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Running requires much of one’s feet. While running, feet act as a shock absorber as they contact the ground, a solid base on which to momentarily stand and then a rigid lever as they push off and propel themselves forward. The 26 bones, and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments deserve a little time and TLC. Giving them that love can help to decrease the chances of injury.

1 Roll Out

Use a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, jax ball or marble to roll out the soft tissues on the bottom of your foot. Sit or stand depending on how much pressure you want to apply. Place the ball under your foot and roll back and forth from the toes to your heel. Stop and lean in to put pressure on areas that feel like they need it.

Spend at least a minute rolling each foot. Just like rolling your quads, glutes and calves after a long run, spending some time rolling out the bottom of your foot can help to preserve the tissue.

2 Big-Toe-Extension Stretch

As your foot leaves the ground, your big toe is pushed into extension (bends up), and ultimately allows you to propel yourself forward. If the joint at your big toe is stiff, and does not extend enough, your foot is going to roll outward or inward. Even though this adjustment is small, doing so over the course of many miles, over many weeks can put undue stress on other areas, such as your calves or knees. The result may be injuries such as calf strains, tendonitis, shin splints or stress fractures. Having enough big toe extension to get the tip of your toe about 1 1/2 inches off the ground is ideal.

To help increase the flexibility of this joint, you can bend the big toe back with your hands. If you already have good big-toe flexibility and want to maintain what you have, try the yoga pose “hero” on its own or while sitting on a block.

3 Big-Toe Isolation

Besides having the flexibility to allow your body to roll over your foot, your big toe must be strong enough to push down into the ground. Having adequate strength in this area will give you stability while your foot is on the ground.

To build strength, sit on a chair or stool. Place a ruler, old credit card or tongue depressor under your big toe so that you are holding on to one end, and the other end is at the ball of your foot. Pull up on it to extend the big toe. Then try to push down on the object to force it to the ground without curling your toes.

4 Allow Your Toes to Spread

Years of wearing narrow footwear, whether running shoes or regular shoes, have caused our toes to become crammed together and stiff. This may lead to issues such as bunions, or a change in how our foot rolls forward and pushes off from our toes as we run.

Selecting footwear with a wider toebox, or investing in toe spacers such as yoga toes® or correct toes® can help. Stretching out your toes after a run is important, too. Place the palm of your hand against the top of your foot. Slide your fingers in between each of your toes and try to make a fist with your hand, pressing your fingertips into the ball of your foot.

5 Balance on One Foot

On your next run, count the number of times that you are on one foot. It’s a lot, right? Being able to balance on one foot is important, and if you are wobbling about at the knee or hip while standing still on one foot, then you are most likely doing the same thing while you are momentarily on one foot while running. All of those wobbles are extraneous movements at your hip and knee, and can add up over time, leading to injury.

Practicing standing on one leg will improve your balance. Being able to stand on one leg for 30 seconds is considered normal for adults under 65. If you have mastered that, then challenge your balance by trying to stand on one leg on a rocker board, or a BOSU ball  (1/2 yoga ball) with the round side down.

—Julie McGee, PT, DPT, lives and practices in San Francisco. When she is not running or treating patients, you can find her biking, swimming, reading or doing yoga.

This article first appeared in issue 130 of Trail Runner Magazine. To subscribe to the mag, click here

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