You run to boost your heart rate, lift to build strength, and stretch to stay flexible. But chances are you're ignoring some of the most important muscles in your body: those in your feet and ankles.
If you're like most people, your feet have probably grown weak and inflexible — underused, confined in shoes, and idle the majority of the day under a desk — and they're not providing the support the rest of your body needs. Something has to compensate to pick up that slack, a burden that usually falls on the back, hips, knees, and shoulders. "I get all these patients who say, 'I have chronically tight IT bands' or 'I've always had this low back pain,' " says Chris Delehanty, director of Physiofitness, a physical therapy clinic in New York City. "You look at how they stand, and the light comes on: weak feet." This, Delehanty says, is the real source of many chronic injuries and pain.
Yet go to the gym, and the one body part you don't see people targeting is their feet. "The majority of us — even some of the most elite athletes I've trained — have little-girl feet," says Jay Dicharry, director of REP Biomechanics, in Bend, Oregon, the physical therapy lab of the U.S. Ski Team and other pro athletes. Among the problems Dicharry regularly encounters: stiff ankles, tight Achilles tendons, toes that won't spread and bend, and immobility in the small, stabilizing foot muscles — all of these issues get in the way of reaching peak performance. "We've finally absorbed the message that to do any sport well you need a strong core," says Dicharry. "But a strong core is useless without a strong foundation."
How much work do your feet need? Dicharry suggests this test: While barefoot, try to push your big toe down as you lift the other four toes off the floor. If you can't, that's a clear sign that the muscles in your feet are not as strong as they could be, and your ligaments and tendons are tight. This inhibits the ability to plant the toes and push off — a basic action that affects the height of your jumps, the speed of your sprints, and how quickly you can make a lateral cut. Delehanty, meanwhile, uses this test to assess ankle mobility: Put your bare feet together and try to squat; your butt should hit your ankles. If it doesn't, your ankles are tight. "If your ankles move well, you move well," Delehanty explains.
You'd be surprised at how many people flunk those tests. "We plant our feet more than 10,000 times a day to sit, stand, and walk; make that 15,000 to 20,000 times if you exercise," says Rock Positano, director of the nonsurgical foot and ankle center at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. "And each time our foot presses into the ground, it absorbs some 300 pounds of force." The wear and tear adds up. If that tension was in any other part of our bodies, we'd hit the foam roller, stretch, or try massage. "But when was the last time you did any recovery work for your feet?" asks Jill Miller, a movement specialist and the author of the mobility guide The Roll Model.
Our shoes only make matters worse. Most men's dress shoes have a heel lift of just under one inch. That's not much compared to your wife's heels, but Delehanty says that because we wear those shoes all day long, even a slight rise can wreak havoc. "The higher heel shortens your Achilles tendon and tilts your hips forward," he says. That, in turn, makes it harder to engage your glutes and abs, which causes those muscles to weaken over time. The shape of the shoe doesn't help either, adds Miller. Most shoes narrow in the forefoot, pushing the toes together, decreasing dexterity and causing the muscles there to atrophy. "Shoes literally change the structure of your feet," Miller says, "which is why they become so immobile." Imagine if you spent half of every day with your hands bound into fists. Over the decades, that's what we've done to our feet with shoes, socks, and a sedentary lifestyle.
It may sound dire, but there are some easy solutions. First, go barefoot as much as possible. Kicking off your shoes and socks as soon as you walk in the door at home (or at your desk, if you can) will help reengage the muscles that spend the majority of the day stuffed in narrow, restrictive shoes. As for exercise, you don't need much: A 2012 study found that just a few weeks of concentrated work building mobility, stability, and strength in feet and ankles helped mend a lifetime of underuse. The training also sparked big improvements in leg drive — the kind of explosiveness you need to perform in all sports. Small movements — standing on one foot, rising on your toes, pointing and flexing — can make a big difference, but only if you are consistent. "You'll get this right if you're doing small, foot-challenging movements a dozen times throughout the day," says Delehanty. The key, according to Positano, is making this a lifestyle. "As your feet go," he says, "so goes the health and fitness of the rest of your body."