You wouldn’t drive your car if the tyres were flat. You know to top up the oil when it gets low so the engine won’t seize. When the engine light comes on, you take it to a garage, or at the very least have a look under the hood to see what’s wrong. If you drive a car, you already take all this as common knowledge.
So why is it that so many of us take better care of our cars than we do of our bodies?
To be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of “prep every meal” or “train every day” type of care (although the benefits to both are numerous). I’m talking about basic care; running maintenance - yes, literally running maintenance.
Imagine, if you will, that your body, when it comes to running, is like a car. It can be any car! Some of us are a bit more Formula 1 and some of us are a bit more Fiat Panda. But all cars, like all bodies, have a few things in common and all of them are more likely to break down without proper maintenance. In this series of articles, we're going to take a peek under the hood and take a look at some common problems that when fixed could turbocharge your running.
My grandad used to have a few sayings, little bits of sage advice that he picked up over the years, that he would pull out at any opportunity he could. One in particular that stuck with me was “to always spend more on things that separate you from the ground”. Beds. Shoes. Tyres.
Now I’m not suggesting you go out and buy a new pair of shoes. Let’s instead, for a moment, focus on the tyres.
Focusing on the Tyres
We intuitively know that driving on flat tyres is a bad idea. When there is less air in the tyre, it becomes less rigid. When it’s less rigid, more of the tyre comes in contact with the road. More contact means more drag, which slows us down, and is less efficient. The same is true for our feet!
When we increase the strength and stiffness of our feet, we stand to reap big benefits in running economy and speed. A stronger foot spends less time deforming or “mushing” (yes that is a technical term), which allows us to get back off the ground and take our next step sooner, increasing our speed. The decreased time spent “mushing” the foot also means that there is shorter ground contact time (read more about GCT here), resulting in less braking forces acting on the body slowing us down. This allows us to make better use of the elastic energy stored within the foot(1), with as much as 35% of the energy generated from each step being returned from the ankle and achilles tendon(2). Now we’re using less energy to overcome the braking forces to maintain the same pace, which is a big win for efficiency.
But the benefits to a stronger foot don’t stop there. Muscular imbalances within the feet often lead to excessive pronation (flat foot) or supination (high arch) of the feet, and there is research to suggest that this can be the root cause of numerous common running aches and injuries.
Image Source: Dr. Chris Chiodo
Both flat feet and high arches have been linked with increased incidence of runner’s knee(3), and rolled ankles(4), with flat feet also being linked to higher likelihood of developing shin splints(5).
Similarly, a weak longitudinal arch of the foot, commonly resulting in flat foot, has been linked with many lower limb injuries. These include achilles tendonitis and stress fractures(6) as well as the dreaded plantar fasciitis(7). Ask anyone who has been afflicted with this injury, myself included, you will be told that it sits squarely at the intersection of agony and frustration.
Image source: The American Association for Advancement of Science
Building our Foot Strength
So what can we do to build our foot strength? Let’s look at three exercises you can do at home to pump up those tyres and put some spring back into your steps.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of your core as a band of supporting muscles that wraps around your hips and torso to stabilise your body during movement. Well, in much the same way, your foot has a core of its own(8). I won’t bore you with the particulars, but it performs a similar role, stabilising the foot through movement and helping to prevent many of the injuries we’ve already touched on. One of the best researched and recognised exercises for building the foot's core strength is the “short foot” exercise.
Short Foot Exercise
- Begin barefoot, sitting in a chair.
- While keeping your toes relaxed, scrunch up the bottom of your foot. You are trying to bring the ball of your foot and the heel closer together.
- You may feel like the arch of your foot is beginning to cramp, which is great! It means we’re targeting the right muscles.
- Hold for 5-10 seconds, repeating for 10-20 repetitions.
Image Sources: Posture Direct
Think about it as a plank for your foot, that you can do basically anywhere, at any time! There’s a good chance you’re working from home right now, sitting at your desk reading this, so why not try it out right now? Make it a part of your daily routine and pretty soon you’ll be running more efficiently too(9).
I know many of you reading this now, like me, are doing all sorts of online workouts, over Zoom, Instagram, and more. While the short foot exercise is a great way to build up your foot's core at your desk, there’s a really simple way to modify a handful of exercises in your at-home workouts to give your feet some washboard abs*.
*I claim no responsibility for any spontaneous foot 6-packs, and you should probably see a doctor if it happens.
Heel-up Split Squat
- Set up as directed by your workout or instructor.
- Optional step: Go barefoot.
- Grab a thick book and place it under the ball of your front foot.
- During repetitions, press through the ball of your foot into the book.
- Don’t allow your heel to drop below the level of the book.
This technique can easily be applied to reverse lunges and wall sits, and acts in a similar way to the short foot exercise, requiring us to engage our foot’s core to stabilise and prevent the heel from dropping. We also get the added bonus of reinforcing our tendon health, which will help bulletproof us from injury even more(10).
Now that we’ve built up a rock solid and stable foot, we can take full advantage of its ability to act like a spring and experience Celtic Tiger levels of growth in our running economy! We’ve already established that lowering ground contact time can knock considerable time off your running pace (no really though, you should read my last article) and plyometrics are a fantastic way of doing exactly that (11)! Here’s some entry level plyometric exercises to get you started.
Double Foot continuous Hop
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Without bending your knees, beginning bouncing on the balls of your feet.
- While bouncing, keep your feet as stiff and rigid as possible.
- Perform 10 repetitions, resting after.
Single Foot Continuous Hop
- Stand on one foot.
- Without bending your knee, beginning bouncing on the ball of your foot.
- While bouncing, keep your foot as stiff and rigid as possible.
- Perform 10 repetitions, then change to the other leg.
- Rest after completing 10 repetitions on both legs.
The beauty in all of the exercises I’ve listed here is their simplicity. Whether you’re a novice runner who’s working toward their first 5km or a seasoned marathoner these exercises will give you a strong and stable foot, reducing your risk of injury, while helping you to run efficiently. There are dozens of more advanced plyometrics, strength exercises, and running techniques out there, and you may be tempted to move onto a more challenging version, but master these basics and you’ll be bouncing around like Tigger in no time.
Join me next time, as we move from the tyres onto the engine, and look at how we can inject some more horsepower into yours!
Find out more
If you would like to know more about running specific training you can contact Jamie about personal training or online training programmes by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. “Biomechanics and Running Economy”, T. Anderson, et al. (2012)
2. “Effects of Footwear and Strike Type on Running Economy”, D. Perl, et al. (2012)
3. “Visual Assessment of Foot Type and Relationship of Foot Type to lower Extremity Injury”, L. Dahle, et al. (1991)
4. “A Prospective Study of Ankle Injury Risk Factors”, J. Baumhauer, et al. (1995)
5. “Foot posture as a risk factor for lower limb overuse injury: a systematic review and meta-analysis”, B. Neal, et al. (2014)
6. “Plantar Fasciitis: Diagnosis and Therapeutic Considerations”, M. Roxas (2005)
7. “The Pathomechanics of Plantar Fasciitis”, S. Wearing et al. (2006)
8. “The foot core system: a new paradigm for understanding intrinsic foot muscle function”, P. McKeon, et al. (2013)
9. “The Influence of Plantar Short Foot Muscle Exercises on the Lower Extremity Muscle Strength and Power in Proximal Segments of the Kinematic Chain in Long-Distance Runners”, I. Sulowska, et al. (2019)
10. “Effect of different duration isometric contraction on tendon elasticity in human quadriceps muscles”, K. Kubo, et al. (2001)
11. “Effects of a Plyometrics Intervention Program on Sprint Performance”, E. Rimmer, and G. Sleivert. (2000)