Published in Trail Walker, Summer 2016, official publication of the New York/New Jersey Trail Association
by Howard E. Friedman DPM
While you are preparing for your summer hikes, trail runs or backpacking trips, take some time and strengthen your feet. Physical therapists suggested this year in the journal Swiss Sports & Exercise Medicine that foot strengthening may help prevent lower limb injuries in runners in addition to helping those already injured recover. These authors are building on research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015 which encouraged health care providers to teach patients how to strengthen the muscles in their feet. In this way, researchers explain, the feet can provide increased stability for the rest of the body and may help resist further injury.
Foot exercises have been around for many years and strengthening parts of the foot such as the plantar fascia, the large ligament under the arch of the foot, was suggested as a treatment for heel pain in a study published in 2014. People try to strengthen their feet with various exercises such as picking up marbles with the toes for example. These exercises work some foot but not all foot muscles and a lot of leg muscles. But the idea of focusing on strengthening specifically the small muscles in the foot to help resist injury is a relatively novel application of the core stability concept, thinking of the foot muscles as “core” for the foot like strengthening the abdominal muscles are “core” for the trunk of the body.
The foot includes more than a dozen small muscles completely contained within the foot. These muscles are significantly smaller than the leg muscles whose tendons control foot motion. The small intrinsic foot muscles in contrast can not move the foot around but do stabilize the many joints in the foot, especially the toes during walking and running and they help maintain the foot’s domed or arch shape even during high impact activities.
The latest recommendation from physical therapists is to strengthen the feet by performing the “short foot exercise” routine. Four weeks of performing these exercise has been shown to reduce the collapsing of arch height, improve balance, increase strength foot muscle strength and improve function in people recovering from ankle sprains.
The short foot exercise takes some time to learn. Watch the video below.
To perform, sit with the feet flat on the floor and bring the fore foot toward the heel but with out curling the toes. Work on moving the forefoot toward the heel until the arch of the foot increases in height. Hold this position for about 5-10 seconds than relax and repeat about 10 times. Eventually this exercise can be performed while standing.
Some researches have also reported improved strength in the foot following four to five months of barefoot walking and running. In fact one study showed an increase in some foot muscle circumference. Meanwhile, realize that healthy feet are only one ingredient in overall sound biomechanics and some people may still function better and feel more comfortable wearing supportive shoes and using arch supports. But regardless, making your feet stronger is a worthwhile goal for everyone.