Strengthen Your Running From The Ground Up

Running well depends on proper ankle mobility.

When was the last time you thought about your feet when you were running? Maybe when you were buying shoes? Or when you were cursing the blisters you got from them?

Look down now and say hi to your best performance boosters: your feet. They’re the reason you’re able to beat your best time on that 5K, finish out that HIIT cardio session as strong as you started, and make your dream of completing that 13.1 a reality. But there’s more to running than stride and gait. Get control of your big toe and develop the right amount of bend in your ankles, and you may be looking at a stronger, faster, and more injury-proof run. “While you can’t change the structure of your foot and ankle, you can change the amount of control you have over them,” says gait expert Jay Dicharry, PT, director of the REP Lab in Bend, OR, and author of Running Rewired. Better control of your running groundwork means a stronger run. Before you lace up, check out these expert foot-control tips.

1. Get Your Toes Working

“In the single-leg stance in running, your big toe provides about 80 to 85 percent of your stability,” says Dicharry. That means being able to isolate it, and move it by itself when you’re running, is key. “You don’t really need to build strength in your big toe; you need to build coordination with the rest of your foot and body,” he says.

When your toe is doing what it should, your arch is supported, your foot is stable, and your movement is efficient. When it’s not, you roll off the inside or the outside of your foot, which makes everything collapse upstream. “The shin collapses, which makes the knee move, and makes the hip collapse,” says Dicharry. “Sometimes people think they have a hip strength problem, but it could be an unstable foot.”

To get your feet going in the right direction, do toe yoga:  

  • Stand up with your ankle relaxed and your weight in the middle of your foot.
  • Lift your big toe off the floor, keeping your other toes relaxed. Place it back down on the floor.
  • Press your big toe into the ground and lift your other toes off the ground. Alternate back and forth for about a minute.

Sounds easy, right? Think again. Many grownups can’t do it, says Dicharry. If your big toe won’t budge, place a ruler under it with the edge just where your toe meets your foot. Lift the ruler and let your toe come up with it. Lower and repeat.

2. Stand On One Leg

Standing on one leg can help improve your biomechanics, but you have to know how to do it correctly, says Dicharry. “I spend a full day with people just teaching them how to activate the big toes and the little ones, and only after they practice that are they ready for single-leg drills,” says Dicharry. The key here: No surprise, it’s pressing the big toe down. The good news is that you can get better at it pretty quickly. Start by practicing toe yoga and, in about a week, you should be able to start in on the first of these one-leg variations. When you have the hang of one, progress to the next. Do any of these variations a few times a day, holding them for anywhere from half a minute to two minutes. No need to overdo each session; frequency beats length.  

Standing One-Leg Variations:

  • Stand on one leg and close your eyes. Stand on one leg with your eyes closed, and turn your head from right to left, making sure to press your big toe down.
  • Stand on one leg with your eyes open, and toss a ball to a partner or toss it against a wall.

Stand on one leg with your eyes open, grab a heavy jug, kettlebell, or other weight in one hand. Press it overhead 10 times. Extra credit: Pass the weight around your body five times to the right and five to the left. “You want to generate some momentum to create some instability as you  aim to stabilize the foot and ankle,” says Dicharry.

3. Mobilize Your Ankles

If your ankles won’t bend easily, your speed and efficiency—and maybe even your knees and hips—end up taking a hit. “As your leg swings through to the front, you have to be able to flex your ankle and pick up your toes, otherwise you end up compensating, often with a hip motion that’s outside the normal sagittal plane,” says physical therapist Mike Reinold, DPT, founder of Champion PT and Performance in Waltham, MA. That can spell trouble for your knees and hips, and slow your finish time by reducing efficiency. Prevent overcompensation and improve ankle flexion with these exercises:

Kneeling Knee Touch

  • Get in a half-kneeling position: Kneel on the floor and bring your right foot out in front of you, with your right knee bent at a 90-degree angle so your right thigh is parallel to the floor.
  • Stand a yoga mat or foam roller up right in front of your big toe on the right foot.
  • Keeping your foot flat on the floor, shift your hips forward to move your right knee toward the mat. If it’s not that close to the mat, you need to do this exercise frequently to stretch the calf muscles. If you feel a pinch in the front of your ankle, it’s worth seeing a physical therapist; that joint tightness is hard to undo on your own.

Wall Lean

  • Stand about three feet away from a wall, feet facing forward. Place your hands against the wall.
  • Step your right foot back. Keeping both heels on the ground, bend your left knee and keep your right one straight. You should feel a stretch in the left calf.

Straighten and bend your left knee repeatedly for about 30 seconds. Return to the start and repeat on the other leg.

4. Consider TIming (And Realize That Practice Makes Perfect)

Now that you have a few foot-and-ankle strengthening moves in your arsenal, it’s important to know when to use them.

Before A Run: “You want to do some skilled movements that wake up your brain,” says Dicharry. “Practicing these foot awareness movements two to five minutes before you go running is a great way to get your feet in the game. That way, when you run, you’ll be able to get better contact with the ball of the foot on the ground, giving you more control.”

As Often As You Can: Taking specific time to strengthen daily will improve your body faster than you think. “Some people say, ‘I did it one day and it didn’t help,’” says Dicharry. “Well, if you ran one day a week, you wouldn’t win the Boston marathon, right? Running is great exercise, but it doesn’t build congruence, stability, and control over your body. Whether we want to label it strength, performance, coordination work, or another buzzy term, it’s required maintenance for a runner.”

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  • Marty…
    Another suggestion for starting from the ground up would be to seek a professional Certified Foot Reflexologist to help with mobility in the feet. Reflexology helps relax the feet and even prepare for toe yoga as you had suggested. I have seen mega amounts of sports enthusiasts over a span of 20 years, who complain of pain and/or discomfort in their feet from running, skating, skiing, etc. Reflexology helps to keep the ankles and feet mobile and reduces pain quickly if it’s just from over-use. Not to mention, feels amazing!

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