Build Your Athletic Foundation with Three Simple Foot Exercises
Once upon a time, a buck, drinking from a crystal spring, saw himself mirrored in the clear water. He greatly admired the graceful arch of his antlers, but he was very much ashamed of his tiny hooves.
At that moment he sensed a predator and bounded away through the forest. As he ran, his wide-spreading antlers caught in the branches of the trees, and soon the predator overtook him. Then the buck realized that his feet would have saved him had it not been for the ornaments on his head.
Similar to the deer in this story, we are often so focused on aesthetics of muscular appearance (and footwear!) that we forget about our feet. And feet are the foundation of most athletic movements, and the source of many injuries.
Shoes, while necessary and beneficial in numerous ways, limit the way feet move, and curtail overall foot mobility, as well as strength in certain muscles, much like a bicep curl machine limits arm musculature. You will certainly strengthen the bicep using one, but the ancillary muscles are not challenged due to the support of the machine.
You can improve foot mobility and strength in 10 minutes a day. Here are three simple exercises to get you started:
Rolling the bottom of your foot on a ball
Apply gentle pressure with a lacrosse or tennis ball. Roll 10 circles on the arch of your foot in each direction, as well as 10 times back and forth over the long axis from heel to ball of the foot. This stimulates the soft tissue of the foot to mitigate stiffness and allow proper weight transfer when walking, as well as improved force absorption during running.
Rolling also stimulates nerves in the bottom of the foot, which has been shown to correlate with reduced low back pain, and improved kinesthesia. Your central nervous system receives information about body movement and position from several sources, including the bottom of the feet. Because wearing shoes dulls this feedback, “waking up” your feet with gentle stimulation helps your body with balance and movement.
Short foot exercise
Think about bringing your heel closer to your toes, in order to make a slightly higher arch, without gripping the ground with your toes. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat five times. Sometimes rolling very slightly to the outside of your foot will help. This activates and strengthens the many small muscles of the foot that support the arch and transfer force during walking, running, weightlifting, etc.
Toe spreading (abduction)
Spread your toes as wide as possible. Bring them back in and repeat 10 times. You can see that I have to “step” my toes into abduction versus moving them smoothly. And that’s okay; you don’t get style points for making these exercises pretty. Toe spreading lessens the effect of toes being crammed into shoes with a small toe box all day, and again activates and strengthens the small muscles of the foot that are limited by footwear, yet crucial to weight transfer and force absorption.
Try three sets of these out at the end of each day, or before your workouts. Commit to working at it for two weeks, as the Short Foot and Toe Spreading exercises often feel odd or impossible at first. With time you’ll get the hang of it, and your whole body will thank you.
For further reading:
Bridging the Gap from Rehab to Performance by Sue Falsone. Chapter Eight, Other Considerations for Optimal Function: Foot Health
Assessment and Treatment of Muscular Imbalance: The Janda Approach by Phil Page, Clare C. Frank, and Robert Lardner. Chapter 11, Sensorimotor Training.
Maura J. Zimmer, NSCA-CPT, CSCS is a strength and conditioning coach at Olympia Fitness + Performance in Cranston, RI, and a three-time national champion in masters short-track speedskating. She specializes in helping people progress from physical therapy back to fully enjoying the activities they love.