We tend to take them for granted most of the time, but our feet are actually a very important part of our body. An injured foot can really restrict our ambulation and make everyday movements most difficult. I became painfully aware of this fact following my foot surgeries, when I could not walk, run, cycle, swim, play tennis, or perform any of my usual fitness activities except strength training (seated on Nautilus machines).
Although our feet normally work well, it is not hard to understand how they can be compromised by high impact and high repetition activities such as running, stepping, basketball, and volleyball. Consider that each foot is constructed from 26 separate bones and an awesome lattice of ligaments, tendons, muscles, and fascia bands. Add to this the importance of a properly positioned arch that absorbs landing forces and attenuates stress to the ankles, knees, hips, back, and body in general. A low-arched foot or a high-arched foot may be particularly problematic for many athletic activities from an injury prevention perspective.
Then there are the ankle joint structures that never fully recover from sprains, and therefore become prone to further injury. Of course, misaligned toes can cause trouble, and inappropriate pressure points can impinge nerves resulting in persistent pain.
So what can we do to reduce the risk of foot problems that restrict our exercise participation and make life less pleasant? First, we need to approach high impact activities cautiously and progressively, making sure not to do too much too soon. This advice is actually most applicable to the fall/winter season when people typically transition from outdoor to indoor sports and from soft surface to hard surface activities. For example, both basketball and volleyball involve a lot of jumping and landing actions, that place significant stress on the feet. Also, many people who run on grassy surfaces during warm weather begin to train on the roads when the ground freezes or has snow accumulation.
So if you join a basketball or volleyball league this winter, increase your playing/practice time gradually as your body (and feet) adapt to the impact forces associated with these activities. Be equally respectful to your feet as you change from grass fields or dirt paths to running on roads or sidewalks. Cut back your running mileage by about one-third when you first hit the roads, then add about five minutes per week until you reach your desired training time.
For example, if you’ve been running for about 45 minutes on mostly soft surfaces, reduce your training time to about 30 minutes for your first week of road running. Add five minutes to the next week, five more the following week, and within three weeks you should be able to handle 45 minutes of higher impact running with a lower injury risk.
You should also consider investing in a new pair of running shoes that feature supportive arches and substantial force absorption in the midsole material. Keep in mind that even the best made athletic shoes wear down and lose their resiliency after a few months of wear.
Although inappropriate for running, high top athletic shoes provide greater ankle support and reduced risk of sprains in stop and go sports such as basketball and volleyball. Of course, snugly lacing the shoes all the way is essential to receive protective benefits.
Once you have adjusted your exercise program and obtained proper footwear, you have reduced your risk of foot injuries significantly. However, if you do experience pain or problems with your feet, be sure to see an orthopedist or podiatrist for appropriate medical care. For many people, well-designed orthodic devices are effective for decreasing discomfort and increasing functional ability.
Finally, you may benefit by regularly performing specific strengthening and stretching exercises for the muscles that are involved in foot and ankle actions. My preferred foot stretch is to sit on the floor with both legs in front of you, knees bent, and heels contacting the floor. Gently pull the toes of both feet backwards with your hands until you feel a comfortable stretch through the arch (plantar fascia) area. Hold for about 30 seconds, release, and repeat.
Although it is not easy to strength train the feet, one way to involve these muscles is to sit on a chair and attempt to pick up objects of various shapes/sizes with your toes. For example, you may try to lift a washcloth, kitchen towel, sponge, small stone, or comparable objects by gripping them with tightly flexed toes. Five to 15 repetitions should be sufficient.
Stretching the calf muscles/achilles tendons can be beneficial for ankle/foot flexibility. This stretch can be easily performed by placing the balls of your feet on the edge of a stair step and slowly lowering your heels until your calves are comfortably elongated. Hold the stretched position for about 30 seconds, release, and repeat.
The muscles that exert greatest control over ankle movements are the anterior tibials in the shin compartment of the legs. Strengthening these muscles may be particularly helpful in maintaining ankle stability and reducing the risk of sprains. Perhaps the best exercise for these muscles is the simple seated toe lift. Sit on a high bench or table with your thighs supported and your lower legs hanging straight down (perpendicular to floor). Loop a shoestring through a five-pound weight plate or similar object so that it hangs down from the toe area of your athletic shoes. Keeping your lower legs vertical, slowly raise your toes as high as possible, pause in the top position, and lower your toes as far as you can. I recommend 10 to 15 repetitions, preferably working one foot at a time.
These basic exercises take little time and should result in both lower injury risk and higher performance potential. As the old saying goes, if you take good care of your feet, they will take good care of you.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA, and author of several books on fitness, including Building Strength and Stamina, and Strength Training Past 50.