Your feet are your foundation for your entire body when you run. How your foot strikes the ground affects how the stresses of the impact are felt in your muscles and joints up through your body, and how much of your momentum, the energy from each stride, is carried forward to the next stride or lost.
Strengthening your feet and improving your balance are important for all runners, whether your feet are healthy or (and especially) are recovering from a foot/ankle injury; whether you wear orthotics or (especially) if you plan to go barefoot; whether you run primarily roads or (especially) trails. This article will show you ways to strengthen your feet and improve your balance, and how that can improve your stride and reduce injuries.
Sensing the ground
Walk barefoot, around your house as often as possible, and even for short walks outside. This will help teach your feet to better sense the ground. Along with strength and balance, sensing the ground will make your feet better able to automatically adjust to changes in the surface and your stride, making your stride more efficient.
Muscles under the foot
The muscles on the bottom of your foot support your arch, and provide a spring-like effect. These muscles undergo a lot of stress from pounding, stretching and contracting. If they are not up to the task, they will cause excessive energy to be transmitted up through the body leading to injury in the leg muscles and joints, and can be damaged themselves (e.g., plantar fasciatis).
Toe Curls: Lay a wash cloth, bandana, rag, t-shirt, or something similar, flat on a hard floor. Stand with the ball of your foot just on or off the edge of the fabric. Grab the fabric with your toes, curling them in a raking fashion, to pull the far end of the fabric towards you. A couple of variations of this include picking up a pencil with your toes, or standing with your toes dangling over the edge of a stair step, and grabbing the edge with your toes.
Arch: Place something small, like a pencil or marble, on the ground. Stand with the arch of your foot over the object, and try to pick it up with your arch. You can’t actually pick it up with your arch – at least I don’t know anyone who can – but just squeezing your arch – trying to move the ball of your foot closer to your heel – works those muscles that support your arch. This uses different muscles than the toe curls, so it should feel different. It may be hard to figure this one out, so work at it for a while.
Alternating toes: With your foot on the ground, raise your big toe while pressing the other four toes down to the ground. Then switch, raising the four smaller toes while pressing the big toe down.
Your ability to balance as you land affects how hard your foot has to work, as well as your risk of sprains. While we almost can balance, this is a skill that can be improved, lost if injured, and regained.
Stand on one foot: This may sound simple, yet it is a very powerful exercise. Notice that your foot will wobble. This is the natural process of starting to lose, then regaining your balance. Training this reflex will help keep your feet stable when they land, reducing the risk of injury, and making a more efficient stride. It is especially important for trail running, where every step can be on uneven ground. If you’ve sprained your ankle, you may have lost this reflex and need to regain it. I’ve had numerous sprains and three surgeries on my right ankle (the last in 1994), and have lost and regained this reflex several times. Despite this, my ankles are more stable now than before the first sprain (1981), and I am confident, aggressive and fast on technical down hills
Depending on how good your balance is, you might need to start with just 20 seconds or so on each foot, several times/day. If you’re very unsteady at first, especially if you’re recovering from a foot or ankle injury, you might need to start by standing in a doorway and lightly touching the sides to help you balance (not a bad idea for elderly people with balance problems). Gradually wean yourself away from support. You’ll probably notice that your balance is better on one foot than the other (if you’re right handed/footed, it’s usually your left foot that has better balance because that is the foot that you plant on when kicking). Spend more time on the less stable foot.
Start on a flat, even surface. As you progress, there are numerous ways to add more difficulty while standing on one foot:
- Stand on towels, foam, a trampoline, or something else that’s not quite so stable a surface. You don’t need to buy a wobble board.
- Close your eyes.
- 1-legged squats.
- Forward bends, like warrior pose in yoga
- Cross bends. For example, stand on your right foot, twist and bring your left elbow down to your right knee, then come back upright. Then, bring your right elbow down and left knee up to meet in the middle.
- Get up on the ball of your foot. First just try standing on the ball of your foot without movement. Later, you can add some of the above technicques while on the ball of your foot.
As you get more advanced, add motion to the exercises. Motion better simulates the demands of running.
- 1-legged hops.
- Lydiard/Nordic bounding. Forcefully drive knee up and out, and drive same arm back, as if elbowing someone behind you in the gut. Both should be exaggerated over a normal running stride. Driving the arm back will help generate a more forceful forward leg drive. As you go forward, try to hang in the air, unlike a running stride. Go slow, don’t rush, don’t race To start, pause when you land. If you have to put your other foot down to balance, practice the non-moving exercises more. As your balance improves, bound forward with the other leg as soon as you land (spend as little time on the ground as possible). First do this on flat ground. Add more difficulty by bounding up increasingly steeper hills. If you have good balance, you can also try this downhill. In addition to balance, bounding also builds leg strength. Below are a couple of videos demonstrating bounding:
Slow motion bounding on flats – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHYLRBRi8d8
Hill bounding – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1EvhPf6DPg
- Jumping rope, first with both feet, then just one. If you’re worried about the coordination with a rope, simulate the foot and arm motions without a rope.
Transitioning to Less Supportive Shoes
Transitioning to less supportive shoes takes time. You’re not going to go from wearing orthotics to running barefoot overnight. It takes time for your muscles to strengthen and your stride to adapt. The less you run in your old shoes your old way, the quicker you can make the transition. Unless you are willing to sacrifice almost all of your training for a while, it might take several months to over a year to transition to running barefoot/minimalist full, or most of the time. Running with less supportive shoes too much or too soon can lead to injury. Be patient, be realistic, be conservative.
Remove the insoles from your running shoes. The insole provides both cushioning and arch support. As the muscles in your feet become stronger, you can try running without the insole support. Start gradually, just short runs, one day/week. This doesn’t work with all shoes. It depends on how much, where and how rough the stitching is under the insole.
Get a somewhat less supportive shoe. Look for a shoe that’s not highly engineered, without a lot of bells and whistles – easy to flex longitudinally, hold the heel and push up from under the toe, and easy to twist, at least easier than your current shoes. They’ve been making shoes like this for decades, well before the term “minimalist” came along – they’re called racing flats and lightweight trainers. Don’t go from a highly supportive shoe straight to a minimalist shoe. Gradually work your way down through less supportive, neutral cushioned trainer, neutral lightweight trainer, before moving to a racing/minimalist shoe.
Run barefoot: You don’t need to spend $70 or more on so-called barefoot shoes. Start slowly and be conservatively. Run inside on carpet or a nice grass field (no rocks, garbage, etc.). A treadmill is a great place to start. Your first few runs may only be for 15-30 seconds. It takes time for your calf muscles to handle the strain of forefoot running, and the bottom of your feet to handle the foot strike without a cover.
Having strong, balanced and quick feet is essential to an efficient and injury free stride. For a long time, runners just used to run without working on form. This is different from most other endurance sports: swimming, cycling, Nordic skiing, etc. The popularity of books like Chi Running and, especially, Born to Run, have gotten mainstream runners to start thinking about and working on form. These exercised don’t have to take a lot of time. Many of them can be done at home, in your spare time. The dynamic motion exercises can be done at the end of easy to moderate runs, a few minutes, a few days/week. Change doesn’t happen overnight. However, with consistency, your stride will improve and your risk of injury will decrease.
Have fun. Train smart. See you on the trails.