When you hit the gym or go for a run, you probably don’t give your feet much thought, aside from making sure your shoelaces are securely tied. Thing is, your feet take a real beating. “Most active people take 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day, so even without working out, your feet do a lot of work every day,” says podiatrist Paul Langer, D.P.M., president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. So how can you prevent common foot injuries from overuse such as plantar fascitis (an injury to the sole of the foot), tendonitis (tendon inflammation, usually of the Achilles tendon), metatarsalgia (pain in the metatarsals at the ball of the foot), and stress fractures (breaks to the bone caused from repetitive pounding)? Here’s how.
Don’t Skip Your Warm-up
“Immediate foot injuries can be prevented or decreased by a proper warm-up,” says podiatrist L. Kelsey Armstrong, D.P.M., who’s also an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist. “A warm-up should consist of general exercises and progress to specific exercises for the activity.” For example, he suggests a tennis player start with a jog and arm swings and then progress to forward lunges and lateral lunges, side shuffles, and short sprints—forward, backward, lateral.
Build Your Muscles
Strong feet begin with a strong you, says Armstrong. “I believe in strengthening muscles to allow the entire body to withstand the stress of exercise,” he says. “The exercises I usually prescribe are based on the premise that the entire lower extremity, not only the foot, is involved in any activity.” In particular, he cites the squat, which works the gluteal muscles and hip flexors, and the deadlift, which strengthens all the muscles in the back of the leg, including the lower ball of the foot.
For foot-specific work, both Armstrong and Langer recommend the Janda “short foot” exercise, in which you activate the muscles in the foot’s arch to pull the big toe joint in toward the heel without curling the toes. “I typically recommend doing one rep, holding it for two to four seconds and then repeating it 10 times once a day,” says Langer. Heel drops (in which you stand on a small ledge and lower the heels down, then press back to level), and toe raises (in which you push up onto the balls of the feet, Barbie-style, and slowly lower down) increase strength and flexibility of the calf muscles and Achilles tendon, which control and support the feet—do three sets of 15 reps of each exercise daily. Finally, a great move for both foot and ankle stability is to stand barefoot on one foot for 60 seconds at a time, working up to three to four minutes.
Give ‘Em a Good Stretch
Foot flexibility is just as important as strength. And the cool part is that a number of the stretches feel like a massage. Plantar fascia stretching, done seated in a chair, involves grasping the toes in one hand and pulling them up and back until a stretch is felt in the arch and/or heel. Hold it for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times. Another good way to ease tootsie tension: “Rolling a golf/tennis ball on the bottom of the feet daily helps stretch out the small muscles of the feet, along with the plantar fascia,” says Armstrong.
Change It Up
What you wear on your feet is also relevant for good foot health. “In an athletic shoe, you are looking for one with a stiff heel counter—with a wide base for activities that have lateral movement—and a stiff midsole that resists torsion and flexion,” says Armstrong. In other words, the shoe shouldn’t easily fold in half toe to heel or twist side to side. Langer also suggests adding some options to your sneaker inventory (hello, excuse to go shopping!) and to your workouts (find fun options here). “If you wear the same shoes, insoles, or do the same activities day after day, you are at increased risk for overuse injuries due to repetition,” he says. Having a variety of comfortable footwear and doing a variety of fitness activities are important.” Finally, it kind of goes without saying: Lay off the high heels when you can, especially if your dogs are barkin’ from a long run or strenuous boot camp session. (You need to do more shopping for a spare pair of flats to keep in your bag? Done.)
Image courtesy of womenshealthmag.com