Running Strong Starts with Happy Feet

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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Running Strong Starts with Happy Feet

Running is tough on our feet. We train through blackened toenails, blisters and even the dreaded plantar fasciitis. The American Podiatric Medical Association says that each footstrike is between three and four times our bodyweight striking a hard surface. One study looking at competitive collegiate runners showed that each year, 74% of them complained of chronic foot pain or suffered an injury. In the general population, another study found that 50% of the runners surveyed had running-specific injuries annually.

Mark Gallagher, a podiatrist at the Warwickshire Nuffield Hospital in the UK, has worked with runners for two decades and stresses that while a lot of runners might not put two and two together, running increases your chance of foot injury. Even if we’re born to run, pounding the pavement could have an eventual impact.

Just spending a few minutes a day on these moves will help you prevent injury and will likely result in stronger running.


Why do it: Lack of mobility in the calf is a major cause of lower leg and foot injuries, and Gallagher cites a “lack of ankle joint flexibility as a key factor in lower limb injury.”

How to do it: This simple up-and-down movement goes a long way towards improving your ankle dorsiflexion (the ability to flex your feet), which can make you less prone to typical injuries like plantar fasciitis — plus, it’s just good for your overall flexibility. Find a platform so your heels can drop below your toes for a full calf stretch. “Calf raises from the floor — concentric muscle activity — help with plantar flexion, not dorsiflexion, but when you drop the heel below the level of a step — eccentric muscle activity — you start to influence ankle joint flexibility,” says Gallagher. Add a few reps after your warmup, or at the end of a run.


Why do it: Similar to calf raises, downward dog works your dorsiflexion in an active way and provides you with a great calf stretch.

How to do it: If you’ve taken a yoga class, you’re familiar with downward dog. While on all fours, start straightening your legs with your feet hip-width apart, then straighten your arms as you lift and hinge at the hips with your butt in the air. Now, focus on your calves by gently lowering your heels toward the ground (don’t stress if you can’t get there yet, it takes time). To add a more dynamic element, shift weight between your feet, focusing on bringing one heel to the ground at a time. Bonus: One study showed that runners who added yoga to their training showed significant improvement in flexibility compared with the control group.


Why do it: Your arch works as a shock absorber when you land.

How to do it: Use a lacrosse, golf or tennis ball, to massage your feet so they can be more pliable and absorb force better. Just spend 2–3 minutes per foot — you can do this while watching TV or checking email, anywhere!


Why do it: This mitigates damage done by cramming feet into shoes and can help prevent plantar fasciitis

How to do it: Shoes, even the best-fitting ones, are like casts, and they keep our toes in place while we run. Practice splaying your toes and stretching them as wide as you can. Ideally, you’ll be able to move each of them away so that there’s daylight between each digit, but it takes practice. At first, you might notice that your pinky toe refuses to move without the toe next to it. You’ll wake up muscles you didn’t know you had.


Why do it: Like toe-spreading, this move helps improve your foot dexterity and strengthens your intrinsic foot muscles — key for preventing and treating plantar fasciitis.

How to do it: Simply lay a towel flat on the floor, and use your toes to scrunch it up, pulling it towards you for 10 reps, then scrunching it away from you for another 10 reps. (Make sure all of your toes are engaged for maximum benefits.)


Why do it: Lengthens your plantar fascia to ease heel pain. The American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society recommends this stretch to work into your affected heel.

How to do it: Cross the offending foot over your other leg, like a figure 4. Using the hand on the same side of your body as your hurt foot, grab your toes and pull them toward your shin. With your other hand, rub your thumb over the arch of your foot and stretch. The AOFAS recommends holding this to the count of 10, then doing 10 repetitions. One more note: AOFAS says that stretching is the easiest way to cure plantar fasciitis, but you do need to be consistent with your stretching regimen for the changes to stick.


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About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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