Foot strength and mobility is a crucial yet often neglected component of a runner’s strength and recovery regimen. The foot absorbs shock as you run, and functions as a rigid surface for push-off. As a result, “that moment becomes the most important moment,” says Lauren Loberg, DPT, PT, OCS. In addition, muscular imbalances and dysfunctions in the feet can result in injury. Incorporate these seven moves into your routine to improve foot health, and you’ll run stronger – longer.
1. Toe Spread and Press
Plantar fasciitis — a condition that involves pain and inflammation of the tissue that runs across the bottom of your foot –is common among runners. To treat this condition, Loberg prescribes an arch-strengthening exercise called toe spread and press.
How to do the toe spread and press exercise:
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Lift your toes and spread as far apart as possible. Hold until lightly fatigued. Then, with your toes spread on the ground, press the ball of your big toe down without letting any part of your foot lift. Perform ten reps three times per week following a run.
2. Standing Calf Raise
The big toe is the primary push-off point during running, but many runners have limited range of motion in this area, experiencing foot pain and cramping as a result. Mark Schneider, medical massage therapist and personal trainer at Movement Minneapolis, recommends a cal raise with a focus on the big toe to build arch strength.
How to do the standing calf raise exercise:
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Raise the heels and finish by lifting onto the big toe. Keep the ball of each foot on the ground throughout the movement. Work up to 4 to 5 sets of 20 reps prior to each run.
3. Write the Alphabet
To increase ankle and big toe mobility, Schneider recommends writing the alphabet with your big toe. This exercise will combat muscle and tendon tension on the top of the foot that results from tight shoelaces and running shoes that artificially flex the toes.
How to do the write the alphabet exercise:
Sit or stand comfortably. Lift the foot a few inches and write the alphabet in the air with your big toe, beginning with uppercase letters. Exaggerate downward strokes. Once you reach the end of the alphabet, write lowercase letters. Repeat with the other foot. Perform periodically through the day.
4. The Asterisk
This exercise strengthens the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. It also increases ankle mobility under full body weight, taxing the ankle in a manner similar to running. Schneider says.
How to do the asterisk exercise:
Stand tall with your weight on the right leg. Point your right toe and tap the floor in front of the left toe. Return to start, then tap directly in front of you. Repeat moving counter-clockwise. End by tapping the pointed foot behind and across the other foot. Repeat on the left side moving clockwise.
5. Bent-Knee Heel Raises
Bent-knee heel raises strengthen the collagen with the Achilles tendon, training it to withstand the impact of your foot striking the ground, Loberg says.
How to do the bent-knee heel raise exercise:
Stand on a bench or box, heels hanging over the edge. Steady yourself by placing hands on wall in front of you. Transfer weight onto your left leg. Lower left heel toward floor, then push up to raise heel above height of box or bench. Keep leg bent throughout. Repeat on right leg. Perform 2 sets of 15 reps per leg, 3 times a week.
6. Band Ankle Strengthening
To prevent ankle injuries, you have to strengthen the ankle joint and increase range of motion. Banded ankle strengthening accomplishes both tasks, so when you inevitably slip or get caught off-balance during a run, your ankle will be stable enough to handle the impact.
Setup: Hold a resistance band behind your left ankle. Wrap the right part of the band over the foot and around the left side of the arch; loop under the arch and back across the foot, as pictured. Hold the ends of the resistance band at the inside of the leg.
The Move: Straighten your leg to create tension. Keep your left foot straight and pivot it side to side. Maintain tension in the band throughout the movement. When your foot begins to fatigue, switch feet. Perform the exercise throughout the day.
7. Multi-Directional Single-Leg Hops
If your hips are weak when running, your body will compensate by sending greater impacts to the foot and ankle with every step, thereby increasing risk of injury. Single-leg hops not only strengthen hips, but coordinate foot, ankle, and hip movement.
How to do the multi-directional single-leg hops exercise:
Stand on left leg. Jump forward and land softly with bent knee. Return to start and repeat the movement in different directions, going counter-clockwise until six o’clock. Perform five times on left leg before switching to the right, this time moving clockwise. Do three sets per side three times a week.
If you are still experiencing foot pain after trying these exercises, please consult with your physician about developing the right treatment plan for you.