and runners became interested in ‘what a natural foot looks like’ and the below image began to spread widely:
What the image shows is a natural human at the top with a big toe that is pointing ‘outwards’ and with the toes being wider than the ball of the foot. At the bottom we see an image of a foot that has been reshaped (think Chinese foot-binding!) by modern footwear with narrow toe-boxes – a design favoured by most fashion shoe and running shoe designers . This design flies in the face of a sound understanding of how the foot works – in facts it directly sabotages it. In case you don’t have time to go out into the wild to fact-check whether the top image really is a ‘natural foot’ have a look at a kid younger than four years old. I was watching my niece and nephew play at Christmas and noticed their ‘perfect feet’ with super-active big toes controlling all their movement. However, if they are put into narrow shoes this picture is soon going to change and within a few years their feet will begin to resemble the bottom image. And that’s where a lot of our problems begin…
The disappearance of the big toe
Once the big toe is pushed inwards it is for all intents and purposes ‘gone’ and can no longer serve as the main anchor for you during each foot-strike. Imagine cutting most of your big toe off or simple squash your big toe in and notice how much harder you need to work to avoid your foot from rolling inwards (the over-pronation problem that anti-pronation shoes have become the default solution for today).
This leads with it all sorts of negative consequences such as overworking all the muscles involved in stabilising the foot and ankle. Trigger points or ‘sore spots’ in muscles like the calf and posterior tibialis are common and so is knee pain from excessive movement in the knee joint because the foot is no longer a stable foundation for you to work on.
Over a long term this displacement of the big toe can cause serious foot issues such as Morton’s toe where the second toe joint get’s pushed ‘forward’ causing it to ‘take more of the flack’ as well as ‘bunions’ which are calcium deposits in the area where ‘the big toe should be’ (the image below is one of many that illustrate this nicely – notice how the second toe has been pushed upward from the regular compression in narrow-fitting footwear).
History of ‘Toe-ga’ and video links
‘Toe-ga’ as we practice it was the invented by running coach Lee Saxby who made it part of the VivoBarefoot coaching system. Some online bloggers say these techniques were first inspired by the work of respected American physiotherapist Jay Dicharry who presented some of the drills in his book ‘Anatomy in Motion’ (recently republished in the UK under the much better name ‘Run like an athlete’). When we asked Lee Saxby how he developed the drills he explained: “Through trial and error and basic understanding of biomechanics and how joints work.” Lee Saxby was also a keen reader of Dr Dudley Morton’s work and if you go on any VivoBarefoot course – prepare to learn all about the big toe.
In the meantime these toe drills are quickly becoming public knowledge. American celebrity coach Josh Holland published his rendition of the ‘toe yoga’ drills in a two part series (here and here) in 2013, while coach Tony Riddle published a series that same year before finally in 2014 a video showing the wider coaching process around ‘toe-ga’ with Vivobarefoot coach Ben le Vesconte hit YouTube as well.
For those who prefer having things on paper, you can read about toega in ‘The Complete Guide to Bodyweight’ by Kesh Patel, former Training Director at VivoBarefoot, which we reviewed on this site recently.
Warning: prepare to ‘size up’
Mark Cucuzzella, medical doctor and founder of the Natural Running Centre, known as the ‘Running Doc’, used to say ‘you don’t have a shoe size, you have a foot size’ and he couldn’t be more right.
One of the side-effects of doing these toe drills is that your foot will grow wider and stronger. At a recent personal consult a client told me ‘your feet are very strong looking’ and that’s the first thing you want to hear. But on a practical side you will see your normal shoe size increase by one. Many of our coaches and athletes who have been doing this for more than 2 years are now close to having to increase their shoe size by 2!
Stop the madness – fix your feet
The current status quo is ironic in the extreme: We spend roughly €100 to purchase a pair of shoes that negatively alters the shape of our feet, that provides us artificial stability at the expense of our own natural stability and that slowly reduces our range of mobility in several joints. As the shoes continue to leech away our own strength, mobility and stability, we need to pay more for further support, tape, treatment. Consider this: you wear a narrow shoe, it displaces your big toe, you begin to over-pronate, you get an overpronation shoe. Does it sound like madness to you? This process begins roughly at the age of four when parents, wishing only the best for their children, purchase popular shoes. From that point onwards, the foot function and shape of each of us began to deteriorate.
If it had been designed it would be a perfect system – alas even Big Running, as an industry, is neither that clever nor that nefarious. The key facts have merely been hidden and ignored for a very long time. We no longer have that excuse, we know exactly the effect of certain footwear designs and research is there for everyone to see. Just because there is a demand for drugs, does not make it ok to sell them – neither should it excuse the continued marketing of shoes that negatively alter foot function. We need the big players in the industry to stand up and take the lead here – following the example of the American Society of Sports Medicine which today recommends that you avoid all the following features in your running shoes:
Shoe qualities to avoid (according to ACSM)
- High, thick cushioning
- Shoes with heel to toe drop
- Extra arch support and orthotics
- Narrow toe-box
We all need your help in this!
The recommendations of the American Society of Sports Medicine have not widely been implemented, as a survey of your local running store or the catalogue of major distributors will confirm. We need you to voice your concerns to change the demand. Remember – neither retailers nor distributors are there to change the world but to answer whatever the demand is – you are the only one who can insist on healthy shoes being sold by voting with your euros and being informed enough about the topic to counter any claims made that are not supported by the evidence. Distributors and retailers have shareholders and employees to pay and that means they cannot easily change course especially if that means marketing against profitable shoe models (this is financial suicide). So we have to change what we want and what we demand – for the good of our own feet and the feet of the next generation of runners growing up.
Similarly, as a coach, I call on all athletes to begin focusing more on feet and less on shoes while calling on all shoe manufacturers and retailers to join us in marketing and advocating shoe designs that helps create stronger more independent feet rather than shoe designs that throw runners into an ever-greater dependency on artificial support and therapist intervention to continue to do the sport they love.
Let’s set our feet free – and ourselves in the process.
René Borg and Jason Kehoe are VivoBarefoot certified coaches and long-term ‘toe-ga warriors’