Developing Strong Feet: The Overlooked Performance Enhancer
From the most elite sportsperson to the everyday punter, hours are spent in the gym each week trying to develop the body into a performance machine capable of accomplishing any goal, be it big or small. Composite exercises covering multiple joints and muscles, raising the heart rate to higher levels and producing natural HGH within the body to grow and hopefully get the upper hand on our opponents, whether that be another competitor or ourselves. But in many cases one of the most important structures of the body is so often overlooked. The only part of the body directly in contact with the ground, which can act as a shock attenuation device and mechanical lever capable of producing powerful force reactions. In this article we look at how foot strength is developed. Then in a follow up post we will look at the small everyday things you can do to help improve yours.
Strength is the underlying principle of all performance training. It is the ability to
generate a functional contraction force through movements of the body. Strength training can be used to form the basis of muscular hypertrophy, endurance and power. Hypertrophy is the most obvious
physical adaption to strength training, however, inability to receive adequate rest post training can actually have a negative effect on performance. Muscular endurance, is the body’s ability to perform repetitive actions and cope with those stressors which are placed upon the body. Muscular power, is the rate at which a functional contraction can be performed at speed.
For all of these physical qualities to be properly trained a specific strength and conditioning program must be designed and followed. The physiological changes within the body which are responsible for physical adaptions are both neurological and musculoskeletal in nature.
Neuromuscular facilitation or muscle memory as it is commonly known, is the way in which the neuromuscular system memorizes motor skills to perform a semi-automated action in response to stimuli, likely to be a long term adaption. Motor neurons are nerve cells which originate within the CNS and terminate in the neuromuscular junction. Increases in an individual’s strength within a short duration of training are largely due to neurological adaptions. These adaptions take place in the form of synchronized recruitment of firing motor units to allow for maximal force production. Neurological strength adaption occurs when a high resistance is moved through few repetitions with a full recovery allowed before beginning a new set.
Soft Tissue Adaption
As discussed above, hypertrophy is the most obvious physical adaption to strength training. Resistance training has been shown to promote a shift in the ratio for fast to slow muscle fibres, with the conversion of Type II-b fibres to Type II-a fibres the most common alteration. In response to resistance training skeletal muscle will typically increase in size, produce faster contraction speeds, increase strength and increase anaerobic capacity. Similarly, increases in ligament and tendon strength may be seen; as well as collagen and bone density increases.
Benefits (prevention and performance)
Developing strong feet and ankles can have a great effect on the performance of an individual and reduce the possibilities of injury. Developing the extrinsic muscles of the foot creates a more intrinsically supported ankle joint and an influential adjunct to the lever system which helps to create a commanding spring within the lower limb. By strengthening the intrinsic muscle of the foot, we are able to better utilize the stretch return energy of the plantar fascia and foster a tight posterior sling capable of generating fast and powerful contractions.
Strong feet which are able to be controlled and activated efficiently will have higher neural innovation than that of a foot which cannot. Proprioceptive input and balance will benefit from feet which are trained specifically, creating better body awareness and a reduction in falls.
Any body part can be improved through training whether it is the brain, heart or musculoskeletal system. Why not try to improve something that can be improved or at least maintained?
It is a disservice to yourself or your patients if you are not using these techniques to constantly push for improvement.
Orthotics and Strong Feet
Orthotics do have a place in the management of the feet, lower limb and lower back pain or discomfort. Those who rubbish orthotics completely are usually making anecdotal arguments against a medical device which although may not be a perfect science, has strong evidence to support its use in symptomatic patients. However, the use of orthotics should never be the be all and end all in treatment of the foot. They should be a part of the management of a condition for a short to medium duration with the goal of being out of them within a specific amount of time (whether that is 6months or 2years). You do not get placed in a sling for the rest of your life if you hurt your arm, neither should you be when you are placed in orthotics – unless you have an underlying medical condition or complaint which can be addressed directly through strength and conditioning
Arguments which have been put forward to belittle the use of orthotics include; reduction in muscle activity, increased muscle activity, reduced proprioception, increases in pain, discomfort associated with the device and a restriction on the available shoes which are appropriate for you use. Let’s answer these now.
1. Reduction in muscle activity – FALSE – in many research articles orthotics orthotics have been shown to increase muscle activity in associated structures.
- Increase in muscle activity – TRUE – however, as long as a balance is found between increased muscle activity and not overloading the tissues, there is no negative issue. If you see this as a potential issue, ask your podiatrist for clarification.
- Reduced proprioception – TRUE and FALSE – this is a complicated issue that research fails to really grasp. Although orthotics does not specifically reduce proprioception in respect to foot being aware of what is directly beneath it. The combination of both orthotic and thick soled footwear can dampen the input to the foot from the surface on which the individual is standing or moving upon.
- Increases in pain and discomfort – NEUTRAL – the use of orthotic devices should not increase pain nor should is cause discomfort if gradually worn in properly, with the tissues adapting to the change in support. If discomfort is felt, then it usually will come to down to poor prescription or orthotic design and will be practitioner based issue more than anything else.
- Footwear restrictions – orthotics have come a long way in the last decade with shell material being able to supply the same amount of support at half the thickness. But take this into consideration, if you have been instructed to wear orthotics it is clear that something you are doing in your life is not working. In most cases it will be the footwear you have chosen to squeeze your foot into day in and day out. If you have the choice of being pain free and wearing slightly less than fashionable options or have pain and wear your pointed toe box Julius Marlows – vanity may win in the short term but pain will win in the end.
The muscles of the feet are very similar to any other group of muscles within the body. They can be trained and improved to increase performance and prepare the feet to deal with the on-going stressors which they are being placed under on a regular basis. The principles of developing strength in the feet in no different to that to developing strength in any other muscle system. Neurological adaption and innovation to improve muscle contraction and recruitment is necessary to increase activation, control and strength. Additionally, the proprioception associated with completing single leg stance exercises and walking barefoot to feel different surface below the feet helps with the CNS input and interpretation of environmental information.
Until Next Time,
Australian Strength and Conditioning Resource Manual. (2014). Helensvale: Australian Strength and Conditioning Association.
Bompa, T., & Buzzichelli, C. (2001). Neuromuscular Adaptions to Strength Training. Human Kinetics.
Brandson, T. (2016). The StrongFeet Manual. Wollongong: The Running Lab.
Fischer-Colbrie, M. (2015). Brain to Body: Your Neural Adaptions to Resistance Training. BridgeAthletic.
Powers, H. &. (2008). Neuromuscular Adaptions to Training. Chicago.