A tree’s strength ultimately depends on how strong its roots are. If the roots are weak, then there’s risk that the tree will fall over. The human body is much like a tree, in that we are only as strong as our feet and ankles are. Particularly for athletes, if muscles controlling movements at the hips and knees are very strong but the foot and ankle complex is weak, then power expression will be greatly diminished. There are 26 bones (1/4 of the bones in the human body are in the feet), 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. When there’s weakness, imbalance, poor activation, or poor coordination of the muscles in these areas, the foot and ankle complex doesn’t function properly. This can cause muscles in one area to have to work harder, which can increase stress, leading to soreness, tightness, or an overuse injury because other areas of the body, such as the hips and knees, will have to compensate for the poor foot/ankle mechanics. The structures in the ankle and foot must be strong to create stability, but also mobile to function properly and to reduce the risk of an injury.
In this month's post, we will be highlighting some of our favorite foot/ankle exercises. When doing these exercises, shoes should NOT be worn. Shoes are good for comfort and protection, but they decrease activation in muscles of the foot. Wearing shoes can hinder toe movement, especially if the shoes being worn have a small toe box. Our toes help with balance and stabilization, so when they're squished together in a shoe, our base of support becomes smaller, leading to decrease in balance. They’re also the last point of push off when walking or running so immobility will diminish these actions because we won't be able to apply force into the ground over a large range of motion. When looking for good training shoes, choose ones that have a wider toe box of the shoe to allow for better mobility in our toes and feet. Also, avoid ones that have an extreme amount of cushion or air pockets on the bottom, as this will also decrease the proprioceptive feedback we get from walking barefoot or in minimalist shoes.
When doing any exercise, it's important to maintain a "tripod" foot position. This allows our feet to produce force into the ground effectively.
There's many exercises we can do for the foot and ankle since the structures are so complex. Here's a list of several exercises that are beneficial for flexibility, mobility, stability, strength, and coordination.
This action is bending the toes up and down. A stretch can be held for time or you can use your hands to get the range of motion. Then try to hold these positions or move in and out of the end ranges of motion.
Start by using your hands and spreading your toes apart. Then try to hold these positions or move in and out of the end ranges of motion.
The gastrocnemius is one of the primary calf muscles. This muscle is stretched when the leg is straight without knee bend. Try different positions with your knee on the stretch; over the big toe, middle toe, and pinky toe. Keep the heel down on the ground.
Knee to Wall Touches
The soleus is one of the primary calf muscles also, but located underneath the gastrocnemius. This muscle is stretched when the knee is bent. Try different positions with your knee on the stretch; over the big toe, middle toe, and pinky toe. Keep the heel down on the ground.
Stretching the outside of the foot is called inversion, stretching the inside is called eversion. Ankle sprain/strains can occur when the foot moves excessively through either of these motions, so being mobile and strong in the end ranges can decrease the chance of an ankle injury.
Plantar Fascia Smash
There’s many muscles and strong fascia at the bottom of the foot that can become tight and immobile, leading to issues like plantar fasciitis. Roll slowly on the bottom of the foot. A good rule of thumb for soft tissue rolling is move an inch per second. If any trigger points are found then extra time and pressure can be applied.
Flexibility is what range of motion each joint has. Mobility is being able to control those ranges of motion. This is a great open-chain exercise to control various movements of the ankle.
Standing on one leg
This is the simplest, most convenient way to train foot and ankle stability. It can be done anywhere at almost any time. You can stand on one leg while brushing your teeth, waiting for food to cook, or watching tv, for example. Do with and without your eyes closed. Remember to maintain "tripod" foot pressure the entire time.
Many lower body injuries can be attributed to landing poorly when the injury happens. Being able to land and stabilize from the foot up can greatly reduce a number of injuries. Upon landing, the foot should maintain “tripod” pressure without arch collapse. Several exercises can be used for this, but double and single leg depth drops are great for challenging proper form and landing mechanics to prevent injuries.
DB passes on balance pad
Using an unstable surface will enhance activation and coordination in muscles of the foot/ankle. Passing a weight from one hand to the other will challenge to ability to maintain the "tripod" when the center of mass changes.
This is a great exercise for both stability and mobility in multiple planes of motion. Always maintain balance and "tripod" foot pressure.
Clock Reaches on balance pad
Using an unstable surface will enhance activation and coordination in muscles of the foot/ankle as long as "tripod" pressure is maintained on the foot.
SL RDL Reach
This exercise is surprisingly difficult to do properly. Maintain "tripod" foot pressure. This exercise will also challenge balance and hip/knee stability. Don’t allow hips to rotate or lower back to arch.
Walking/running in sand/unstable surfaces
Using an unstable surface will enhance activation and coordination in muscles of the foot/ankle. This is only beneficial if proper foot pressure is maintained.
This exercise will strengthen the muscles that help create and maintain an arch in the foot. When these muscles are strong, it allows us to apply correct foot pressure better.
Ankle Twist & Press Outs
This exercise also helps create a foot arch but incorporates more actions of the ankle and activates our glutes to apply correct pressure.
Calf Raise holds
The ball of the foot and the big toe are the last points of push off when walking or running so this end range of motion should be trained to effectively strengthen our feet/ankles.
This will strengthen the muscles that help move the foot when the toes are being brought up to the shin. When these muscles are weak, issues like shin splints can occur.
This will strengthen the muscles that control the side to side motion of the feet. This can lead to decreased occurrence of things like ankle sprains/strains.
Heel to toe walks
This exercise challenges our feet/ankles to move through a full range of motion while also working on balance and coordination of the surrounding muscles. Roll from the heel to the ball of the foot, then to the big toe. The arch of the foot should NEVER collapse and make contact with the ground.
This exercise challenges the muscles of the feet/ankles while on the balls of the feet and focus on finishing the push off through the big toe.
This exercise is very similar to the toe walks, but done in place and more explosively. Stay on the balls of the feet and start bouncing, finish the movement by getting up on the big toe. The bouncing action of this exercise will help the body use the elastic energy from tendons of the foot/ankle instead of using much muscular energy from the calves.
Skipping exercises are great for body coordination, using elastic energy from tendons, and creating power from the foot/ankle.
Vertical Pogo hops/Multi-directional pogo hops
Pogo hops are one of the best exercises for being able to train stiffness and explosiveness from the feet/ankles. If an athlete can create lots of power from the hips and knees, but can’t apply that power into the ground from their feet, then their ability to run faster and jump higher will significantly decrease. When sprinting, the leg is relatively straight when the foot contacts the ground in almost the same exact position as pogo hops.
Same benefits as ankle bounces and lower intensity pogo hops.
These exercises work on form and technique for acceleration/top end speed. Focus on optimal foot pressure and mechanics.