Next time you watch the UFC listen closely to the announcer. You’ll hear things like, “He has excellent footwork, he’s so light on his feet!” And in those long, soul-stealing fights you’ll inevitably hear, “he’s flatfooted, he must be tired.”
What does this tell you?
No, it’s not that Joe Rogan has a foot fetish. I mean he probably does, but the answer is that you need to train your feet. Whether you’re a mixed martial artist or a jogger your feet are the most important muscle group.
Don’t get it? Ok, visualize a baseball pitcher – let’s call him Biff.
Biff is tall with narrow eyes, a bushy mustache, and unexpectedly smells of lavender.
His team is up one run in the bottom of the ninth. There are two outs, full count, with the bases loaded. Biff is going to bring the heat on this pitch.
He rocks back, swinging his left knee high into the air as he prepares to fire a bullet.
Right now the only thing in contact with the ground is the pitcher’s right foot. This is where he initially generates force. That initial force will be amplified as it travels up the kinetic chain through his leg, torso, and arm.
As the Biff’s left leg begins to travel forward and extend you see his right heel rise off the ground. The extensor digitorum longus, extensor digitorum brevis, extensor hallucis brevis and extensor hallucis longus (see diagram) are starting an explosion at ground level that will translate into a rocket launch of a pitch
Blast off. The pitch zooms down the middle, landing in the catcher’s mitt with a resounding thud.
“STEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-RIKE THREE!” the Umpire yells.
The dugout empties, and teammates pile on top of the triumphant pitcher. The third basement leans in close and says, “Damn Biff, you smell good!”
Force is generated in a similar way in most sports, but the feet play another crucial role. Let’s go back to the example with the UFC fighter.
Just like the pitcher he starts generating force to throw punches or shoot takedowns from his feet, but feet also play a role in endurance.
There are 19 different muscles in your foot, and they are crucial for your ability to balance.
Let’s call our hypothetical fighter Conor. In the first round Conor was bouncing around like an Irish kangaroo (confusing from a Nationalistic standpoint… sorry I’ll try to tighten up my next metaphor). Now it’s the third round and he looks more like an Irish drunk staggering home after a bender (nailed it!). One of the announcers notices.
“Look at that John! Conor’s completely flat footed now. He must be gassed.”
Conor can’t generate adequate force from his feet for the hundreds of precise movements he must preform every minute. Additionally, his feet aren’t stabilizing him the way they should.
For example, the peroneus longus and peroneus brevis in his feet are only functioning at 30%. To compensate the adductor longus and adductor brevis which are way up the muscle chain are trying to pick up the slack. Only they weren’t designed for this and fatigue even more rapidly as a result.
Conor shuffles laterally, trying to avoid the onslaught of punches. It looks awkward and uncoordinated. He’s a renowned stand up fighter, but without his feet standing his difficult.
Conor shoots a desperation takedown and is summarily choked out.
Ok, now you get it! It doesn’t matter how strong a building is if the foundation is unstable. So how do you properly train your feet? Personally I like plyometrics and good old fashion running.
Now you’re probably like, “Hey, I do that stuff!”
Maybe, but there is one HUGE catch. You cannot do any of it normal athletic shoes.
Think about the descriptions you’ll find for most shoes. They’ll boast of things like, “revolutionary stability control,” and “impact absorption”. This is a fancy way of saying they’re doing a lot of the work for your feet. Well Conor didn’t get to wear a mint pair of Nike’s in the octagon, did he? So even if he hypothetically hadn’t been a lazy bum and skipped road work prior to his fight he would not have gotten close to the full benefit from it.
to keep your feet safe and correct this problem you’re going to want to invest
in pair of minimalist shoes. They’ll keep the cement from tearing up your skin,
while allowing the muscles to work at max capacity.
When selecting minimalist shoes you want three things.
- Zero drop – the shoe does not artificially elevate your heal
- Wide toe box –for some reason it’s fashionable to have your toes scrunched together, but its terrible for foot strength and function.
- Minimal cushioning.
To start I’d recommend something like the Altra Esaclante. This is much closer to a normal shoe and will ease the transition into minimalist footwear. Then eventually you can use a full minimalist shoe like the Merrell Vapor Glove or Vivobarefoot Primus.
Whatever shoe you use you MUST, I repeat you MUST gradually work acclimate your body to them. It’s like if someone had never lifted before, and tried to clean pull 400 lbs their first time in the weight room. After they inevitably injured themselves you’d be like, “What did you expect you idiot?” Do not be that idiot with your feet.
Initially just wear your minimalist shoes around the house or for errands. Then upgrade to doing 20% of you normal volume, and slowly work your way up to 100%
As far as the actual plyometric and running plants, that could be 20 blog posts each. For plyos I suggest checking out @speedofsport on Instagram to give you a starting point. And for running, get ready to go down a never-ending youtube rabbit hole. Or just buy a jump rope and of outside and run (treadmills don’t count).
Either way, you’re now on the path to properly training your feet.