Importance of Strong Feet and Ankles

I spoke with Ron Wolforth of Pitching Central and the Baseball Ranch yesterday and we began talking about his summer workout program. As usual with Coach Wolforth, there are a number of new innovative aspects to his 2010 summer program. However, the aspect which really captured my attention was the amount of barefoot activities the athletes out at the Ranch are being asked to do. The plyometric warm ups, including the rugby's, are all done without shoes in a sand pit. The sand pit is also utilized for running sprints and other conditioning exercises. On top of this, Coach Wolforth has his athletes perform hitting drills barefoot.

Coach Wolforth and his athletes are constantly trying to find ways to become faster, stronger, and more explosive to help meet the demands of their sports. I know I did everything I could to increase my athleticism when I was playing baseball. Some people may question why it is important to perform exercises barefoot or to work out in a sand pit but the answer is quite simple, to strengthen the feet and ankles.

The feet are the start and end of the kinetic chain yet we rarely focus on strengthening them. As an athlete, your feet are the only direct link to the ground and if your feet are weak and unable to properly support the rest of your body then you are limiting your athletic capabilities. You can build muscle and strength in the foot which will in turn strengthen your ankles providing a much sturdier base for your body to move from. In baseball we are aware of the importance of grip strength as it controls the bat during the swing and the baseball when throwing. Well the foot and ankle can be strengthened just like the wrist and forearm yet it controls the entire body!

The reason most athletes have weak feet and ankles is due to the shoes they wear. The majority of shoes are like blocks of concrete as they are heavy and hinder athletic freedom of the lower extremities. Our society has decided that "more support" in shoes is a good thing yet this takes away the natural ability of our feet to provide balance and stability which over time weakens them. This is the primary reason for so many ankle sprains, shin splints, and other lower extremity injuries. When barefoot the feet are once again able to grip the ground and provide maximum balance and stability for the body. There are actually a number of competitive runners today who have ran marathons barefoot. Talk about feet and ankle strength! The absolute worst shoes an athlete can wear are those with heels because they immobilize the feet and ankle joints. This usually means high heels for woman, boots for men, and sneakers with lifts (such as the Nike Shocks).

There are however a number of shoes which are good to train in if you don't like the idea of doing things barefoot. For example, Vibram shoes are a 5 toe shoe that simulates the feeling of being barefoot even though there is a thin layer of rubber protection on the sole. These shoes may look unconventional but I recently bought a pair and they provide a whole new level to your workout. My feet and calves were extremely sore after running in them as they force you to run on the balls of your feet which engages your lower extremities far more than a heavy soled shoe. The Nike Frees shoes are also great as they are light weight and allow your feet to grip the ground better as you move.

The Baseball Ranch has hit the nail right on the head in terms of how to strengthen the feet and ankles. Not only are they having athletes train barefoot but by putting them in sand it adds another layer of difficulty since the surface is now unstable. This will require the feet and ankle to provide added stability while working out. In addition to warming up and conditioning in the sand, athletes at the Baseball Ranch are using stability disks and foam balance beams during hitting and throwing exercises to help work on their ankle mobility and stability. As for training in the weight room, any type of single leg training is good (unilateral training). Single leg squats, lunges, step ups, and dead lifts will all engage the foot on the ground thereby forcing it to stabilize the body. To enhance these exercises stand on a foam pad, balance disk or beam in order to exaggerate the amount of balance and stability needed. It is especially important to train on a single leg for baseball as much of what you do is on one leg (specifically pitching).

Many of you may remember the video of Troy Polamalu I posted a number of months ago regarding his training regimen. (If not click here) In this video he is doing the majority of his workout barefoot and he stresses the importance of strengthening the feet as everything you do comes from the ground up.

This is great training for sports because as an athlete you will constantly be forced to react on unstable or uneven surfaces. By strengthening your feet and ankles you can decrease your chance of injury and increase your performance levels. Whether you want to become more explosive when making you first move to steal a bag, chase down a line drive, or have better balance when hitting or pitching, strengthening the feet and ankles will help you do just that.

Until next time,

Brian Oates

Twitter: @Oatesspecialty

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