Feet: Fundamental to Improved Performance, Often Overlooked
Author: George Barker
The feet are a remarkable piece of human evolution, supporting our entire bodyweight with every step we take and playing a vital role in almost every activity we do. Despite this, they are all too often overlooked, forgotten about, and neglected during training. With information taken from research, textbooks and my experience in the field, this article will attempt to shed some light on the structure of the feet, why they are important, some common issues, as well as exercises to help resolve these problems whilst improving strength and stability.
If you aren’t interested in the anatomy stuff and want to get straight to how to correct issues, scroll down to the section named ‘Common Issues and How to Correct Them’.
Key bones, joints, and muscles of the foot:
The feet are complex structures, consisting of 28 bones, 30 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments which all work together to provide support, balance and mobility (1).
Whilst listing all of these would be tedious and unnecessary for the scope of this article, there are some of each category which are important to make note of.
There are three main bones (or group of bones) which are of specific importance to this article:
Talus: This bone is on the top of the foot, and is important as it forms part of the ankle joint with the bones of the lower leg. Dysfunction in this joint will likely result in limited ankle mobility, which will cause issues for a huge number of activities.
Calcaneus: This is the largest bone in the foot, forming the heel bone. Both the Achilles tendon and plantar fascia attach here, and so it plays a large role in the mobility and strength of the foot and ankle complex.
The tarsals: These are five irregularly shaped bones in the middle of the foot which form the foot’s arch. The importance of the ability to create and maintain an arch in the foot will be discussed further later on in this article.
Tendons and Ligaments:
There are many tendons and ligaments in and around the foot which attach the muscles to the bones, as well as holding the bones of the feet together. However, two of these are of particular importance:
Achilles tendon: This is the main tendon of the foot, and runs from the calf muscle (gastrocnemius and soleus) down to the calcaneus, or the heel. This tendon is incredibly thick, and makes it possible to run, jump, skip or stand on your toes. Weakness or tightness of the Achilles tendon will often result in reduced ankle mobility, less efficient energy transfer during sporting activities such as running or jumping, and increased injury risk.
Plantar fascia: This ligament, or sheath of fascia runs along the sole of the foot from heel to toes, and forms the arch of the foot. The plantar fascia gives balance and strength to the foot which is critical for walking, running, or any other activity where you are on your feet.
Twenty muscles give the foot its shape and ability to move. A few of these which are of particular interest for this article are as follows:
Tibialis anterior: A muscle on the front of the shin, which pulls the foot upwards.
Tibialis posterior: A muscle which runs down behind the shin bone (tibia), and supports the arch of the foot.
The extensors: A group of muscles which help raise the toes, making it possible to take a step.
The flexors: A group of muscles which help stabilise the toes when the foot is on the ground.
Gastrocnemius and Soleus: Whilst not technically muscles of the foot, the calves play an important role as antagonists to the tibialis anterior.
Common Issues and How to Correct Them:
For the past few decades, the majority of people’s feet have been encased in shoes since early infancy, providing cushioning, comfort and stability. However, during those years, the feet will have had very few opportunities to move, stretch and bend as they should (2). This causes the muscles of the feet to atrophy (shrink) and the joints to become unstable and stiff, and the lack of effective neural pathways causes movement deficiencies. Why is this important? The feet are engaged in almost every activity we do, they are the body’s connection to the ground, where all force must pass through before we can move, whilst standing up.
With that being said, due to the complexity of the foot and ankle there are a large number of problems which can arise. However, some issues are more common than others, and so exercises on how to correct these will be the focus of this article.
Issue 1. Flat feet/Collapsed Arches:
Having flat feet or collapsed arches can not only be painful during activity, but also have large knock-on effects further up the body. For example, if the foot inverts due to a collapsed arch, the tibia (shin) will rotate inwards, which can cause the knee and femur (upper leg) to rotate inwards as well. In fact, many issues further up the body, even into the shoulders and neck, can be a cause of improper foot mechanics.
Below are some exercises which can be used to strengthen the muscles in the feet to improve the foot’s arch.
Stand with the feet facing forwards and approximately shoulder width apart. Whilst keeping the toes relaxed, “scrunch” the under surface of your foot, or drag the base of your big toe towards the heel. Push the base of the big toe into the ground in order to stop this area from lifting up. The arch should “dome” upwards, and a strong contraction (maybe even a cramping sensation, but don’t worry, this just means you’re working the muscles!) should be felt in the muscles underneath the foot (4). Hold this position for 5-10 seconds, release, and repeat 10 times (or as many times as necessary).
Tibialis Posterior Raise:
The tibialis posterior is a muscle which supports and helps create the arch in the foot. This exercise will help work both the tibialis posterior and the calf muscles, which are also important in improving foot and ankle mobility and strength.
Stand on the edge of a step and place a small ball (tennis ball or lacrosse ball will work great) between the ankles. Squeeze the ball between the ankles, and raise up as high as possible onto the toes, then actively pull down to drop the heel as far as possible. Pause at the top and bottom of the movement for 5 seconds (this will remove any stored energy in the Achilles tendon, making the muscles have to work harder), and repeat 10-20 times. During this movement, do not let the ankles roll out, and aim to keep the Achilles tendon perpendicular to the ground throughout.
Issue 2. Plantar Fascia Tightness/Stiffness:
As previously mentioned, the plantar fascia is a sheath of fascia on the underside of the foot, which runs from the heel to the base of the toes. When this is tight, it can cause pain and restrict proper movement of the foot. Some of these restrictions include collapsed arches and lack of big toe extension, which is critical for being able to walk or run properly. Furthermore, due to its place is the “superficial back line”, the plantar fascia has an effect on the muscles at the back of the body all the way from the feet to the head, including the calves, hamstrings and erector spinae! (2)
In order to remedy plantar fascia tightness, “self-myofascial release” can be performed:
Plantar Fascia Release:
Place your foot on a small ball (tennis ball, lacrosse ball, or a golf ball are ideal). Apply pressure to the ball until some discomfort is felt, then slowly roll the ball up and down from the heel to the toes, making sure to cover the whole bottom of the foot. Continue to do this for 1-5 minutes. After a few rounds of this, it is advisable to complete some full range of motion calf raises to strengthen the muscles and fascia in their new range of motion.
Issue 3. Weak Tibialis Anterior and Calves:
The calves and tibialis anterior work as antagonists, with the calves performing plantarflexion on the ankle (pointing the foot down), and the tibialis anterior performing dorsiflexion (pulling the foot upwards).
The calves often become overworked and tight, partly due to modern shoes often having raised heels. Raised heels place the calves in a more shortened position which causes our posture to change in order to remain balanced. On the other side of the leg, cushioned shoes remove the need for the tibialis anterior to decelerate the front of the foot before striking the ground. Thus, it often remains dormant and becomes very weak. Furthermore, raised heels place the tibialis anterior in a constantly lengthened position, further exacerbating this weakness.
Without correct balance between these two muscles, the ankle and foot becomes unstable, weak, and will often have reduced range of motion. By strengthening these muscles it is possible to improve range of motion and stability of the foot and ankle. An added bonus is that many of the smaller muscles in the feet and lower leg will also be worked at the same time!
The simplest version of this movement is to simply stand with your back against a wall, feet approximately 30-50cm in front of you. Raise the front of your foot towards your shin, hold for 1-2 seconds, and lower back to the floor. Repeat this 50 times. In order to advance this further, a band or cables can be utilised either on the edge of a bench or whilst seated on the floor. Place the band around the top of your foot to add resistance, and repeat the same movement as above.
Almost identical to the tibialis posterior raise, mentioned above, firstly stand on the edge of a step. Raise up as high as possible onto the toes, then actively pull down using the tibialis anterior to drop the heel as far as possible. Pause at the top and bottom of the movement for 5 seconds (this will remove any stored energy in the Achilles tendon, making the muscles have to work harder), and repeat 10-20 times. This movement can be performed with straight or bent knees in order to target the gastrocnemius or soleus respectively.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are a huge number of exercises and ways to help with foot and ankle problems. However, these movements are a great baseline and will help improve the strength of your feet. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask in the gym or send me a message.
Stay Strong and Move Well,
- Category Archives: Foot (2012) [Internet]. Available from http://anatomyzone.com/category/tutorials/musculoskeletal/lower-limb/foot/ [Accessed 25/07/19].
- Krauss, S.L. (2018) Foot Fitness with Stacy lei Krauss [Internet] Available from https://www.vivobarefoot.com/uk/blog/june-2018/foot-fitness-with-stacey-lei-krauss?utm_campaign=474097_Weekly-ALL-49-ROW-MINAMILISM-KANNA-TRIO-FEMALE&utm_medium=email&utm_source=VIVOBAREFOOT&dm_i=48EU,A5TD,31JXA8,1429B,1 [Accessed 25/07/19].
- Myers, T.W. (2014) Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists (3rd). Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone.
- Wong, M (no date) How to Fix Flat Feet (Pes Planus) [Internet] Available from http://posturedirect.com/how-to-fix-flat-feet/ [Accessed 25/07/19].