8 Stages of Marathon Running

Last-minute marathon training: toe-ga

Barefoot runner

I’m standing shoeless in front of a screen that's projecting a Predator's-eye heat image of my feet. But there's a problem. Something's missing. According to the pressure pad I'm standing on, which shows the parts of my battered feet that are taking my weight, I have no toes. Luckily for me, Vivobarefoot training expert Dan Best is expecting this. Not only is this toe-lessness fairly normal, he reassures me, it’s an opportunity. Reappearing toes could shave vital time off my personal best.

Before the pressure mat, Dan stuck me on a treadmill in my normal running shoes to analyse my running form. The ensuing video revealed I’m flat-footed more than fore-footed and have a marginal heel strike. I also lean slightly forward into each step with a long back swing. On top of all that, I rotate my upper body, bringing my arms across my chest. It’s a far from efficient running style. But that’s where Dan comes in. He shows me drills I can do to improve my foot strength and flexibility that will also improve my running rhythm and overall form. “This,” says Dan, “is what we call toe yoga.”

None of his exercises – which include picking up balls of paper and manipulating lifting toes independently – are in any way easy. I quickly realise that my toes are in a sort of atrophied coma. If you compare your feet to a baby’s, you’ll notice their dexterity; they can control each of their toes almost completely independently. But that flexibility disappears in adults as our feet become used to being supported by cushioned soles. In short, out feet become lazy. Dan likens it to wearing a sling for a year until your bicep withers away.

On a fully functioning foot, the big toe, fittingly for its stature, should lead. Mine is often idle, with all five of my toes grouping together into a club. That’s been hampering my running form.

The bare essentials

When Dan puts me back on the treadmill without my cushioned shoes, the difference is immediate. Without a midsole doing the work, my foot strike adjusts to compensate. I’m forced to take faster, shorter strides, increasing to the 180 strikes per minute cadence Dan’s toe-ga drills had demanded. This inevitably means a shorter backswing, which forces a more upright posture. Rather than alien, it feels light, comfortable and natural.

After five minutes Dan shows me my new video. The improvements are marked. My upper body rotation is virtually gone and my posture has improved. You could draw a straight line from my head, through my chest and hips, down to my feet. My stride rate has also increased and I’m naturally striking with my forefoot, reducing the braking effect I was getting when my heels were leading the way. Most importantly of all, it feels good. I’m moving more freely with a fluidity that I can tell is costing me less energy.

Take it outside

Applying the lessons from the Vivobareboot session on the roads, with undulating terrain, is tougher than pounding a treadmill. I’ve applied Dan’s lessons, but not gone full barefoot due to how close the marathon is. I’ve noticed the difference, too. At times during training runs, I’ve found myself fighting, drawing air deeper into the lungs. At these points I’ve zeroed in on how my feet are working. I’ll increase my cadence, taking shorter strides but powering forwards from the foot up rather than stretching far in front of me. It makes all the difference. Within 30 seconds that heaviness lifts, my breathing regulates and I’m back from the brink, running freely.

At those points I’ve often glanced at my watch and realised that where before I was struggling to keep a 6:52 race pace, I’m now clocking 6:20 minute miles effortlessly. And that’s the kind of difference that gets you round the London Marathon in under three hours.

Dan Best’s toe yoga regime

Whether you’re watching the idiot box or stood at you desk, lose the shoes and start stretching to shave minutes off your marathon.

Load the big guns

Stand with feet parallel, pointing forwards, and push your big toes into the ground while lifting the others. Repeat 20 times.

Stretch toe-strong

Lift one leg so the tips of your toes are on the floor. Tuck your big toe under and push your heel down until you feel a stretch. Switch so the big toe is pointing forward, and stretch again. Repeat for the other foot.

Twist and separate

Lift one heel and load the big toe, then twist your foot until the toes separate. Repeat 10 times then switch feet.

Jump to the beat

Jump up off your toes, ensuring your heel kisses the floor when you land. Stick on one spot to keep your posture aligned. Try to maintain a tempo around 18bpm – use Shy FX’s “Original Nuttah” as a guide. After a minute repeat on each foot individually trying to maintain your form.

Paper (no) view

Scrunch some paper into a cherry-sized ball and place it on the floor. Stand on one leg and, without looking down, pick it up with your other foot and place it somewhere else. Repeat 20 times, then switch legs.

Kneel and rise

Place both knees on the floor, glutes on heels with toes tucked underneath. Hold the position, flexing your toes, then press through them to rock back onto your heels and stand upright. Keep your core locked, and the weight on your big toe. Reverse the position and return to kneeling. Repeat 10 times.

Kieran Alger is running the Virgin London Marathon 2014 with Adidas.

Video: Breaking2 | Documentary Special

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Date: 13.12.2018, 00:01 / Views: 44331