Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Most runners know that hip strength is important for injury prevention, but what about the foot? The hip and foot both have several planes of motion in which things can go wrong with the wonderfully repetitive sport that we all love so much. So, how can we best take care of our wheels to withstand the pounding?
First, let’s talk about the anatomy of the foot, so that we can understand how it functions and why certain exercises are important for foot stability, control, and strength.
The foot is comprised of 26 bones and 30 joints. The muscles that contribute to movement of the foot are located both in the lower leg and the foot itself. The muscles that originate in the lower leg (deep to the calf complex) and have tendons that attach in the foot are called “extrinsic muscles”, while those that are exclusively in the foot are called intrinsic muscles. I often liken the intrinsic muscles to the “core” or “abs” of the foot, because they help stabilize the many joints of the foot as needed so that the bigger, “global mover” muscles can do their job efficiently.
The intrinsics include several layers of muscles that support the arch, as well as muscles that control the individual toes. There are even separate muscles that control the big toe and pinky toe.
The extrinsic muscles include the muscles that flex and extend the toes and big toe, those that move the ankle inward and outward, and we could even include the calf muscles in this group if we’re being picky.
Speaking of the calf muscles, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the relationship between the gastrocnemius, Soleus, and plantar fascia. The gastroc and soleus form a common tendon, the Achilles Tendon, and then produce a continuous band of fascia that spans from the heel to the toes. Therefore, tension of the lower leg affects this mechanism and can contribute to foot/ankle injuries, such as Achilles Tendinitis and Plantar Fasciitis.
So, how best to strengthen the feet to handle all of the miles you want them to carry you through?
Heel Raises- Completing a full-range heel raise on a step tackles multiple aspects of foot health. These help strengthen the calves over their full available range, which can help with calf tightness and improve overall range of motion. A component of the heel raise is also great toe (big toe) extension, which is important for power generation and proper foot mechanics. Adding heel raises in to your routine can help keep pesky foot/ankle injuries at bay.
Foot push ups/arch dome- To borrow an analogy from the exercise world: if towel scrunches are like sit ups (for the abdominals), then foot push ups are planks. This exercise and it’s derivatives target the stabilizing muscles and are the foundation for other exercises completed in a standing position. When the intrinsic muscles are functioning properly, the calves and bigger muscles are less likely to become overtaxed and cause pain/injury.
Complete single leg exercises barefoot- Our shoes provide a lot of stability and can help us “cheat”. There are a lot of sensory receptors in our feet, both which sense the ground as well as there the joints are in space. This is called proprioception, and our brain relies on this information for muscle control and function. Completing exercises barefoot strengthens our perception of the foot, which can help us with controlling pronation, adapting to uneven ground, and even in power generation.
Unstable Surfaces- Completing exercises such as single leg deadlifts, split squats, lunges, etc. on an unstable surface, such as a balance cushion or BOSU ball, can increase the overall activation of the muscles that cross the foot, improving their endurance and resistance to fatigue. However, of course, it’s important to note that you MUST be good at these exercises on solid ground before challenging yourself with an unstable surface.
The foot is complicated (aren’t we all?), but it is just as important as the hips when it comes to injury prevention. Make sure your wheels can withstand the mileage!
Keep going, you got this!
Dr. Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT