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Strengthening the “foot core” to rehab foot injuries

In rehabbing injuries like plantar fasciitis and shin splints, the intrinsic foot muscles are often overlooked. Here's a simple foot exercise to strengthen the arch


When rehabbing foot injuries like plantar fasciitis and shin splints, health professionals often overlook the intrinsic muscles of the foot itself. Injured runners are frequently put on a program of rehabilitation involving strengthening the muscles that support foot function (like the calf and quad), and they may be prescribed an orthotic. While it’s important to have strong calves, quads and ankles (and an orthotic may be helpful), learning ways to strengthen the muscles in the foot itself makes intuitive sense, and ignoring them could potentially lead to repeated injuries.

Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

As physiotherapist and former Team Canada track and field coach Wynn Gmitroski explains, there are four layers of stabilizer muscles in and around the arch. These stabilizer muscles are sometimes referred to as the foot core, because they perform a function in foot movement that’s similar to the function of the abdominal core for stabilizing the bigger movements in running. A strong foot core means the foot can absorb the impact of running more efficiently and with less abnormal stress, and that means “the plantar fascia and the collection of joints that make up the foot/ankle and related soft tissue will be less traumatized,” Gmitroski adds.

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One exercise for strengthening the foot core, known as the short foot exercise (or foot core exercise), is described in a 2014 paper by four American researchers entitled “The foot core system: a new paradigm for understanding intrinsic foot muscle function,” published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. 

Just as strengthening the abdominal core muscles can provide greater stability, strength and resilience in runners, strengthening the foot core can speed up rehabilitation and help prevent future injury. Considering the foot’s arch developed as humans evolved into creatures who ran in order to obtain food, its importance to healthy running should not be overlooked.

How to do it

Malc Kent of Runfisix in Calgary recommends doing the exercise while sitting on a chair or standing, preferably in stocking feet or bare feet. Make sure the heel, toes and ball of the foot are on the ground and don’t lift up. Squeeze or clench the middle of the arch. The arch should raise up just a tiny bit, and the distance from the ball of the foot to the heel should shorten a fraction, and it should feel a bit like clenching a fist. Squeeze for two seconds and release. Repeat for one minute on each side. It’s important not to curl or scrunch the toes, or to roll the foot out sideways.

You may feel some cramping in the arch at first, and some fatigue after doing repeats for a minute. It’s best to concentrate on one foot at a time at first, and Gmitroski recommends doing the exercise while sitting on a chair or stool, so the foot is supporting minimal weight. Once you get the hang of it you can do both feet at once, and while standing.

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