It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the foot is the first point of contact with the ground with every step. When running, a tremendous amount of force is produced, firstly into the foot; then distributed into the leg and up the body. A dysfunction or weakness at the foot can often result in injury either up the chain, or at the foot itself. Common injures include plantar fasciitis and bone stress; in many cases contributing to lower back, hip and knee pain.
Foot strengthening exercises should be a staple in any athletes program whose sport requires running. Even the “non-athlete” is frequently developing issues due to a dysfunction in this area. Plantar fasciitis, a chronic injury from excessive deformation of the arch, is an extremely common one. This can be thanks to the modern-day shoe that provides “extra support and cushioning” which in many ways, is contributing to the problem. These sorts of shoes are putting our feet to sleep, specifically the intrinsic foot musculature. These muscles are made up of four layers, consisting of 10 small muscles responsible for stabilising the arch and absorbing shock for every foot strike that hits the ground. Just like developing rounded shoulders from years of sitting at a desk, the posture of our feet become flat and stiff resulting in weakness, instability and often pain.
In addition to this, it alters running gait as the “comfortable cushioning” that the modern-day runner provides promotes a heel strike technique as opposed to forefoot. It may take 6 months or 2 years; however, it will eventually catch up with you and result in some form of pathology. The brain requires feedback from the ground during movement, this cushioning eliminates the feedback and results in harder impacts with the ground. Try running barefoot whilst heel striking, you won’t do it because it hurts…and for good reason, we aren’t designed to run this way! Forefoot striking allows the appropriate anatomy to be used the way humans were designed for. Without getting overly technical, the Achilles tendon acts as a shock absorber, it recycles stored energy like a spring to protect joints up the chain and enhances running efficiency by allowing forward propulsion. In conjunction with this, the intrinsic muscles stabilise the foot and ankle with each impact and assists in the absorption and transmission of force. These qualities cannot be utilised with heel strikes, instead, large amounts of force are shocked into the foot and up the leg with minimal absorption.
With more advanced runners who have trained and mastered technique, chronic injuries may not develop due to poor running mechanics; it may be simply due to instability and weakness of the foot. This results in an inability to control pronation (flattening of the foot) and absorb the required forces. As previously mentioned, this sort of footwear may protect you in the short term, but problems are likely to arise down the track.
An example of a flat arch
The following exercises are designed to strengthen the plantar intrinsic foot muscles:
The first exercise performed in my Instagram video (@athleticperformace.vizzarri), is quite a common one and is known as the “short-foot” exercise. Perform the exercise by pressing your heel and base of your toes (not the end of your toes) into the ground without flexing (bending) or extending them. Think about bringing your heel and the base of your toes together as you press. This seems easy however takes a bit of practice to teach the brain not to flex at the toes. With correct technique you should see a distinct raise in the arch of your foot.
The second exercise requires extension of the big toe (lifting it off the ground as high as you can) whilst simultaneously leaving the remaining four toes on the ground.
The third exercise is the reverse of the second. Keep your big toe on the ground whilst lifting the remaining four.
The last one simply involves spreading your toes to form as wide of a base of support as possible. Hold each position for 5-10 seconds and repeat 4-6 times, gradually building up total volume. Again, these exercises are quite tricky to get the mind-movement connection going and takes practice. Cramping in not uncommon in the initial stages of performing these exercises. If you have a spiky ball handy try and loosen it out by rolling the sole of your foot combined with light stretching and ankle mobility work. For any isolation exercise we must then integrate it into a multi-joint dynamic movement. Tomorrow I will post a great integration exercise that requires an element of strength but also an enormous amount of stability at the foot, ankle, knee and hip.
Unfortunately, these sorts of exercises are often only addressed at the onset of injury rather than being used as a preventative and performance tool. Almost everyone needs it due to the modern-day shoe so let’s be proactive and treat it like any other part of the body. Trust me, I’ve learnt the hard way, suffering multiple chronic stress injuries in which I suspect my feet played a part in. I’m not saying throw out your shoes, purchase minimalistic ones and start running barefoot; that would be unrealistic and probably eventuate in injury anyway.
My message is, be aware of how important the foot/ankle complex is, strengthen your feet and compliment that with proper running mechanics to enhance performance and prevent injury. Add these simple exercises into your program, gradually build up barefoot training in the gym (progressive overload is critical here) and when possible ditch the shoes in day to day life.
Your feet are your foundation, power and strength is built off them, they crave sensory feedback and in many ways dictate how you move… so let’s look after them!
Dylan Vizzarri B.Ex&SpS