When the feet and ankles are not strong, the impact forces of running create problems either at the point of impact or further up the legs.
Compounding the problem of weak feet is the avalanche of modalities designed and marketed to athletes to work around weak feet. Orthotics, stability shoes, and maximal cushioning shoes are three examples. Even with these solutions, the long term the problem of weak feet often resurface somewhere else as the body compensates for incorrect movement patterns.
Building strong feet starts with basic exercises. It may seem like they couldn’t possibly be building strength, as the exercises are not like heavy bench presses, but they are effective. Strengthening the feet also encourages proper movement in the feet and this will translate well to your running.
Strengthening the feet starts with loosening the muscles in the feet, as a tense muscle is as dysfunctional as a weak muscle. The simplest exercise to loosen the feet is to roll your foot on a golf ball. Rolling the foot from the heel to the ball of the foot, across from side to side, and along the arch can help to identify where the tight spots are. If there is an area that is particularly tight and sore, push on the spot gently and hold the ball there until the tension releases. Loosening the feet before every run is an excellent way to improve foot mobility.
Once the feet are loosened up, try the towel scrunch exercise. This exercise is performed exactly as it sounds. Put a towel on the floor and scrunch it towards yourself with your toes. This exercise works the muscles in the feet and flexes and extends the arch of the foot.
Ankle strengthening exercises
The ankle is crucial for the function of the foot. The ankle connects the calf muscles to the feet and facilitates the loading and unloading of the foot as it flexes and releases after contact with the ground. Tightness and weakness in the calf muscles increase tightness and weakness in the feet. Spending time loosening and strengthening the calf muscles improves running mechanics.
The simplest way to work on ankle strength is to perform heel drops. Heel drops can become part of your tooth brushing routine, as you can complete 6×10 heel drops per leg in the two minutes it takes to brush your teeth. Completing these two minutes, twice a day, for a year adds up to 24 hours per year of calf exercises. Heel drops are both a stretching and a strengthening exercise. Depending on the strength of your calves you can start with either both legs or do this exercise as a single leg exercise. Complete 3×10 with straight legs and 3×10 with your knee bent. Standing on a step on the ball of your foot, raise up onto your toes and lower. If you have issues with plantar fascia you can avoid dropping below the height of the step to begin. Lowering past the step increases the stretch in the Achilles. Repeat with the knee bent to use more of the soleus muscle.
Run in neutral, flat, shoes
Many athletes swear by maximal cushioning shoes and orthotics. I believe working on having stronger feet will ultimately improve their running overall and that type of shoe is a bandaid on the problem. Starting with short easy run-walk workouts, ditch the orthotics and the maximal shoes and run in a light, neutral, race flat shoe. Without the spongey cushioning and support, your feet will have to work to control your landing. Ideally, you use these runs to focus on run mechanics. With good mechanics, these short runs will strengthen your feet and ankles specifically for running.
This is the extension of tip #3. After you have started doing some easy runs in race flats, spend a bit of time doing easy warm downs on the grass after workouts in bare feet. This helps encourage more running with good mechanics (it is difficult to overstride and land heavy when you are running in bare feet) and running is the ultimate strength workout for your feet.
Run barefoot strides
After some time doing all of the above strength work, introduce a few fast strides in bare feet to your run program. Just as easy running in bare feet is excellent strength work, fast running kicks it up another notch. However, moving to strides before your feet are ready is a mistake. Spend four to six weeks incorporating easy race flat and barefoot running into your program before you do barefoot strides.
Healthy bones are constantly remodelling in the body. The impetus for this rebuilding is stress, which is why strength training is so crucial for strong bones. If you want strong bones in your feet, they need to be subjected to stress. Too much stress will lead to breakdown, so incorporating this strength training slowly and methodically is important. Being consistent and persistent is key in creating lasting improvement.
Melanie McQuaid is a three-time XTERRA and two-time ITU Cross Triathlon World Champion, professional triathlete, and coach at MelRad Multisport