Regimens: Getting a Foot Up on Overuse Injuries

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

Regimens: Getting a Foot Up on Overuse Injuries
By Sara Corbett

Modern athletic shoes may have given us too much of a good thing. "They've allowed the muscles that naturally stabilize our feet to weaken," says Tom McPoil, an associate professor of physical therapy at Northern Arizona University who specializes in feet. "With a little extra strength in our feet and lower legs, we could have more inherent support and not leave it up to the shoes." McPoil suggests that you work the intrinsic (arch and forefoot) and extrinsic (calf and ankle) muscles to help prevent the overuse injuries that are so common among runners, hikers, and cyclists. Perform the following exercises a few times a week, and your feet can lean a little less on those super-supportive, super-cushy bad boys in your closet.

Tube Tugs
Tube tugs strengthen your lower-leg muscles and thus help bolster your arch. Tie a loop in one end and a knot in the other end of a two-foot piece of rubber tubing. Anchor the tubing by closing the knotted end in the bottom of a door and then sit in a chair beside the door; the tubing should run at a perpendicular between the door and your feet, and the chair should be just far enough away from the door so that the tubing has to be taut to reach you. With your feet about six inches apart, put the loop around the arch of the foot closest to the door. Keeping your knees bent to 90 degrees and your feet flat on the ground, slowly move the tethered foot until it meets the other foot. You should feel the inside half of your lower leg working. To work the anterior side, put the loop around the opposite foot and move it as far away from the other foot as possible. Do two sets of ten of each exercise, and then flip the chair around to work the other muscles.

Calf Stretch
Place your palms on a wall and lean against it. Slide one foot back 12 inches or so and bend that leg slightly; slide the other foot back three feet, keeping it planted on the ground. Now tighten the quads of the back leg to keep it straight and lift those toes upward for ten seconds. You're stretching the extrinsic muscles, which should lessen the pull on your plantar fascia. Repeat five times for each leg as part of your warm-up and cool-down.

Toe Claw
Seated in a chair with a bath towel stretched out in front of you on the floor, rest one heel at the edge of the near end of the towel and start "clawing" the towel with your toes to pull it toward you. As the fabric bulks up underneath your foot, move your heel forward on the towel or move over to another part of the edge, and begin on a new section. At the end, take a 15-second break before starting over. Repeat several times and then switch feet; to add to the difficulty, burden the towel with a one-pound weight or a few cans of soup. The toe claw helps build the intrinsic muscles in your forefoot, which will help to stabilize your stride.

Heel Lift
The heel lift works the calf muscles and other extrinsics. Standing at arm's length from a wall and keeping one or both hands on the wall for stability, slowly lift your heels until you're balanced on the balls of your feet. Hold for a few seconds and then slowly lower your heels. Do three sets of ten lifts, adding more sets as you're able.

Fascia Flex
If your arch feels tight, or if you've got heel pain or an aching across the arch of your foot--symptoms of plantar fasciitis--you can loosen things up with a rolling pin. While seated in a chair, roll the length of your foot back and forth over the rolling pin; after a few repetitions, lift your big toe up and toward you and continue to roll, progressively putting more weight on your tightened plantar fascia until you can bear no more. It will feel like your fascia is stretching, but you're actually working the muscles around it, making the fascia more mobile and less susceptible to tearing. Roll each foot for three minutes and increase the sessions by 30 seconds per week.

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