Though our feet seem small in comparison to the rest of our body, they play a vital role for runners. Like the rest of our body, they have muscles, tendons and ligaments that need strengthening (more than 100 of them, actually).
While it can be argued that strong feet are important for everyone, they are especially vital for runners to help with everything from properly aligned running form to an efficient stride. Whether you mean to or not, you may be doing a few things that are actually weakening your foot muscles. Here’s what you need to know about keeping them strong so they can properly support your entire body.
THE MECHANICS OF THE FOOT
Of course the feet control where we walk or run, but they can also have an effect on our knees, hips and lower back. In the same vein, parts of our legs actually help control muscles in our feet. According to Dr. Lisa M. Schoene, ATC, FACFAS, a triple board certified Sports Medicine Podiatrist and athletic trainer practicing at Gurnee Podiatry & Sports Medicine Association, there are 19 internal muscles and 13 external muscles that move the foot and toes.
“The internal muscles move the toes and help to keep all the toes flat while walking and balancing,” she notes. “The external muscles originate below the knee and enter the foot to move the foot up-and-down, in and out, and [help] to lift the heel. In the leg, other than the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, there are five ‘secondary’ heel lifters. These are very important for running gait and are the posterior tibialis muscle, flexor digitorum longus, flexor hallucis longus, Peroneus brevis and Peroneus longus. These muscles help propel the foot forward and stabilize side to side as well.”
In addition to those muscles directly affecting the feet, there are other sets of muscles located in the lower leg that turn into tendons around the ankle and attach into the foot, according to Dr. Jackie Sutera, a Vionic Innovation Lab Member. She shares that these are the Achilles tendon and calf muscle in the back part of the leg, fascia on the bottom of the foot, anterior tibial muscle on the front of the leg and the peroneals and posterior tibial tendon on the sides of the leg.
“Running is a high-impact activity, that being said, there is some extra care runners need to provide to their feet,” adds Sutera. “You need all of these structures to function optimally when running or else injury, inflammation and pathology can occur.”
HOW TO KEEP FEET STRONG AND HEALTHY
A big mistake runners make when it comes to foot health is wearing the wrong shoes. According to Dr. Howard E. Friedman, a podiatrist in Suffern, New York, board certified by the American Board of Foot and Ankle Surgery, it’s important to wear the right shoe; runners shouldn’t wear more shoe than they need. What does this mean? Simply put, if you don’t need heavily cushioned shoes, you shouldn’t wear them.
“Recent published research suggests that wearing structured shoes over time can weaken these intrinsic muscles (located entirely within the foot),” Friedman adds. “Although the foot is supported by the shoe, the muscles themselves are weakened since they don’t have to work so hard in a very supportive shoe.”
Friedman — who is currently training for a half-marathon — also notes a study that found spending time walking around barefoot eventually increases the size of foot muscles. In addition to making sure your running shoes are comfortable without being too supportive, when not running, you should spend time in unstructured shoes, sandals or go barefoot.
“Someone who usually wears supportive shoes should ease into wearing less structured shoes slowly increasing the amount of time they spend in them until they feel their feet are comfortable,” Friedman adds. “Over time, runners can slowly transition to a less structured, lighter weight shoe. A lighter weight shoe saves energy during running and the foot muscles will continue to get stronger. A big caution, however, for anyone who tries this and develops foot pain: Check in with a foot health professional.”
If you had your shoes professionally fit, another thing to consider may be that your shoes just need replacing. You should replace your shoes every 300–500 miles, but doing regular checks to make sure they aren’t wearing early can be beneficial.
If you still find you are dealing with alignment issues such as bunions or hammertoes or can’t seem to escape recurring injuries, Schoene suggests seeing a sports medicine podiatrist to inquire about orthotics. These custom inserts can realign the foot and lower leg, and fit easily into your shoes.
“Typically when the internal foot muscles are weak, hammertoe and bunion deformities are much more inevitable, due to de-stabilization of the toes,” she notes. “If the foot is overpronated it allows the pull of the muscles to get off kilter, which drives the hammertoes and bunions, as well. The toes become destabilized by not gripping the ground properly, affecting balance, too. If the external lower extremity muscles are weak, changes in heel strike and, most importantly, push-off will occur. This can affect efficiency, speed and propulsion and can also create compensations further up the chain at the knee, hip or lower back.”
THREE MOVES TO STRENGTHEN YOUR FEET
One simple way to strengthen your feet daily and give your shoes and/or orthotics a solid base to support is by doing a few short exercises at home. The good news? Some can be done while sitting in front of your desk at work or even while standing in line at the grocery store. Doing these three simple moves and rotating them throughout the day as you have extra time is a simple way to take extra care of your feet.
Calf Raises: Stand up straight with your feet flat on the ground. Slowly lift your heel off the ground and extend until you are balancing on your toes. Hold, then lower your heel back to the ground and repeat. “These are often used in physical therapy and are very important to keep your calves strong,” Sutera notes. “It also helps your Achilles tendon strength and recovery.”
Toe Grip: Pick up an object with your toes, hold for 10 seconds, release and repeat. “This works the smaller muscles of the feet and toes, which are ankle stabilizers,” Sutera shares.
Alphabet Draw: Draw the letters of the alphabet in the air with your big toe, moving only your ankle. “This works all of the major muscle groups of your leg and most people need a break midway, even though this sounds easy,” Sutera quips.