When strength training an athlete it is best to look at him/her as if you are building a house; you start with a solid foundation. In our case, the foundation is our feet. It is through our feet that we process information about where we are in space. Our feet are the only part of the body touching the ground and controlling our limbs. Knowing where you are in space is vital in sports and everyday life.
When running or jumping you push off the ball of the foot to generate power and it rolls out through the toes. If your feet are weak this energy transfer isn’t as strong. As well, having mobility in the ankles and toes helps improve lateral movement if an athlete plays a multi directional sport like our blog case study, Stephen, does in football.
At Reform Athletics most of the training is done barefoot to help improve the response of the nerve endings and proprioceptors in the foot and ankle.
When Stephen started training at Reform Athletics, we began with strengthening the feet using simple tools like a slantboard and wobble discs.
I had him perform exercises to test his balance at different angles as well as doing different movements. One example (as seen in the picture) is passing a ball from hand to hand while holding a position on the board. This exercise not only challenges the feet and balance but also works mobility in the ankles, knees, and hips.
Although these exercises appear simple in nature, they are teaching the athlete to push off the ball of the foot and through the toes. They provide the foundation to move to more complex
movements. Ultimately, we want to improve speed and quality of movement. To achieve this, we progress to using specialized equipment, the Supercat, and perform throw-offs using our feet. This exercise is a plyometric movement or an explosive movement.
It serves to teach the athlete to catch the weight with their feet and throw it up very quickly with their legs. We are training the athlete to produce a maximal amount of force in the shortest amount of time. This exercise has a lot going on; while the athlete’s plyometric power is improving we are also working on rhythm, timing, joint mobility, and muscle symmetry. Let’s not forget about biomechanics of this exercise. Focussing on extension at the knee and ankle mimics the running movement and pushing off the ground. All things considered, there is a strong case for athletes to include building foot strength as part of their strength training regime.
The following video captures a set of Supercat throw-offs performed by Stephen. Please note, the emphasis is not on the amount of weight but, instead, the quickness of the release, and the extension of the ankle and knee.
This video was taken after Stephen’s first week of training. Throughout this blog series we will show you Stephen's progress. This will include a video of this same exercise taken at the end of his block cycle of training. Not to give too much away, but it provides strong evidence that strengthening the feet can help improve overall sport performance.
If you are curious what your foot strength is like, you can try a simple exercise at home to test your balance and foot strength. Standing at a wall, position your feet shoulder width apart with toes spread apart. Slowly rise up onto the ball of your feet and release your hands from the wall.
Try to hold this position for 60 seconds without touching the wall. This tests how flexible and strong your toes are. If this is easy, progress to one foot.
Although it may seem basic, our feet are an important part of the puzzle in improving sport performance.
Next up in the series- Core Strengthening!