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A house is only as strong as its foundation, and a body is only as strong as its feet. Though many athletes know the importance of a strong core for stability, those same athletes are likely to neglect their feet, leading to a host of problems. Many common sports injuries, including plantar fasciitis, shin splints, stress fractures, bursitis, ankle sprains and Achilles tendinitis, can be resolved and prevented simply by working the core muscles—of the foot, that is.
“One of the biggest issues that may contribute to these injuries is an unbalanced foot core system,” says Dr. Patrick McKeon, Association Professor of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College. “Often we tend to focus on strengthening the extrinsic foot muscles, like the gastrocnemius, soleus and deep flexors.”
McKeon’s research has found this causes those extrinsic foot muscles, which typically control movement, to work double duty as stabilizers—a job that should fall on the intrinsic, or “core” muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments of the foot.
“The intrinsic foot muscles play an important role as dynamic sensors of foot deformation during walking and running, and also contribute to the stability of many joints within the foot.”
Training the foot core system means working to activate and strengthen the intrinsic foot muscles to work synergistically with extrinsic foot muscles to create a stronger, more stable foundation. But unlike traditional core strengthening, which requires dedicated exercise moves to target muscle groups, working the foot core could be as simple as taking off your shoes.
McKeon’s 2015 study found that simply walking barefoot as much as possible can be used as a training tool to strengthen the foot core system. Other barefoot activities, such as Pilates, yoga, martial arts, and some types of dance, can be beneficial as well. Being barefoot recruits the intrinsic muscles and boosts sensory input, leading to better postural stability and dynamic gait patterns.
But for some athletes—especially those prone to foot, lower-leg, and knee injuries, a dedicated foot strengthening regimen may be required. Unlike a dedicated core routine, working on foot core strength can be performed anywhere—the motions are discreet but hugely beneficial.
McKeon’s picks to build a stronger foundation:
Foot Core Strengthening Routine
Short Foot Exercise
(McKeon recommends viewing this exercise on YouTube before performing.)
1. Find a neutral foot position by sitting with your fit flat on the ground and rolling your foot inside to outside (lifting the ball of your foot off the ground, then rolling to the pinky toe off the ground).
2. Squeeze the ball of the foot back toward the heel, resisting the urge to curl your toes.
3. Hold 5 to 8 seconds, then release. Repeat 10 times.
Short Foot Heel Raise
1. Place a target (a large coin should do) under the balls of your feet.
2. Find your neutral foot and perform the short foot maneuver (above) in both feet.
3. Raise your heels a half-inch off the ground and hold for 10 seconds. Rest, then repeat 10 times.
4. As you build more strength and stability, gradually add more height in your heel raise and duration of your hold (up to 30 seconds). After hitting 30 second holds, progress from double-leg to single-leg standing.