Here are six simple exercises you can do daily to improve your intrinsic foot strength. I recommend you walk around your house barefoot for five minutes to warm up your feet. Then really warm up your foot muscles by pretending your big toe is a marker and writing the alphabet with your foot. Do this twice, and you are ready to begin strengthening your feet.
- Towel crunches - Your foot has tiny intrinsic muscles that stabilize your toes called the interossei and lumbricals. A great way to strengthen them is to put your foot on a towel and crunch your toes. Do this ten times, then take a 30 second break and repeat to complete three sets of ten. When you get good at this, replace the towel with a pen or marker and grab it with your toes.
- Heel walking - Heel striking is what we are avoiding, but heel walking is a great way to strengthen your anterior lower leg muscles (muscles in your shin). Roll back on your heels and walk forward balancing yourself on your heels for about 30 seconds, then take a 30 second break and repeat two more times.
- Deep squats on your forefoot - Roll up onto your forefoot then squat down into an almost sitting position, trying to keep your balance and avoid shifting back onto your heels. Hold this pose for 30 seconds then stand up for 10 seconds and repeat 5 more times. When you get good at this, try holding a weighted bar at you shoulder level and then squat.
- Inner foot strengthening with a resistance band - This targets the medial muscles; the posterior tibial muscle and abductor hallucis. Tie the resistance band on a chair leg then use your medial muscles to pull the band toward the center of your body. Other option is to hook the band around your foot, then use the other foot to stabilize it. Pull your foot toward the midline of your body. Hold for 10 seconds then relax for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times. (An alternative is to balance on the inside of your foot and walk for 30 seconds, following the pattern of heel walking.)
- Outer foot strengthening with a resistance band - This targets the lateral muscles; the peroneals. Tie the resistance band on a chair leg then use your lateral muscles to pull the band toward the outside of your body. Other option is to hook the band around your foot, then use the other foot to stabilize. Then move your foot towards the outside of your body. Hold for 10 seconds then relax for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times. (An alternative is to balance on the outside of your foot and walk for 30 seconds, following the pattern of heel walking.)
- Proprioceptive/Balance Training - Balance on one foot with other leg bent. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 5 times. When you get good, then roll up onto your forefoot. If you are a pro, then put a 5 pound weight in the opposite hand and touch your toes while balancing on your forefoot. (An alternative progression is to go from one leg on forefoot on level ground, to a foam mat then a Bosu ball or wobble board.)
These six simple exercises can help you strengthen the intrinsic muscles of your feet and lower legs to help you transition to a minimalist running style. Remember to also stretch your quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calf (gastrocnemius and soleus) as well as your plantar fascia after these exercises to warm down.
Small incremental increases in stress make us stronger. Large incremental increases in stress lead to overuse injuries! Achieve your natural stride slowly and carefully to stay injury free.
Remember that in part one of this series, we discussed that a better approach to minimalism is to realize that your feet are weak in their current state and you need to add a foot and leg strengthening program to your current regimen. A strong core is imperative for good, efficient running form. The stronger the core, the longer you can hold good posture as you run down the road in search of your zen.