Target Muscle/s: Flexors and Extensors of Toes & Big Toe
Sets & Reps: Varied & Fun
Tempo: Practice slow, fast, to a musical beat
Frequency: Twice a week strength training program (or as advised if part of rehab plan)

Rationale

As a follow on from last month’s ‘Musical Toes’ (which seemed to generate much interest), here are two more examples of exercises designed to focus on the more intricate muscles of the lower legs and feet. As we mentioned previously, although many runners dedicate time to strengthen muscles of the upper legs (quads & hamstrings) and hips (glutes) less of us focus sufficiently on the lower legs. By lower legs, we are not referring solely to the calf muscles (gastrocnemius & soleus) but also the important extensors (lift up) and flexors (push down) of the big toe and other four toes. In times of injury and/or pain, exercises specifically aimed at loading these muscles can be key to reaching full recovery and avoiding pain relapses. The mental focus required to perform ‘Pencil Pick Ups’ and ‘Towel Scrunches’ is by no means coincidental as part of rehabilitation of these muscles often needs to involve the performing of skilled, coordinated movement. Following injury, the communication pathways between the brain and the injured tissue are often ‘dampened’, i.e. it becomes harder to perform intricate movement. This is known as a loss in proprioception, and is thought to be a source of pain unless rectified properly during rehab. As was the case with ‘Musical Toes’, ‘fun’ and ‘engagement’ plays an important role in restoring proprioception so grab yourself a pencil and towel and start challenging yourself!

Method

Pencil Pick Ups

  • The name says it all – place a pencil in front of your toes and try to pick it up. Note if it is easier on one foot than the other, especially if you are recovering from a lower leg / foot injury.
  • Every time you pick up the pencil, try and keep it in the air for a few seconds to load the muscles holding it. Using a thicker or heavier pencil or any suitable object is a good way of progressing this exercise once you see your ability increase.

Towel Scrunches

  • By scrunching the towel, you will slowly move it towards you. Once again, note if it is easier on one foot than the other, especially if you are recovering from a lower leg / foot injury.
  • The weight of towel you use and surface that the towel is on will make this exercise either easier or harder. Use this fact to make your exercise more difficult as you see yourself getting better at doing it.

Other Exercises
There are many other exercises you can use to strengthen the muscles of the big toes and toes. If you have not tried ‘Musical Toes’ yet, give it a go. As we have already mentioned, these exercises are meant to be fun & rewarding, both very important elements of successful rehab. Have a think how you could maybe make other forms of rehab more fun. Imagination is often the only limiting factor.

Matt Phillips is a Running Injury Specialist & Video Gait Analyst at StrideUK & Studio57clinic in Sussex. Follow Matt on Twitter: @sportinjurymatt