If something’s up with your feet—whether it’s low-key arch pain or something more intense like plantar fasciitis—it can get in the way of a lot. You’re aware of the discomfort the moment you get out of bed in the morning, when you’re walking (sometimes, hobbling) to the office, and especially during exercise. And as a runner? Foot pain is the hands-down absolute worst.
For me, the shooting pain in my foot began back in April right after running the Boston Marathon. I was relieved when, after some rest, it died down over the summer months—so much so that I signed up to run my seventh full marathon this November. As my training ramped up, that lingering, sharp sensation kept creeping back. The longer it persisted, the more I knew I needed to get it checked out.
Cue a doctor visit, podiatrist consultation, X-ray, and MRI.
A thick stack of medical bills later, I was greeted with my diagnoses (yep, plural): a neuroma (irritated nerve) between my third and fourth toe, and bursitis (a small sack of fluid) between my second and third. Since the pain wasn’t really excruciating at any given time and often disappeared for days on end, the podiatrist and I agreed that it was better to do some physical therapy instead of anything invasive.
My recovery quest took me to Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy, where the team taught me different drills to strengthen my entire kinetic chain, including my feet. I learned about toe-ga (yep, toe yoga, where you work on moving the big toe separately from the others) and the benefits of balance drills, including single leg squats. I also found comfort in learning that I wasn’t the only runner not prioritizing strengthening my feet.
“Foot function tends to be low on most people’s priority list,” Tyler Nightingale, DPT, told me. “But your feet are the foundation of your body and the first point of contact in a chain of joints that make up your lower quarter.”
All the more reason to take the time to strengthen and stretch the feet if you’re a big-time runner.
The (sometimes painful) truth is that dysfunction at the foot can set us up for problems higher up—after all, our feet have muscles that need strengthening just like the rest of our bodies. So take it from me: Don’t wait for an injury to strike to build up essential foot and ankle mobility and strength.
Here, Nightingale shares his essential foot strengthening and stretching routine, which can help you stave off issues—and maybe expensive medical bills too. Nightingale suggests doing these exercises three to four times weekly, completing the circuit twice through without rest.
1. Big toe extension lunge
Try it: Stand inside a door frame with the bottom of your big toe butting against the wall, angled upward toward the hips. This is your starting position. Lunge forward, so that your knee has room to actually go on one side of the doorframe. You’ll feel a nice stretch under the big toe. Return to start for one rep. Do 14 reps; repeat on opposite side.
The expert says: “Adequate big toe extension is very important for healthy foot function. This stretch also helps mobilize your plantar fascia, which can develop problems when mobility is reduced.”
2. Lacrosse ball plantar surface rolling
Try it: Put a lacrosse or small massage ball under the arch of your foot. Applying pressure, roll the ball forward and back, side to side, under your foot. Continue for 60 seconds; repeat on opposite side.
The expert says: “This is a great release for relaxing all the muscles on the bottom of your foot after a run. They help support your arch and stabilize your foot and are worked hard after a run.”
3. Gastroc and soleus foam rolling
Try it: Grab a foam roller. With the roller placed under your calf, right below the knee, place your hands on the ground a few inches out on either side of your hips, fingers pointing toward your feet. Press down into your hands to lift your butt off the mat, keeping your calves balanced on the roller. Roll your calf 10 times, making sure to avoid the back of the knee. Repeat on opposite side.
The expert says: “Chronic tightness in the calf muscles not only feels horrible but is linked with various foot and ankle pathology.”
4. Pronation and supination drill
Try it: This one is wacky, so take a look at the video! Start standing with your feet together. Take a wide step back with your right foot and turn your toes out so that you almost create a 90-degree angle with your feet (the heel of your right foot will be about a foot away from the heel of your left). Then step your right foot in front of your left, internally rotating and making a T-shape with your left foot (your left toes should intersect your right arch). Do 12 times; repeat on opposite side.
The expert says: “Your body can’t function properly without adequate amounts of both these motions, so it’s valuable to practice these regularly, especially if you have a past history of foot or ankle injury.