Strengthen your feet to get faster

When it comes to trail running, our feet are our most precious commodity

We spoke to Paul Tierney, Ireland international trail and mountain runner, full-time coach, and Inov-8 ambassador, about foot strength

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As runners, we spend hours stretching and strengthening, running up and down hills, but how much attention do we pay to the part of our body in closest contact with the ground? “I don’t think the average runner appreciates how a compromised foot can affect their performance and injury risk,” says elite trail-runner and coach Paul Tierney. “To run, you have to interact with the surface beneath you, and your feet are the only body part involved in that exchange. Yet the majority of people get caught up worrying about strength training or core exercises, and rarely ever give the foot a second thought.” 

If your foot is compromised, it’s likely to have a knock-on effect on everything above it. “Perhaps your ankle becomes stiff to compensate for the foot’s instability,” explains Paul, “which causes pain in your knee, hip or lower back. It makes sense that the more of your foot you have in contact with the ground, or the wider the base of support, the easier it will be to balance. As an extreme example, consider being in bare feet versus high heels.” 

All a cover up?

Almost all of us have weak feet. “Just look at the foot of a new born baby and contrast them to the shape of the average adult runner’s foot.” Paul blames a culture of making shoes to look aesthetically pleasing, rather than aiding the function of the foot. “For generations, shoemakers have tapered the toebox, added a heel lift, and supported the arch of the foot. All these things serve to make the foot unstable, creating shoe-shaped feet, rather than foot-shaped feet.”

Culturally, people tend to hate the look of feet and would rather keep them covered up, which doesn’t help. “Another issue is the inability to pick the right shoe size for fear feet might look too big. I remember when I worked in a running shop being told by customers that they were up to two sizes smaller than they actually were. And they couldn’t figure out why they kept losing toenails!” 

From a structural point of view, these attitudes can lead to problems, such as bunions, Morton’s toe, hammer toes and similar. But it’s the consequences of those ailments that are the real problem. “Think of the compensations one has to make to overcome these issues: if the big toe is too rigid, for example, then the individual may need to move ‘around’ it, by turning the foot,” says Paul. “If the second metatarsal head is in front of the first, and the person has a longer second toe, this causes the big toe to effectively go missing and the foot becomes more unstable. You aren’t born with a second toe longer than the first; that’s a consequence of the shoes you wear.” 

That ‘missing’ big toe is compounded by most shoes being toe-sprung (pointing up or curved at the front), so the big toe is lifted away from the ground. “This means the way your foot leverages the ground changes and makes it hard for the big toe to act as the anchor. A compromised foot may lead to ankle stiffness, as the body tries to create stability. That, in turn, will affect movement at the knee and can lead the hip musculature (gluteus medius being the one most people blame) to work excessively hard to stabilise the leg. It gets tired, develops trigger points, and becomes inhibited.” 

Fix our feet

So can we fix our feet? Yes, but Paul thinks the current obsession with ‘core strength’ misses the point. “Everyone has probably been told at some point now that their glutes ‘don’t fire’, but that’s too simplistic. If you’ve got trigger points in your gluteus medius, will doing a load of clams make that better or worse?” If runners do have foot issues (or may have issues they don’t realise are related to the foot), or want to ensure they don’t get them, what do they do? 

“Simply weight-bearing for most of your waking life, in a shoe that doesn’t compromise the foot, is the best way to make your feet stronger,” says the Lakeland 100 winner. “Like anything else, the foot adapts to the stimulus it is given. If you sit for most of your day, you will probably have weak feet. If you are mostly sedentary at the moment, it’s important to gradually increase your standing time. 

“It really is that simple. We don’t need an exercise for every different thing. The body adapts to the stimuli it’s exposed to. If, by foot strength, we mean that the foot is strong enough to function well at a task without getting injured, doing the particular task (running, walking, working, dancing, martial arts and so on) should be enough for the feet to adapt. Do those things – without shoes that will damage or compromise the function of feet – and strength will follow.”