One of the most important factors for a better run is a set of healthy, happy feet.
Ask runners which muscles are the most important to strengthen for a more efficient stride, and they will most likely tick off a list that includes quads, glutes, hamstrings, or calves. While these powerful movers are important for building strength and speed, they shouldn’t get all the glory. One of the most overlooked factors for better running is the health of your feet.
“Running is a high-impact exercise, and your feet are the first point of contact every time you hit the ground,” says Corinne Fitzgerald, head coach of Mile High Run Club in New York City and competitive runner. “Taking care of our feet is just as important as the big muscle groups that move us to run.”
When Fitzgerald talks about caring for our feet, she’s not talking about foot massages or pedicures, but rather strengthening exercises and mobility work.
“The feet are often overlooked when we talk about strength work,” she says. “When we run, we land on one foot at a time with anywhere from two to three times our body weight as distance runners. Working on foot strength will help improve your natural elasticity, and you will react quicker. Strengthening the muscles that stabilise the feet can also help us prevent our arches from caving in toward the ground or our ankles to roll outward.”
In other words, strong feet are stable feet, and stable feet are less likely to experience an unhealthy level of pronation or supination. Stability and mobility in our feet also play an important role in optimizing performance, and a lack of stability that starts in the foot can travel up the leg.
“Having adequate foot strength and mobility to tolerate the demands of running is important for efficient running,” adds Christopher Herbs, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S. “A lack of mobility—especially a lack of extension at the great toe or dorsiflexion at the ankle—could lead to compensations, particularly at the knee or hip.”
On the more extreme end of the spectrum, neglecting the strength and mobility of your feet could potentially play a roll in causing more painful injuries. “Common issues that can occur in people with weak feet are inflammation, plantar fasciitis, bunions, neuromas, and even stress fractures in the feet or shins,” Fitzgerald says.
We’ve rounded up three key moves that specifically target the strength and mobility of your feet, the foundation of your run.
How to use this list: Perform each move below before and/or after every run or every day. The more you do them, the stronger your feet will become! Each exercise is demonstrated by Fitzgerald herself so you can learn the proper form. You just need a small ball such as a lacrosse ball, a baseball, or you can use a trigger point ball like the Acumobility ball which is flat on one side, making it easier to roll the foot over without the ball rolling away.
1. Bear Squat to Downward Dog Dynamic Stretch
How to do it: Kneel down on the floor with your toes curled under and sit back on your heels. Rock side to side on your curled toes to stretch the foot, stretching all aspects of the foot, calf muscles, and tendons. Then come forward onto all fours into a tabletop position while keeping your toes curled under, and press your hips up and back into a down-dog posture while you drive your heels into the ground. Hold for one to two seconds, then drop back down to your hands and knees and begin the sequence again. Repeat for 5 reps.
Why do it: “[This exercise is] a great activity to help facilitate ankle dorsiflexion and great toe extension, which is important for runners. We use this with some of our patients,” says Herbs.
This move is beneficial because it not only stretches out the arches of your feet, but it also helps lengthen the muscles and tendons in your calves, adds Fitzgerald. “These muscles and tendons help to move the foot and also play a role in how your foot hits the ground.”
2. Trigger Point Release for Feet
Trigger Point Release Forefoot
Trigger Point Release Midfoot
Trigger Point Release Heel
How to do it: Using a ball or the Acumobility ball, place the ball right below the base of the toes. Drive your weight into the ball. Curl your toes to grip the ball then extend the toes, going through
the full range of motion. Repeat 10 times.
Reposition the ball underneath the ball of the foot. Apply your weight to the ball. Curl your foot around the ball by flexing your toes toward the floor, then extending and straightening your foot, going through the full range of motion. Repeat 10 times.
Finally, reposition the ball just in front of the heel at the base of your foot’s arch. Apply your weight to the ball. Plantar flex the foot while maintaining contact with the ball, then lower the heel and drive your weight back into the ball. Repeat 10 times.
Why do it: “Trigger point therapy with active release has many benefits for a runner. Specifically in the feet, it can help promote blood flow and allow the fascia around the muscle to properly align. You will have better movement in your toes and will be able to stabilise using your feet,” Fitzgerald explains.
3. Toe Lifts
Big Toe Lifts
Little toe lifts
How to do it: Splay your toes and feet out on the floor. While keeping toes two to five down, pick up your big toe. Hold for two seconds while keeping the small toes relaxed. Repeat 20 times. Then switch and keep your big toe down and raise toes two to five. When lifting the small toes be sure not to pronate the foot. Hold for two seconds. Repeat 20 times.
Why do it: Think of these as bicep curls for your feet. This isolation exercise targets and strengthens the foot stabiliser muscles—particularly the muscles that maintain and support your foot’s arch—by isolating the big toe and making sure it can move independently of the rest of the foot.
“You’re isolating toe flexor and extensor muscles and forcing them to work on their own. These small muscles play a major role in balance and stability. Strengthening them can also help prevent injuries like shin splints,” says Fitzgerald.
While this exercise may look easy, it isn’t. “This exercise takes some time to master and build up strength, so stay patient with it,” she says.
One tip from Kathleen Leninger, D.P.T, a physical therapist at Custom Performance in New York City and certified running coach: Practice this one while in the shower, brushing your teeth, or performing any other mindless household task. The more you do it, the stronger those tiny muscles will become.