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Why you need to care for your feet

Whether you're walking, running or jumping, your feet play a crucial role. Why is it then that they get ignored when it comes to strength training?

Take care of your feet for better health.
Take care of your feet for better health. (Istockphoto)

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It is quite natural that vanity would dictate working out certain muscles and ignoring others. After all, a good fitness routine should ideally reward one with a good physique. While there is nothing overtly wrong with it, apart from the fact that it is important to look beyond aesthetics for a couple of times every week. Maybe add some adductor exercises to your routine? How about working out the tibialis muscles at the front of your leg as well, or warming up the wrists before you get to the barbell?

But probably the most glaringly abandoned area of a workout are the feet. I was watching a video on athletic training where the trainer said, “Everything starts and ends with the feet and we don’t do enough to strengthen them.” This is true even for warmups. Apart from the few ankle rotations before playing a sport or running, we aim to warmup the big muscles first: hamstrings, glutes, calves, quadriceps. But the feet carry our weight cushion our jumps and add the spring to our sprints, are somehow ignored.

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“During running or sprinting, athletes need to generate and maintain the highest (linear) running velocity during a single effort in a sprinting lane. Acceleration and sprinting performance requires forces to be transmitted efficiently to the ground. It may be of particular interest to strengthen foot muscles to maintain and improve an optimal capacity to generate and absorb these forces,” states a review article in the journal Frontiers titled How To Evaluate And Improve Foot Strength In Athletes.

One of the most common issues faced by those who maintain some level of physical activity is ankle pain, especially at specific angles. Given that foot muscles are more intricately connected with soft tissue and involve a major joint (in the ankle), it is easy to tweak. When you sprain your ankle, you tear the tissues/ligaments that hold the ankle bone together. Achilles tendonitis would be an irritated tendon which connects the heel bone and the calves. Plantar fasciitis would be inflamed soft tissue on the base of the foot which causes pain in the heel and along the arch. All these injuries are avoidable, if you include some foot exercises.

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There is a progression to this too, with and without equipment. Start simple with the easiest and most basic stretches. These can be done while working as well, like toe curls or toe splay holds (spreading the toes as far apart without straining), and rolling a tennis ball under the foot across the full base. You can add stretches, like the big toe stretch-and-holds in all directions, which enhances range of motion.

The next step would be to add resistance bands to your routine. One of them is to attach it to a weight or a support, attach it to the top of your foot just below the toes, and pull up the resistance band. The reverse of this would be to attach it under the toes and hold the other end while you sit with your feet out in front of you. This time you will have to push the band rather than pull.

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The video above, by E3 REHAB is one of the most comprehensive guides to these exercises. Titled Foot & Ankle Strengthening & Stretch Exercise Program For Intrinsics, Arch, Athletes and Runners, it contains a progression from basic sitting exercises to the standing version, before moving on to advanced control drills and band work. Adding just a few of these could transform the way you feel on your feet.

But with strengthening and stretching must come mobility: “Ankle dorsiflexion motion is important in multi-directional running tasks to facilitate ground clearance and preparation for foot impact. Consequently, restricted performance in the ankle dorsiflexion test would suggest potential movement impairment, which could alter the mechanics of movement in multi-directional running tasks,” states a Journal of Physical Therapy Sciencepaper called Associations Between Ankle Dorsiflexion Range Of Motion And Foot And Ankle Strength In Young Adults.

A video by Squat University has some really good exercises on ankle mobility for improving joint movement. One of those is placing one foot on the edge of the bench and driving forward with the knees to feel the stretch at the back of your leg. This 15-minute routine, which you can do with or without resistance bands and weights, will make you test your mobility at the end.

With the weather cooling down, it’s time for the runners to especially make sure their ankles are ready for the miles. But even for those simply walking, or doing standing activities like zumba, strengthening the feet will make your other fitness routines better.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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