As runners, we have to focus on some very important muscles that support our running form and strength. Those common muscles are quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves, but to look after our foot strength and mobility is just as important as all the other muscles. Our feet are one of the most overlooked factors for better running form and injury prevention. Running is a high impact exercise; our feet are the first point of contact when we hit the ground. Taking care of our feet is just as important as all our leg muscles, focusing on strengthening, increasing mobility and flexibility. When we run, we land on one foot at a time, with an impact of 2-3 times of our body weight with every step. To do some exercises to increase our foot strength will help improve the natural elasticity, and quicker reaction. When our feet and ankles are weak and tight, if we run on the trail and twist our ankle mildly, we can get injured. If our feet and ankles are strong and flexible, even a light twist won’t affect our feet, as they will react quickly. Strengthening our feet muscles, can also help prevent our arches from caving toward the ground or our ankles to roll outward (according to our pronation).
Strong feet are stable feet, and stable feet prevent injuries. Stability and mobility in our feet also play an important role in our running performance, endurance and speed. Even a lack of foot stability can travel up the leg and cause some leg muscle issue or even injuries. Having a lack of extension with our big toe, or dorsiflexion at the ankle could affect the knees or hips. When our feet are not strong enough, stable and flexible it can cause some more severe issues like inflammation, plantar fasciitis, bunions, and stress fractures in the feet or shins. By building resilience, and improving our foot stability we unload our Achilles, prevent shin splints and avoid metatarsal pain. Similar to increasing our chest strength by performing push-ups, we can improve our foot performance by doing some foot training. Wearing the proper shoe model for our feet is very important, but shoes aren’t stable, runners’ feet should be strong and stable.
Our feet aren’t bricks, they move. The motion of our feet is either pronation or supination, everyone pronates and supinates. We need to adapt our feet down to the ground. If our legs are too stiff on one side, it might even make the outside of the foot very stiff as well. A stiff lateral foot makes it hard for the foot to adapt. A more flexible foot will allow the big toe to adapt smoothly to build a solid tripod of foot contact.
Foot Tripod– Is made up of the outside of the ball of the foot, the inside ball of the foot and the end of the big toe. All three of these big toe points should be evenly weighted in a single leg stance.
Foot Tripod Stability Test– Stand on one leg, ask yourself is the weight on the outside, middle or inside of your foot? The weight should be balanced and centered within the forefoot. Many runners have stiffness in the lateral band of the plantar fascia, and this prevents the big toe from adapting down to the ground without collapse of the arch.
Runners with poor control tend to wobble more from the foot, hips and trunk, which makes running less efficient and more stressful on every stride. Improving the sense of position allows muscles in the big toe and arch to steer the foot. The big toe should supply 85% of the control. We have to re-train the nerves connecting the big toe and brain by learning control and re-syncing them through proper movement. Four-six weeks of foot exercises will help runners with pronated feet improve the foot posture and boost the running performance.
Solid Toe Control= Strong Arch= More Durable Foot.
To release this stiffness, perform a plantar fascia, and arch stretching with a small ball like trigger point ball, golf ball, or tennis ball for 90 seconds. Perform daily pre-run and/or post-run.
Foot Strengthening Exercises
Before performing these exercises, roll out the bottom of the foot with a small ball.
- Toe Spread
What it does: Strengthens the small muscles in the toes and improves balance.
How to do it: Place a thick rubber band around your toes. While seated, try to spread your toes apart. Hold for five seconds, and repeat 10 times on each foot.
- Calf Drops
What it does: Tones and strengthens the calves.
How to do it: Stand with the balls of your feet on a step or stair, and let your heels hang over. Rise up onto the balls of your feet, hold and then lower back down. Repeat 10 to 12 times.
- Plantar Stretch
What it does: Relieves arch pain.
How to do it: Sit down in a chair and cross your right leg so your ankle sits on your left thigh. Bend your right foot’s toes back toward your shin and hold. Repeat 10 times on each foot.
- Toe “Lifts”
What it does: Strengthens muscles in the lower leg.
How to do it: Pick up a marble, small stone or small ball with your toes and hold for 20 seconds. Repeat twice, and switch feet.
Variation: Place 10 marbles on the floor and pick them up one at a time with your toes and place in a small cup nearby. Repeat twice with each foot.
- Toe Spelling
What it does: Stretches the plantar fascia.
How to do it: One foot at a time, slowly write the alphabet with your toes.
- Towel Curls
What it does: Strengthens the feet.
How to do it: Drop a small towel on the floor. Sit in a chair and pull the towel toward you using your toes. Push the towel back to its start position and repeat for three sets of 10.
- Heel/Toe Walks
What it does: Strengthens muscles in the shins, ankles and feet.
How to do it: Flex your feet and balance to walk on your heels. Walk forward as far as you can for up to one minute. Rest and repeat two more times. Switch to walking on your toes, and walk forward for up to one minute. Rest and repeat two more times.
- Standing on a Single Leg on a Stability Disc or Bosu Ball
What it does: Strengthens the glutes, foot, core, and improves foot strength and balance.
How to do it: Stand on a stability disc or Bosu ball on a single leg to try to stay balanced. As you progress, try to do single leg deadlifts or single leg squats. Perform for 30-60 secs on each side.
- Calf Stretch
What it does: Relieves foot, shin and heel pain; helps with Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis.
How to do it: Face a wall and keep your heels on the ground. Stretch your arms for support against a wall. Take a step backward with one leg. Bend the front knee and keep your back leg straight. Lean forward slightly, and push your back heel into the ground. Switch legs.
Foot Strengthening, Foot Stretching, Strong Run!