Our feet are the building blocks that our bodies balance on – so it’s important to understand how our foot and ankle muscles impact our overall strength and mobility.
Our feet work hard. They help us run for miles over concrete and grass, they ground us when we’re deadlifting and they keep us balanced when we’re doing yoga. When they’re imbalanced or weakened, it’s not long before the whole body becomes affected. For those of us who run long distances, faulty foot muscles can be a real issue; plantar fasciitis is one of the most common running-related injuries and one that often stems from poor ankle mobility and lack of arch support.
So, how should we be training our feet and ankles to stay strong, and how can we spot when muscular imbalances at the bottom of the body are causing issues further up?
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Feet are our foundations
“Our bodies are complicated, interconnected systems – and our feet are the foundations,” explains Dave Thomas, PT and co-founder of The Foundry. “ As such, “feet and ankle joints play a key role in performance.” So what happens when they’re not functioning at their best?
Dave explains that our bodies are incredibly adaptable from a survival perspective. “If you lose your foot in the mouth of a saber tooth tiger and survive, you still need to be able to hobble away to the best of your ability. When our ankles and feet aren’t able to bear a load safely and efficiently, other joints and structures are forced to pick up the slack. This can lead to poor form and overuse injuries.”
Aside from helping us to lift heavier, stretch deeper and balance better, foot and ankle strength is essential for running and walking. “Maintaining good foot and ankle strength will help reduce your risk of injury in exercises like running and it can also help improve your range of motion whilst squatting, allowing you to sit deeper in your squats,” PT Tashi Skervin explains. “The best part is that a lot of foot and ankle strengthening exercises can be done while you’re sat at your desk and you only need to do them a few times a week to start seeing results.”
Imbalances lead to injuries
Aside from his professional expertise, Dave knows a thing or two about ankle-related issues – he’s broken both of his a number of times: “This, combined with a natural lack of range in my ankle joints, means my other joints have to compensate a lot when I squat, lunge or do anything involved a knee bend. I’m also not immune to lower back and hip niggles.”
While nature may play a big role in our ankle and foot health, some also believe that nurture has a lot of answer for – namely, our footwear choices.
“Our feet are millions of years in the making and with 26 bones, 33 joints and hundreds of muscles, tendons and ligaments, it seems a shame not to use them,” says Fergus Crawley, health and wellbeing lead at Vivobarefoot. “The human foot is a biomechanical masterpiece and when left to its own devices, it can cope with everything from walking and running to jumping and dancing.” Modern footwear, however, impedes feet from doing what they’d naturally do, he goes on to say – which is where going barefoot or wearing barefoot footwear can help.
“Evidence suggests that even as little as six months spent walking in barefoot footwear can strengthen our feet by up to 60%. This is down to the fact that our feet move more in wide, flexible footwear and the muscles, tendons and ligaments that support them develop over time.” He uses the example of putting a hand in a cast. Over time, the hand gets weaker and becomes less functional, but once released from the cast, it rebuilds its strength simply from being used more. “Our feet are no different.”
The natural foot is wide and flexible, with thousands of nerve endings. Conventional footwear has us crammed into rigid, raised shoes that disconnect us from our feet and foundations. “By cramming our feet into a modern sole, we negate their natural function. A thick sole restricts flexibility, a narrow toe box compromises natural movement and a shoe heel robs us of our natural spring,” Fergus goes on. “Unnecessary cushioning prevents our feet from doing what they were made to do and will weaken our feet over time. We are only as strong as our foundations, so it is best to build ourselves a strong base.”
Time to toe train?
Asked whether we should be setting time aside to specifically focus on training and strengthening foot and ankle muscles, Dave says that “like most things in health and fitness, the answer is yes… and no.” After spending years trying to improve his own “biscuit ankles”, he found that his injury risk and mobility weren’t improving. In fact, a leading physio told him that he was wasting his time.
“The genetic structure of my ankle joints means I’ve reached the natural limit of what fancy mobility drills, fascia rolling, traction and stretching can achieve. You can’t stretch bone,” he says. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t aim to improve your foot and ankle strength and mobility within your own natural limits, he warns. A 2014 study in The Journal of Physical Therapy Science concluded that a simple foot strengthening routine could improve running speed, horizontal and vertical jump distance, and strength.
Dave believes that “we need to work to develop stronger feet and control ankle ranges instead and a variety of techniques are best employed to stand the best chance of success.”
How to strengthen your foundations
Ball rolling: rolling your feet on a hard ball can reduce tension in the feet. Stand with one foot on the floor and another on top of a hard ball, and roll it for a couple of minutes under each foot before you start working out and at the end of the day for a good release. You might find that your arches and sides of the foot are most uncomfortable but lean into that discomfort – that’s the bit of the plantar fascia that needs the most release!
Go barefoot: “As with strengthening any part of our bodies, we need to engage with our feet,” Fergus explains. “We will all have different starting points based on how connected we are with our feet, but slowly adjusting to more time in barefoot shoes is a great place to begin.” When transitioning to barefoot footwear, it’s important to approach it slowly. Fergus warns that when “we change the way in which we move, we simultaneously change what is being used to do so. With so many muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the foot, as well as our alignment from moving to zero-drop shoes, it is important to give our bodies a chance to adjust to the movement patterns we are redeveloping.” It is just as important to complement this change by adding in exercises like calf raises, balance drills, barefoot lunges, mobilising the big toe and squats so that we can reengage with our feet, without the restriction of modern footwear.
Have a crawl and toe stretch: Primal movement is fast becoming popular because its so good for mobility, strength and injury-prevention. Try crawling barefoot on all fours, with your feet tucked under. If yoga is more your thing, have a go at a yin toe stretch. Start on your knees, with your toes tucked under. Sit back until your bum is resting as close to the heels as possible and try to stay there for at least one minute. It may be painful but your feet will thank you for it!
Balance more: As Fergus pointed out, there are a number of exercises we could and should be doing if we want to rebuild lazy muscles and start to transition towards going barefoot more often. One of the key, every day things all of us should be looking to improve, however, is balance. Balancing on one leg and then the other can help to engage our foot, ankle and leg muscles while making obvious the imbalances. Try brushing your teeth standing on one leg or balancing on one leg while you’re on the phone. Single leg exercises like lunges and deadlifts are also great for getting every muscle working.
3 exercises to try
This week, try these three simple moves that Tashi swears by for building strength from the ground up:
1. Toe lifts
Sit back on a chair with your feet flat against the floor. Lift your toes off the floor as high as you can, and slowly one by one place each toe back on the ground.
30 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Repeat x 3.
2. Towel tug
Sit down on the floor with your legs stretch out in front of you and try to keep your legs as straight as possible. Wrap a towel or band around your feet and hold one end in each hand. Pull your towel or band towards you until you can feel the stretch in your ankles and calves.
Hold for 20-30 seconds then release. Repeat x 3.
3. Ankle circles
Strengthen your ankles and improve joint stability with ankle circles. Start by sitting down and extend your right leg out in front of you. Keeping your leg still, start to rotate your ankle clockwise, making sure you’re working the joint through its full range of motion.
Rotate clockwise for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side before returning to the first leg to rotate anti-clockwise. Swap leg.
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Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.