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Funny looking, typically sweaty, often stinky and yet, quite possibly the most important player on your running team. Yeah, that’s right. Those two dangling warriors most runners cover up without a second thought play such a big role in your running success that they should be treated like royalty on a daily basis. Even though most agree that running is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, no one would disagree that running requires 100 percent usage of our feet.
If our feet are so vital when it comes to our running happiness, then why do so many runners mistreat them? Or rather, why don’t they spoil their feet? They deserve it, don’t they? What would spoiling your feet entail? Aside from the obvious—buying a nice pair of new running shoes—you could wrap them in the most comfortable running socks, soak them in a tub of warm water filled with revitalizing lavender epsom salt for 10–15 minutes every day, massage essential oils over them just before bed every night, and maybe elevate them in a hammock over a beach often. They are the key to your running happiness after all. So, give them what they deserve—the royal treatment.
Beyond pampering, taking care of your feet means keeping them healthy, which will contribute to keeping the rest of your body healthy. One of the most damaging things you can do is ignore your feet and ankles; if your feet aren’t strong and flexible enough to do their job, other muscles farther up the chain have to compensate, doing work they are poorly equipped to perform. This ends in injury, especially if you’re prone to ramping up your training workload and/or training intensity—a very common act among runners of all abilities. Being overzealous is unlikely to go away because runners are a stubborn bunch—they have to be because the sport demands it, and life often doesn’t allow for the long-term, gradual increases that would prevent it.
If adding stress is inevitable, it only makes sense to be proactive in balancing out the effort by equipping the body with the ability to handle what it’s being asked to do. As a sub-four minute miler at UCLA, we did a handful of foot, ankle and calf exercises everyday to decrease the likelihood of injury. Dedicating a little time to your foot and ankle health before and after every run will make a world of difference when it comes to staying happy, healthy and strong.
4 Exercises You Can Do Before You Run
- Toe Taps: Standing in place, put one leg forward. With your hands on your hips for balance and keeping your heel on the ground, beginning tapping the ground with the foot of your forward foot, lifting your toes high then pressing them into the ground. You can do this exercise standing or sitting. Do this for about 1–2 minutes on each foot as part of your warm-up before each run.
- Heel Raise: Holding onto a wall, rail or sturdy object, stand on one leg while slightly lifting the other off the ground. Slowly raise yourself off the ground using the one leg on the ground and then slowly come back down. Make sure to take your time as you go up and as you come back down. If raising on one leg is difficult or painful, start by raising using both legs, then, at the top, lifting one foot and lowering with one. Do this 5–10 times on each leg as part of your warm-up before each run.
- Ankle Rotations: Sitting on a chair, use your hands to pull up and hold one of your legs just slightly off the ground. Rotate your ankle clockwise 10-15 times, stop, then rotate your ankle in the opposite direction, counterclockwise, 10-15 times. Take your time as you do each rotation. This is as much a stretch as it is a strengthening exercise. As an option, you can do the ankle rotations while standing and lifting one foot, which also helps imrove your single-leg balance. Do this as part of your warm-up before each run.
- Short-Foot Exercises: Sitting in a chair, with feet bare, bring the ball of your foot closer to your heel without curling your toes. Your arch will dome up as your foot shortens. Initially, you may have to reach under your arch and pull up gently to cue the motion. When you’ve reached the shortest, highest arch position, splay your toes as wide as you can. Hold for six seconds and relax. Repeat 5–10 times. Do this daily before you run, and during the day at your work desk.
3 Exercises You Can Do After You Run and On Off Days
- Theraband Foot Pulls: Attach the band to a stable object, e.g., the leg of a heavy table or pole. Sit on the floor with both legs straight in front of you. Loop the band over the top of one foot and move far enough back to remove any slack in the band. Using just your foot, pull the band towards your body. Hold for a second and then slowly release back to the start position. Repeat 10 times on each foot. You can add pulls to each side, and, holding the band with your hands, pushes with your toes. Do this exercise 2–3 times per week.
- Towel Crunches: Place a hand towel on the ground. While standing or sitting, with your heel on the ground, use just your toes to grasp the towel and pull it towards your body. Your heel should remain on the ground throughout this exercise. Repeat the crunch until you have pulled the full towel to your foot. Repeat 1–2 times for each foot 2–3 times per week.
- Jumping Rope: Find a nice open area and jump for 1–2 minutes at a time for up to 10 minutes. Jumping rope is an easy way to work the lower muscles of your feet and legs all at once. Add jumping rope to your routine 2–3 times per week. Advance to jumping barefoot.
Strengthening the muscles in your feet and around your ankles will help you develop the muscle control needed to prevent injuries from high-mileage and high-intensity training. Don’t let weak ankles or feet be your achilles heel when it comes to enjoying long stretches of happy running. The more emphasis you put on treating your feet and ankles, the rulers of your running kingdom, the happier its subjects (you) will be in the long run (pun intended—sorry).
About the Author: Jon Rankin is a world-class miler with a personal best of 3:54.24. He recently launched Go Be More, a new running apparel company dedicated to creating fashion that inspires those who wear it to be true to who they are and to always chase their dreams.