The feet are an important link in the kinetic chain that we sometimes forget about. The foot is a dynamic structure that needs to be strong and stable while also being soft and malleable. Thanks to its design and muscular attachments, it can store and utilize elastic energy with each footstrike. The strength and stability of the arch, referred to as the “foot core,” are required for proper foot function.
Both local and global muscles control the shape and function of the arch. The local muscles are primarily stabilizers known as the intrinsic foot muscles and are smaller in cross-sectional area. The global muscles are primarily prime movers of the foot and are larger in cross-sectional area. With each footstep and running stride, the local foot stabilizers function to control the amount and speed of arch deformation. Dysfunction of these muscles can result in an unstable arch and abnormal foot movement. Excessive deformation of the foot has been linked to plantar fasciitis and other lower limb injuries.
Traditional foot strengthening exercises usually involve curling the toes to pull a towel toward you or picking up marbles with your toes. These types of exercises will target the local foot muscles but will also involve the global muscles. Ideally “foot core” training should only target the local foot stabilizer muscles.
Enter the short foot exercise.
The goal of the short foot exercise is to “shorten” the foot by contracting the intrinsic muscles to raise the medial longitudinal arch, or in science-speak, pulling the first metatarsophalangeal joint toward the calcaneus (heel bone). Care should be taken to ensure the foot is in neutral alignment and that the toes are not flexed or extended. The short foot exercise is best learned seated and can be progressed to bilateral standing, single-leg standing then to functional activities such as squats, deadlift, lunges and hops. It should also be noted that being completely barefoot would enhance sensory input detection from the plantar surface of the foot and help you develop the sense of creating the short foot posture.
Your Arch Strengthening Routine
This routine consists of some exercises that can be performed daily (e.g. short foot, toe splaying and big toe presses) and exercises that can be performed 2-3 times per week (e.g. leg swings and calf raise to big toe press).
Short Foot Exercise
Sit in a chair in your bare feet. Form a 90-degree angle at your knees and ankles. Without crunching your toes, try to shorten your foot by doming the arches in your feet. You can focus on one foot at a time or do both at once. Try not to curl or extend your toes and keep your foot neutral. It’s harder than you think! Practice this throughout the day. You can even practice while sitting at your desk. Once you become competent in performing the short foot sitting, attempt the exercise standing on two legs then on one leg. (See an image here)
Try moving your toes away from each other but be careful not to curl or extend them. Practice throughout the day.
Big Toe Presses
Press your big toe into the floor while extending your other four toes. Hold each press for 8 seconds and perform 12-15 reps per foot.
Dissimilar to dynamic leg swings that are commonly performed with a large amplitude, these legs swings are performed with a small amplitude to challenge your balance and hip and ankle stability. Stand on one leg in your bare feet and attempt to create the short foot posture. Swing the non-stance leg forward and backward 15 times. Without rest, swing the same leg left and right in front of your stance leg, also 15 times. Repeat this sequence without resting, then repeat on your opposite leg.
Calf Raise to Big Toe Press
Stand on the edge of a stair in your bare feet. Let your heels drop below the level of the stair. Then perform a traditional calf raise, but then proceed and press onto your big toe. This part is difficult for most. Feel free to hang on to something for balance. Perform 12-15 reps.
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About the Author:
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS, CEP is a runner, strength coach and Managing Director of JKConditioning in St. John’s, NL, Canada. He specializes in strength training endurance athletes and is currently in the middle of preparing a strength training resource for runners. Stay in touch by checking out www.JKConditioning.com and finding him on Twitter at @JEKawamoto.
McKeon, P.O., Hertel, J., Bramble, D., & Davis, I. (2015) The foot core system: a new paradigm for understanding intrinsic foot muscle function. Br J Sports Med, 49, 5, 290. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092690