There is a lot of hype amongst runners regarding the fancy shoes we put on our feet to boost performance. But, how much time and thought do you put into strengthening your feet? Shoes are only as fast as the feet they are on, so here’s why we shouldn’t be neglecting the feet inside those shoes from our daily training routines. Let’s take a look at the inner workings of how the foot both dynamically accepts weight and propels you off the ground as you run. Then, we will dig deeper into what the research tells us regarding why and how you should start putting your foot muscles to work.
The Foot’s Role
Our feet play a unique and dynamic role where they must both absorb shock and provide a rigid level for pushing you off the ground. Your foot has two main arches, whose position is determined by a combination of bony structure, ligamentous, tendinous, and muscular supports. When your foot lands on the ground, the longitudinal arch of your foot lengthens and lowers as an effective mechanism to absorb shock. Conversely, when you push off the ground, both arches of the foot raise and stiffen, creating a more rigid lever for pushing you forward. Despite their deceivingly small size relative to other joints in the body, the foot comprises a series of many complex joints and muscles that work together to facilitate efficient gait. To add to the complexity, the demands of the foot vary depending on the surface you are walking or running on. For example, when you are trail running and you step on a rock, your foot requires a complex balance of position sense, flexibility, and stability to adjust to the irregular surface without throwing the rest of your body up the chain of joints and muscles out of balance.
The Lazy Foot
Unfortunately, our feet can get lazy. We spend a lot of time in shoes, sometimes even shoes that don’t allow or require much work from the foot. Like other parts of the body, lack of use results in deconditioning, and sloppy mechanics. A research article published in 2020 explores how rearfoot and ankle joint position is strongly linked to ACL injury risk. (1) Also, sources have determined weakness in flexor hallucis longus (the muscle that bends your big toe) as well as foot arch position can result in increased risk of lateral ankle sprain (the typical type of ankle sprain where your foot rolls inward) (1)(2) Basically, if you don’t have the adequate combination of flexibility and muscle control in your foot to alter the arch position to accomplish the task at hand (pushing off the ground or absorbing forces as you land on the ground), under the right circumstances, this may increase your risk of rolling your ankle. Clearly, what happens at your foot can impact joints further up the chain, whether that be your ankle, or your knee. This in turn impacts your running and walking mechanics. However, it is important to keep in mind that traumatic injuries such as those at the ankle and knee mentioned above are almost always multifactorial. While foot and ankle positioning has been linked to these injuries, it is by no means the only factor contributing to injury.
We know what can go wrong, but fortunately, there are things we can do to mitigate these risks. Backed by several research studies, these exercises are effective in keeping our feet working like well-oiled machines.
Prehab is a term that should be more commonplace in the profession of physical therapy.
Prehab, or preventive rehabilitation, or performance physical therapy, is an integral part of staying healthy and active. Essentially, it entails targeted treatment BEFORE a niggle or abnormality escalates to the point of hampering your performance. Performance physical therapy can also encompass preventive treatment after recovery from an injury to prevent its return.
Let’s take a look at what the research tells us regarding Prehab for the foot:
Several research studies have conducted experiments to determine the impact of foot strengthening programs on building foot strength, improving propulsion with running gait, and most importantly, on mitigating injury risk. The good news: their results look promising!
Prophylactic or “prehab” foot strengthening exercises have been shown to decrease the risk of ACL and lateral ankle sprains (1) In fact, an additional study found that recreational runners who implemented a foot strength program showed a 2.4 fold decrease in running related injuries at 4 and 8 month follows ups compared to controls. (5) Strengthening intrinsic foot muscles (the smaller muscles in your feet that don’t extend up to the ankle joint) has been shown to improve running gait biomechanics and has resulted in an increase in foot muscle volume (3). Interestingly, another study showed that a graded increase in walking in less supportive, minimalist shoes showed a similar increase in foot muscle volume.(4) This recommendation should be interpreted with caution. Making an abrupt switch in footwear is not wise. However, slowly taking measures to strengthen your foot muscles, like running barefoot for a minute or two at a time, a few days a week could be of similar benefit.
Where to Start:
This same research implemented foot strengthening programs of various lengths, ranging from as short as 4-6 weeks to as long as 8 months. We want to be doing exercises to strengthen the foot long term for best results, meaning your foot strengthening program should be simple enough to incorporate into your existing routine. Each protocol is slightly different, and as is the case with physical therapy, your program should be specific to your specific areas of weakness. Sometimes, symptoms at your feet can be caused by factors further up the chain of the body, and a more thorough assessment is required to determine this. At Zenith Performance and Wellness, we can help you identify deficits and tailor an individualized program specific to your body. For starters, check out our latest instagram post for some starter exercises for generalized foot/ankle strengthening.
Just like you would take measures to strengthen your hip muscles or core to clean up your running form and improve the durability of your system, it’s time to start strengthening the small, very important muscles of your feet as well! Healthy, fast feet go beyond the shoes you wear. At Zenith Performance and Wellness we are dedicated to keeping you healthy and active. Schedule an appointment with Zenith Performance and Wellness today to get started.
(1) Van der Merwe C, Shultz SP, Colborne GR, Fink PW. Foot Muscle Strengthening and Lower Limb Injury Prevention. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2021 Sep;92(3):380-387. doi: 10.1080/02701367.2020.1739605. Epub 2020 Jul 7. PMID: 32633706.
(2) Saki F, Yalfani A, Fousekis K, Sodejani SH, Ramezani F. Anatomical risk factors of lateral ankle sprain in adolescent athletes: A prospective cohort study. Phys Ther Sport. 2021 Mar;48:26-34. doi: 10.1016/j.ptsp.2020.12.009. Epub 2020 Dec 16. PMID: 33352395.
(3) Taddei UT, Matias AB, Ribeiro FIA, Bus SA, Sacco ICN. Effects of a foot strengthening program on foot muscle morphology and running mechanics: A proof-of-concept, single-blind randomized controlled trial. Phys Ther Sport. 2020 Mar;42:107-115. doi: 10.1016/j.ptsp.2020.01.007. Epub 2020 Jan 13. PMID: 31962191.
(4)Ridge ST, Olsen MT, Bruening DA, Jurgensmeier K, Griffin D, Davis IS, Johnson AW. Walking in Minimalist Shoes Is Effective for Strengthening Foot Muscles. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan;51(1):104-113. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001751. PMID: 30113521.
(5)Taddei UT, Matias AB, Duarte M, Sacco ICN. Foot Core Training to Prevent Running-Related Injuries: A Survival Analysis of a Single-Blind, Randomized Controlled Trial. Am J Sports Med. 2020 Dec;48(14):3610-3619. doi: 10.1177/0363546520969205. Epub 2020 Nov 6. PMID: 33156692.