While the core, hips and legs are powerful muscle groups for runners looking to improve their stride and prevent injury, our feet are an oft-overlooked part of the equation — particularly during strength and mobility sessions. But strong feet and ankles are the building blocks of strong runners because they help stabilize the body and prevent problems up the chain to the knees or hips. Given how many times our feet strike the ground during any given run, it makes sense that at least some of our attention should focus on better foot and ankle mobility.
IT STARTS WITH YOUR TOES
A lack of mobility isn’t something you might be aware of, but it could affect your running. While you don’t need a ton of ankle flexion or extension during the running stride, extending the great toe is necessary for foot stability.
“In order to create an efficient kinetic chain of events throughout the body during running, an athlete must have adequate great toe motion,” says Nathan Koch, a physical therapist at Endurance Rehab in Scottsdale, Arizona. “To test this, stand and try to lift your toes (the Windlass Mechanism). You should be able to increase your arch when the toes are lifted. If you are unable to create this arch due to weakness or a lack of mobility, then you’ll be unable to properly position the foot for loading and unloading.”
According to Koch, this can result in problems not only in the feet and ankles, but in other areas of the body as well. “This can cause a cascade of events up the chain. The ankle won’t be able to dorsiflex properly, the knee can collapse inward or go into greater flexion, and the hip will not achieve the appropriate amount of extension to allow the gluteals to work,” Koch explains.
As a result, other common running-related injuries can happen — and the feet are overlooked as the primary culprit.
“Weakness in the feet can lead to injuries like patellofemoral syndrome, ITB syndrome at the knee or even hip bursitis and tendonitis,” Koch says. “Results from studies show that high-arched runners report a greater incidence of ankle injuries, body injuries and lateral lower leg injuries. While low-arched or flat-footed runners exhibited more knee injuries and medial lower-leg injuries.”
While Koch likes to avoid blanket proclamations that all runners should be doing some form of foot strengthening or mobility work, it is something you should watch out for, especially if you’re an older runner.
“As we age, the ligaments in our feet tend to get a bit stretched out or lengthened, and we lose some of the explosive rebound effect of our passive tissues,” Koch explains. “In this instance runners can benefit from strengthening the core of their feet to improve balance, prevent injury and improve training tolerance.”
THE ROLE OF RUNNING SHOES
One less analyzed aspect of foot strength and mobility is the role running shoes play in the big picture. With the debate over maximal and minimalist footwear creating a hard line in the sand between many runners, it can be difficult to know what the best option is for healthy feet.
“Shoes do play a role, but more important to performance and injury prevention is training schedule (allowing for tissue adaptation) and foot strike pattern,” Koch says. “While some studies found that running barefoot and forcing runners to more of a forefoot gait results in less axial forces, they did not examine the impact of surrounding muscle and tendon strain,” Koch says. For his clients, Koch recommends getting help with proper footwear selection along with technique education and instruction to prevent further injury.
MOBILITY EXERCISES TO GET YOU STARTED
Whether you need work on your great toe extension or think you could benefit from including foot strengthening in your routine, here are few exercises Koch recommends to get started:
- Ankle rotations: Rotate your ankle clockwise 10–15 times, then rotate counterclockwise 10–15 times.
- Toe yoga: With your foot flat on the ground, raise and lower your big toe for 15 reps, keeping your other toes on the ground. Then do the opposite: Keep your big toe on the ground and raise/lower the other four toes. Complete another 15 reps.
- Towel crunches: Start seated and progress to standing. Spread a towel under your foot, and with your heel on the ground, use your toes to scrunch it up toward you. These small movements work on the intrinsic muscle of the foot (core of the foot). Complete the length of the towel twice with each foot.
- Great toe mobilization: This exercise improves your range of motion. Sitting in a chair with your foot crossed over your knee, stabilize your big toe at the base of the joint with one hand. With the other hand, move your big toe 5 times into flexion to your end range of motion. Do the same for an extension, abduction (moving the toe away from your second toe), adduction (moving the toe toward the second toe) and rotation. Complete 2–3 sets.
- Jump rope: Once you’re ready for a more advanced exercise, short hopping exercises on your toes help you mimic what will be required of your ankles and feet while running. Start without the rope, jumping up and down with both legs. Once you can do this for a minute or two, progress to single-leg hops. Move to the jump rope when you can do 2–3 sets of single-leg hopping. Keep in mind that jumping rope can be very difficult at first, but it is a great way to strengthen your feet and ankles while providing a surprisingly good cardiovascular workout. When you’re ready to progress, move to single-leg jump roping, alternating legs every 5–10 seconds.
- Split jumps: This exercise is more advanced but gives you similar benefits to rope jumping. Start in a split stance with one foot in front of the other in a staggered stance about hip-width apart. Squat down and explode into the air so both feet leave the ground then scissor your legs and land with the opposite foot forward. Alternate quickly and jump as high as you can each time. Start with 2 sets of 10 and progress the number of repetitions or sets as necessary.
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.