What ‘Foot Core’ Is and Why it Matters
Photo: Shutterstock.com

It's time to work your core—your foot core that is

Our poor, misunderstood feet. Runners dish out a tremendous amount of abuse to our feet, but rarely do we give them as much love and attention as they deserve. They are often maligned or ignored, and only given attention when an irritation or injury forces us to act.

When our feet are healthy and trouble-free, it’s easy to put off any sort of maintenance or strengthening exercises. We already have to run all those miles, warm up, cool down, pay attention to our diet, get enough sleep, strengthen our core … the list seems endless.

But when trouble strikes, suddenly we become acutely aware of just how essential our feet truly are. Consider how something as simple as a pebble in your shoe or a small blister can change your entire gait. Since healthy feet are essential to healthy running, we would be wise to pay closer attention. As with most things in running and in life, a little prevention can go a long way!

While most athletes are aware of the basic elements of foot care, the concept of “foot core” is relatively new. This concept was first addressed in a 2014 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Just like our core plays an essential role in our overall fitness and strength, so does our foot core play an important role in the health of our feet, and all the way up the kinetic chain.

Taking care of your feet means paying attention to them from both the outside and the inside.  Before getting into the details of foot core and what that entails, let’s start with the basics of caring for the outside of your feet:

Foot Basics

Shoes: While opinions on shoe types vary widely, often it’s the simplest advice that is the best. When it comes to running shoes (or any shoes for that matter), comfort and fit should be the priorities.

A 2015 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that most of what we believe about the connection between running shoes and injuries are myths. The study demonstrated that comfort was actually the most essential factor in injury reduction. So before you get overly concerned with motion control vs. neutral vs. stability shoes, prioritize what feels best to your feet.

Socks: Most runners know well enough to stay away from cotton socks and stick with synthetic fabrics and wool blends that reduce chafing and wick away moisture. Sock preference is definitely a personal thing, so experiment with brands and styles to see what options work best for you.

Toenails and skin care: While they may seem like a minor worry, blisters or painful toenails can sideline you just like any other injury. (In fact, blister problems are the top reason that ultramarathoners drop out of races).

Keep your nails clipped and filed, and take care of the skin on your feet. If you’re running ultra distances, foot care is a particularly essential skill. But no matter how far you run, you’ll benefit from healthy, resilient feet.

Foot Core

Once you have taken care of the outside of your feet and the gear that helps support comfortable, healthy running, it’s time to consider their inner workings. To envision your foot core, first start by thinking about your abdominal core.

Within our core we can generally refer to two different types of muscle groupings. There are the “global” muscles—the larger, more powerful muscles that control movements like trunk rotation and sit-ups. These are the sexier ones that often get all the attention in the quest for six-pack abs.

But on a smaller scale, there are also the more local, stabilizing muscles. Though they may not be as large and impressive, they are working continuously to maintain dynamic stability. These are what you target with stabilizing exercises such as planks.

The structure in your feet is similar. There are a number of larger, extrinsic muscles that wrap around the ankle and foot. If you have ever done any foot or ankle strengthening exercises such as towel grabs or spelling out the alphabet on the floor with your toes, you have primarily worked these extrinsic muscles.

Just like the smaller stabilizing muscles in your core, your foot core contains 11 small intrinsic muscles that most of us have never heard of. They are located in your arch, and maintain its shape and function. Though we rarely consider them, they are constantly working to keep your feet stable and working properly.

When you run, your foot needs to be powerful and stable through certain phases of the gait cycle while being mobile and adaptable in other stages. This means your foot is going through an incredibly complex array of movements with every stride you take.

There are four layers of muscle in the bottom of your foot that work to support your arch. If these are weak, then your foot core may be compromised or unstable. This can impact all phases of your stride.

An especially common result of foot core weakness is that your plantar fascia has to work overtime. Because plantar fasciitis is such a common source of trouble in runners, most of us would benefit from paying a little more attention to our feet!

While there are lots of ways to strengthen the muscles of your feet and ankles, there is one exercise that is particularly effective in strengthening your foot core. This is often referred to as the “short foot” exercise, or “foot doming.” This involves a small, specific movement to contract to muscles of your inner arch.

Since it’s much easier to understand this movement when it’s visualized, check out this video demonstration from Athletes Treating Athletes:

Once you have mastered the exercise while seated and standing, you can continue to incorporate it into single-leg movements like calf raises on the edge of a step, various forms of skipping and numerous yoga moves balancing on one or two feet, as well as more traditional strength-building barefoot exercises like lunges, squats and jumping rope.

While foot core may be a novel concept to most runners, we are beginning to understand its essential role in maintaining foot health. Without strong, healthy feet, our progress as runners will be limited. Take the time to learn about your foot core and strengthen and maintain your feet, and they will carry you through the miles ahead.

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and the USATF-certified coach behind Strength Running, an award-winning blog and podcast that helps runners set personal bests. His work has appeared in Runner's World, The Washington Post, Health Magazine and many other major media publications. Follow his work on Twitter at @JasonFitz1 and at StrengthRunning.com.