Sunday 18 August 2013

Keep your feet happy, and you can pretty much run forever

Keep your feet happy, and you can pretty much run forever.  That's my theory, anyway.  Forget runner's knee, ITB pain, sciatica, weak core muscles, and all the other things that get in the way of a good run.  If you can’t put weight on your feet, you’re scuppered, but if you can, then you can rehab all the other stuff.

Why am I writing about feet?  Well, for a start, my feet and ankles have been a mess for months, resulting in a couple of missed races this glorious Summer.  My feet are the weakest link in my running chain, and they have been for decades.  When I hit a plateau in my running, it’s my feet that give way first.  If I do too much hill work, my glutes and hamstrings burn, but my plantar fascia complain for days (weeks/months).  If I do too much speed work, I may well strain a calf, but if I really overdo it, it’s the feet that suffer for the longest.  This is pretty consistent regardless of my capabilities at any particular time.  So what have I learned about feet in the past few years, as I progressed from 10k to 100mi?  First, if you want to improve as a runner, remember the tiny muscles in and around your feet and ankles.  Second, if you want to run off road, strong feet and ankles are the difference between enjoying the scenery and enjoying the run.

Enjoy the short videos of my feet.  Sorry about the toenails, but I like to think they're in great shape for an ultra runner... You should see the other foot.  I took these videos shortly after my first 100 miler, when feet, ankles, and calves were still pretty hacked off and I was just starting to rebuild some strength and mobility.  As a result, you can see how a relatively weak foot fares with the exercises.

Stronger Feet

To get stronger feet, all you have to do is exercise them – simple, right?  For some runners, it’s as simple as going for a run.  For the rest of us, though, a little extra work is required.  Here are two exercises I use as the basis for all of my foot pre-hab and re-hab.  I'm a pretty simple guy, and I like simple exercises.

Toe Crunches
You’ll find a variety of descriptions of this exercise, which is the foot equivalent of making a fist.  I typically see things like “put your foot on a towel and scrunch it up with your toes”, or “pick up a pencil with your toes”.  That’s all well and good, but not particularly handy if you don’t have a pencil or towel to hand (like on the bus, train, or in that boring meeting while you read this, pretending to be looking up an important e-mail).  I tend to do this pretty much anywhere.  If you have shoes with a decent toe box, you don’t even need to take them off.

The key to the exercise is to isolate the movement, so keep your leg, heel, and ball of the foot still.  Then, you are working all the small muscles that support toe movement and stability.  You can see in the video that the simple motion of curling the toes works quite a lot of the foot.  Start with 10 and work your way up over several days.  When you can manage 100 (~90 seconds), it’s time to just drop them into daily life while you’re waiting, standing on the sidelines or sitting still.

Toe Raises
I find that the top of my feet can also suffer when I’m doing a lot of trail running.  Often, when you turn your ankle, it’s the soft tissue across the top of the foot that gets the long-term damage.  After an ankle sprain (my last one was about a monty ago), focusing on the little toe can really remobilize the muscles that got the tweek.

Again, by keeping your leg, heel, and ball of the foot still, you focus the movement on the micro-muscles that support your toes.  As with the toe crunches, start with a few and work your way up to 100.

Stronger Support Structure

Once your feet are a bit stronger than they were when you started (all of these things are relative), it’s time to think a bit more about how to keep your foot well supported.  Trail running in particular involves frequently landing on uneven ground.  To keep your foot right-side up, you need to build up the supporting musculature.

Standing Still
One thing I often notice is that runners are notoriously bad at standing still.  When we meet up before a race, at club runs, in the supermarket, etc., we fidget, stretch, pace, flex, and generally cause the non-runners in our lives to wish we would just stay in one place.  Why do we move about so much?  I suggest it’s at least partly because standing still puts a strain on a very small set of very small muscles that we tire out regularly when running.  So, how do we make them stronger?  Stand still.

More specifically, get barefoot and stand on one leg.  This isn’t really a convenient thing to do (yes, I have done it in the office while making a cuppa, no it wasn’t received as normal behaviour).  Fortunately, most of us have a particular activity in the day that is perfect for standing still.  Try this exercise while brushing your teeth.  Why while brushing your teeth?

  1. you have top teeth, you have bottom teeth, you have two feet – left foot, top teeth, right foot bottom teeth is a really simple way to work; 
  2. nobody cares if you’re not wearing shoes when you brush your teeth;
  3. the amount of time is suitably short for when you’re starting out and suitably difficult to give you some benefit;
  4. and this is probably the key benefit of the tooth brushing activity – there’s just enough movement in your upper body to make you work to keep your balance.

The joy of this exercise is that not only does it require no additional equipment, but it works your entire body as you maintain your balance.  From your toes to your neck, you are working the whole chain that you need to work well when you step on one of those nasty rabbit holes as you run through a grassy field.  When it’s all strong and working together, you have a chance of remaining upright.  When it’s not, you may well find yourself looking up and hoping you didn’t land in that big cow pat you had been trying to avoid when you found the rabbit hole.

Once you find this to be nice and easy, splash out and find something uneven (wobble cushion, bosu ball, dog toys) to stand on and keep developing that support structure.

With these basic, low-maintenance exercises, you will quickly build/rebuild strength in your foundation, making all things running just that little bit easier.  You can add more reps, more time, more wobble, or more difficulty (try standing on one foot and then lifting your heel).  A few minutes here and there during your normal day will make hours, days, or weeks of difference in your uninjured training time.


  1. Pity I discover your blog only today. Nice to see a normal person with normal problems but a love for the outdoors writing about our wonderful sport. Makes me think about starting a blog myself; I already write regularly for our club's newsletter but maybe a wider potential audience is a risk I should take. I have suffered many of the injuries you talk about and done all sorts of exercises to try strengthen various parts of my legs and feet. In the end I found the solution to be to keep most of my running slow and limit speedwork. I would have wanted it differently... Conrad

  2. Glad you're enjoying the blog! I spent 3 years doing nearly zero speed work, then finally was able to build on the base. I often tell people I coach to plan their racing based on what the training they can fit into their lives. None of us manage it, but it's a good place to start!