By Brian Diaz
It’s that time of year again, when endurance athletes are constantly shifting gears and looking to add strength and conditioning to their off-season to get ready for a successful Spring and early Summer. When training for any type of race, regardless of distance, most runners will focus on hip stability and mobility in order to prevent injury. However, one areas of the body that is often overlooked when preventing injury is the feet.
The feet are the first point of contact with the ground. Repeated over many times during a training session or race, the feet, whether contacting with the heel, forefoot, or midfoot, bears a lot of vertical stress. Just like the hips, the feet require a certain degree of mobility and stability to transfer the ground reaction force into propulsion during running; too much of one or the other and injuries can occur.
According to Sports Medicine of Australia, 17% of all running injuries occur to the foot and ankle. Adding 2-3 days per week of mobility and stability work for the foot in ankle will help to prevent injuries such as plantar fasciitis (although debatable diagnosis itself), Achilles tendinitis, and posterior tibial tendonitis. By strengthening and mobilizing the foot this will also help improve biomechanics of the entire lower extremity, therefore helping to prevent knee, hip, and low back injuries as well. Below are a few of my favorite exercises for the foot.
First are two easy stretches for the bottom and top of the foot. To stretch the bottom of the foot and the big toe joint, start by kneeling with the toes tucked under so the bottom of the toes are on the ground. Slowly sit your hips back onto your heels until you feel a stretch. Depending on where your mobility limitations are you may feel the stretch in one of a few places. This can either be at the base of your Achilles’ tendon, through the arch of your foot, or at the base of your big toe. To stretch the top of your feet start in a kneeling position again, but this time place the top of your feet on the ground and squeeze your ankles together. You will then sit your hips back to your heels again until you feel a stretch. The key with this stretch though is to not let your ankles “roll” out to the side. Placing a small towel roll between your ankles can help remind to squeeze the ankles together. For both stretches, hold for at least 30 seconds. Make sure to ease into the stretch as well and not force the range of motion.
The next two drills are for stability and strength of the foot intrinsic muscles. The first drill is what I like to call “Toe Yoga”. Start by standing with your feet about shoulder width apart. While keeping your four little toes glued to the floor, lift your big toe. Then reverse the motion and keep your big toe down while lifting your other four toes. Also, be sure not to let your foot roll to the outside or inside edge. If this is relatively easy to perform you can challenge yourself further by standing on one leg while performing the exercise. The next drill is a simple towel scrunch. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and a towel spread out under your feet. Use your toes to scrunch the towel in. If this is easy you can place a small weight on the towel to provide more resistance. It is also best to perform this exercise on a non-carpeted floor so the towel doesn’t get stuck. Perform these two drill for 2 minutes at a time.
Remember, while the hips are important, don’t neglect your feet! Spending 10-15 minutes on your foot mobility and stability 2-3 times each week can make a world of difference when it comes to training and staying healthy. Stay rooted this off season and start from the ground up and reap the rewards in the Spring!
Brian Diaz is the head physical therapist and sports specialist at ActivEdge Fitness & Sports Performance. He is a Level II Certified TRX Suspension Trainer and a USA Triathlon Certified Coach. Follow him on Twitter (@JediTriathlete) or go to his website at ExperienceTheEdge.com for more exercise ideas.