“Footballers know the importance of strength and conditioning training, but foot and ankle strength is overlooked,” podiatrist Paul Johnson tells FFT.
“Your body weighs three times more than usual when you’re running and this puts huge stress on the feet and lower limbs. The foot has to be a flexible shock absorber and a rigid lever to propel you forward. In order to do this effectively without injury, foot muscles and tendons need to be strong.”
For strength training, Johnson highlights how muscles are split into ‘posterior’ and ‘anterior’ groups. He says: “Together, they slow the foot down at heel strike to aid in shock absorbency. Along with the joints of the foot, they allow the foot to adapt to the surface it lands on. The same muscles then fire to make the foot rigid, to provide power to push the body off the ground.”
The good news is that running drills and speed work naturally strengthen the muscles required for optimal gait. “But,” Johnson adds, “if a player is prone to lower limb injury, specific drills which you can incorporate into a normal training plan will assist with intrinsic muscle strength and also help you prevent foot, knee, thigh and lower back muscle injuries.”
Paul G Johnson is a registeread sports podiatrist for both Burnley and Notts County sportspodiatry.co.uk
Test your foot power
Lift your toes
Barefoot, try to push your big toe down as you lift your other toes off the ground. Failure to do so is a sign the muscles in your feet are weak and your ligaments and tendons are tight. This inhibits the ability to plant the toes and push off.
Hammer the ankles
This test can help to assess ankle mobility. Put your bare feet together and try to squat; your backside should hit your ankles. If it doesn’t, your ankles are tight. If your ankles move well, you move well.
More after the break
Assess your anterior
To test your ligament strength, do 15 reps of the Anterior Group strengthening drill (see opposite), looking out for weakness or fatigue at the front of the leg, an indication that intrinsic muscles are weak.
Build a stronger base
Turn your delicate tootsies into cannons of destruction with these simple exercises
Balance exercises help muscle strength and proprioception, the brain’s ability to understand where our limbs are in space – here, the foot. Try to stand on one leg for 10-30 seconds. Then do it with your eyes closed. Start on a carpeted surface; as you get stronger, use a sofa cushion or an inflatable wobble mat.
“This exercises the anterior group muscles at the front of the leg – the muscles that, if over-used, can cause symptoms of shin splints,” says Johnson. Rest your back and bum against a wall, with your feet about one to one-and-a-half foot lengths out from the wall. Lift the toes of both feet towards your shins as hard as possible, pivoting off your heels, then lower your feet back to the ground. Do three sets of 15 reps.
“This strengthens the posterior group muscles at the back of the leg and foot,” says Johnson. Stand on tiptoes. Hold for five seconds, then lower to heels.Perform three sets of 10 reps.
Engage the Invertors
“The invertors and evertors are the muscles that decelerate the foot and help the calf to lift the heel off the ground,” explains Johnson. In a seated position, wrap a resistance band or yellow TheraBand around the foot and attach it to a chair leg. Push the foot towards the inside, against the resistance (to the left). Use only the ankle and foot to do this, not the lower leg or knee. Slowly return to a neutral position and repeat. Perform 10 reps daily, increasing to 20 over a period of 2-3 weeks.
Exercise the Evertors
Using the same starting position, push the foot against the resistance of the band, this time towards the outside (to the right). Again, use only the ankle and foot to perform this movement and not the lower leg or knee. Do 10 reps daily and gradually increase to 20 over 2-3 weeks.
Make sure the shoe fits
Boots for a wider foot
“Don’t just squeeze your foot into a boot that’s too narrow,” warns Johnson. “Try the Nike Tiempo Legend with leather upper. It ‘gives’ more than synthetic materials, allowing the boot to mould to the foot.”
Boots for weak ankles
“If you are prone to ankle sprains,” says Johnson, “then consider the Adidas ACE 16+ Purecontrol, with elastic ankle. It provides some extra ankle support, stability and, of course, peace of mind.”
Boots for muddy pitches
“A wet-weather boot will help prevent injury,” Johnson says. “The Nike Mercurial Vapour X performs well in the wet as it has synthetic, non-absorbent materials, which mean they don’t get heavy while playing.”