What Is The Missing Link?
If you are a runner and you are pushing to improve your speed or endurance... are you considering your feet and toes???
Many of my patients who run have heard me say that our feet are the only interface we have with the ground. In addition, our feet are the foundation for our entire body and are responsible for transferring all the force from our bodies to the ground. As a result, we need to ensure that we are hitting the ground correctly.
However, it is not just foot posture and alignment that are important for running. Foot and toe strength are paramount to better running. The feet and toes are dynamic structures that need to be strong and stable as well as soft and malleable.
My last newsletter spoke about strength and conditioning for better and more efficient running. BUT...what we often forget is how important our feet and toes are in maximizing our physical performance. When it comes to improving our running speed and endurance, we need to look at our foot and toe strength. The stronger your feet, the stronger your foundation is for everything.
A simple foot strengthening routine could lead to significant improvements in running speed, horizontal and vertical jump distance, and strength.”
The Journal of Physical Therapy Science.
What Is The Role Of The Feet?
Our feet do a lot more than hold us up…
The feet have 26 bones, over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments.
The arches and the plantar fascia of the foot acts as a shock absorber.
The design and muscular attachments of the foot allows it to store and utilize elastic energy with each foot strike.
The muscles of the foot and toes act as the locomotion for the rest of the body.
The feet are a major source of sensory input.
If the feet are not strong they can act as a bottleneck for speed, strength and power… so if you want to run better... fix your feet.
Where Does the Problem Start?
Disuse: As a society that wears shoes and runs in shoes, we don’t realize how weak wearing shoes can make our feet and toes. Like any group of muscles that are not exercised, they will atrophy. Wearing shoes takes away the work our feet need to do to accommodate to the ground and ultimately weaken our feet. Without attention to the feet and toes, we compromise our running performance make ourselves susceptible to injury.
Weakness: When the feet are not able to effectively bear a load due to weakness, then the other tissues and structures are forced to pick up the slack and compensate for the feet and toe strength insufficiencies. This, in turn, may lead to overuse injuries and problems up the kinetic chain. The knees, low back and neck are especially at risk for issues resulting from foot and toe weakness.
Fascial Insufficiency: The soles of the feet support all of our body weight. It is the fascial system of the body connects the soles of the feet to the head through the muscles of the legs, back and neck. If the fascia in the feet is preventing your feet from supporting your body, other areas of fascia will have to compensate and take over the job of supporting your skeletal structure. This compensation can lead to pain issues throughout the body. This pain, in turn, will compromise your running abilities.
What Can You Do At Home To Strengthen Your Feet And Toes?
Stability and movements of the feet are controlled by intrinsic muscles which are the short muscles that are located IN your foot and by extrinsic muscles which are the muscles that are located outside your foot skeleton. It is important to strengthen BOTH muscle groups as the short intrinsic muscles are often forgotten about.
The intrinsic foot muscles control the extent and velocity of the movement of our arches. If these short muscles don’t work properly, our body’s base becomes unstable and can result in foot pain and issues with running form and speed.
As far as the extrinsic muscles go, they are the link from the foot and ankle to the rest of the lower leg. If these long muscles don’t function normally, then we are setting ourselves up for pain in the knee, hip and low back.
It is important to get guidance from your physical therapist or other health care professional to determine which foot muscles (intrinsic or extrinsic) are weak. Once a PT has determined this, he or she can tailor a foot strengthening program that fits your individual needs. Below is just a general overview of what may be included in such a program.
1. Begin with rolling out your arches: If you haven’t spent much time moving your feet they may be rigid and this rigidity will prevent strengthening exercises from being effective… so this is a great place to start. The ball roll is a basic tool to unravel tension in the feet and mobilize the fascia in the foot. Spend 60-90 sec rolling a lacrosse ball under each foot as a warm up.
2. Arch Strengthening Exercises: It is important to strengthen the arches of the foot and this can be done by sitting with both feet flat on the ground and elevating only the inside of your feet without actually lifting the feet off the ground.
3. Toe Exercises:
a. Toe curling is one of the most effective exercises that you can do to strengthen the intrinsic foot muscles. You can do this in sitting or standing and really at any time of the day.
b. Move only certain toes. Start by lifting your big toe while pressing the other four into the ground and then reverse it so you are pressing the big toe in the ground and lifting the other four.
4. Ankle Exercises: There are many extrinsic foot muscles that may need to be strengthened. Your physical therapist will assess your foot/ankle strength and make specific recommendations based on the findings. Your PT may use bands, boards or balance trainers to increase your foot and ankle strength.
5. Barefoot Time: Make a habit of freeing your feet from the confines of your shoes. Gradually begin to walk on different types of terrain (sand, grass) and for longer periods of time. This will increase the activity of your foot and toe muscles and prevent atrophy.
6. Shoewear: Choose a running shoe that is right for your foot type. Your physical therapist can make recommendations on which type of shoe is appropriate for you by assessing your foot biomechanics.
7. Foot Hygiene: Take care of your feet! Make sure your toenails stay short and rounded to minimize bruising on adjacent toes and manage the development of painful corns and callouses.