No doubt, your feet take a pounding on your runs and your workouts. And while footwear selection can play a large part in foot soreness (too small/tight/and incorrect shoes for your activity and foot type are all culprits) if you spend enough time on your feet logging in miles, your feet are bound to get sore, tight and achy.
Relief is on it’s way! I’ve got some simple exercises you can do every day and especially before/after each run that will help bring relief. Feet and toes that get regular movement, mobility and stretching are bound to be healthier, happier and less achy feet. As if that didn’t sound good enough, these exercises and stretches can also help with issues such as plantar fasciitis, bunions, hammer toes and general foot issues. Talk about a win! And only takes minutes a day for a little self foot care love.
Let’s start by stretching those toes! I’m willing to bet that for most of you reading this, your feet are encased in shoes the majority of the day. Think of your shoes as a typical New York city apartment; tiny, cramped and most likely overpriced. But I digress. Your shoes – both the ones you run in and the ones you spend the rest of your time in – aren’t allowing your toes the room they need to spread. So let’s create some space, shall we?
Toe spreading can be done both passively and actively. Passive toe spreading allows your toes to go along for the ride; you’ll be using an outside means (socks, toe spreaders your fingers, your significant others’ fingers) to get the job done.
Passively spreading your toes creates space between the joints, increases blood flow to the tissues, and also preps the area for greater range of motion. An easy way to start it to hold hands with your feet (awww…so sweet!) and work a finger between each toe, holding this position, with 30-60 seconds per foot a great place to start.
As good as this is for you, if your feet are especially tight, it might not feel so great in the beginning. It’s not uncommon to feel tightness or even cramping in your toes or the soles of your feet when doing this. The key is to ease into it, start with smaller dividers for the toes and work your way up (for example, some of my clients with large, very tight feet actually start with just their pinky fingers, taking time with each toe before moving to the next one). There are socks available such as the Happy Feet brand which keep your hands free as you get your space on.
Once you’ve started passive toe spreading, it’s time to add active toe spreading. Now the pressure is on, ’cause this takes skill!
A good way to think about doing this is to place your hands in front of you, palms down, fingers together. Now, spread your fingers apart, as far as you can go. THAT is what you want to do with your toes. By spreading all the toes away from each other you help to strengthen the muscles of the foot. You can practice this standing or sitting (I recommend both!) but it’s important to be barefoot to allow for the greatest amount of space available to your toes. Like the passive work above, you might feel some resistance and even some cramping in your foot/toes. That’s ok; if it happens, simple back off, do a few of the exercises below and come back to it. You might also not have much “spread” in the beginning. No sweat! It took a long time for your feet to get as tight and stiff as they likely are, so be patient when it comes to building mobility and strength.
Now that we are working on spreading our toes, let’s level up and look at lifting our toes. Easy Peasy you say, right? Ahhh…not so fast! The goal here is to lift and lower each toe individually. Ha! This exercise will help restore full movement and function to the foot. As you lift each toe, try to keep it pointing straight ahead, not pointing towards the other toes, and be sure that the ball of the foot stays in contact with the floor, as it’s easy to cheat by rolling your foot rather then lifting your toes. Once you’ve tried that, you’ll see it’s quite a bit deal harder than you think. All the piggies want to go together, right? Well, work on this one, as the goal is to get the toes to move independent of each other.
Another great exercise to relieve sore and tired feet is to achieve arch stimulation using a ball and a half ball. It’s important to use both, as one will allow you to roll along the foot (think of it as foam rolling for your soles!) and the other will allow you to pinpoint and focus on specific areas needing relief.
When using the half ball, make sure to keep your planted firmly on the floor and the foot pointing forward. Imagine your foot broken up into a grid of three rows and three columns, from the base of the toes to the heel bone. Take a minute or two as your work your way down the grid, allowing your foot to drape on the ball. Spend about 2-5 minutes per foot.
When it comes to the ball, a tennis or lacrosse ball works great, but if you find your foot is especially sensitive, a high bounce pinky ball works good, too. Hold in various positions along the foot, especially in the heel, under the first metatarsal (big toe) and along the arch as you work your way from the back of the foot to the front. Think of this as a foam roller for your foot! Do each foot for about 2-5 minutes.
Calf stretch time! Now, I can hear you now…”If my issue is tight, sore feet, why on Earth would I stretch my calves?!” Ah! Because it’s all connected my dear! Tight calves can have a direct relationship and effect on tight tissues of the feet; tight calves usually go hand and hand with tight feet. And tight feet are achy feet! So why not try and lesson the load a bit and enjoy a “two-fer”; work on lengthening the tissues and muscles of the calf (get ready for an ahhhhh moment!) and reduce loads on the feet?
The single calf stretch involves one foot at a time. Keeping feet straight, with heel of the stretching foot down, place the ball of your foot on a half dome roller (pictured) or on a rolled up yoga mat or towel. While keeping your pelvis neutral, work on inching the non stretching foot forward as you feel the stretch of the foot on the half dome. The key is to EASE into this, and respect your body’s range of motion; do not try to aggressively force yourself through this stretch. Hold for 30-60 seconds, and then switch legs.
The double calf stretch is similar to the above stretch, but you’ll have both feet on the half dome (or towel/mat) and using a chair or wall, bend forward from the hips, not by rounding the back. Feel the stretch from the feet all the way up the backs of your legs. If this is too intense with the half dome, it can be done with feet on the ground. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Finally, a great way to round out your foot care is to stretch the top of your foot.
This can be done seated, but is best done standing. Reach your foot behind you, tucking the toes under. The goal is to tuck all five toes, but if you can’t straightaway, don’t worry as you’ll gain more range of motion as you continue with this stretch. It is important to keep the ankle straight and not allow it to roll outwards or inwards (doing this in front of mirror is most helpful so you can keep an eye on that!). If your foot cramps, back off and try again.
Last but not least, try and go barefoot as much as possible (easing into it) when around the house or outdoors when safe, litter and debris free areas are available. I make it a habit to go to a grassy soccer field several times a week and run around barefoot, doing some simple drills and skipping, to allow my feet to be shoe free. The soft grass (sand works great too!) acts like a massage for my feet, while also allowing me to work on strengthening my feet without the confines of restrictive shoes.
So there you have it! Some easy ways to show your feet some love. Your feet work hard for you during each and every run; isn’t it time to give them a little somethin’ somethin’? ;)