Getting in shape for a Spartan race means building strength and speed. But with a lot of the focus on leg, arm, and back muscles, it’s easy to overlook obstacle-proofing one important part of your body — your feet.
If you’re running over rocky terrain or down slippery slopes (as is often the case in a Spartan race), your feet and ankles will be working overtime to keep you supported and mobile. And if you haven’t considered this in pre-race training, you’ll run the risk of foot and ankle injuries or a sub-par performance at best.
But there are still some proactive tips and training exercises you can do to obstacle-proof your feet and ankles and stop you from hitting the dirt instead of the finish line.
How to Prepare Your Feet for an Obstacle Course Race
Tip No. 1: Bare It All
One simple way to ease into strengthening ankles and feet is to go barefoot more often. Ryan Baxter, a Spartan SGX Coach and a health coach for serious athletes, battled with flat feet and weak ankles throughout his life until he ditched the special shoes, orthotics, and all other footwear into the bargain.
“Instead of trying to support my feet with shoes and braces, I went barefoot as much as possible, and when I did wear shoes I wore minimalist shoes with little support at all,” Baxter sayd.
In doing so, the founder of RJB Health Coaching found his foot and ankle health notably improved.
“All the shoes, braces, and orthotics I was wearing before were just supporting my muscles in my feet and ankles and not allowing them to do any work," he says. "By removing my shoes, I was finally giving my feet and ankles the stimulus to get stronger.”
Baxter isn't suggesting running or racing barefoot exclusively (though, of course, many do). But even walking around the home without shoes or socks or working out this way can help improve the strength and stability within your feet muscles and ligaments, reinforce your range of motion, and boost your overall foot function. In addition, it can greatly improve posture and balance.
But if you rarely have your feet stripped bare, Baxter suggests starting slow with an hour a day of barefoot movement, building up from there.
“You can add an extra hour every 1 or 2 weeks,” he says. “But if you are getting really sore, back off on the time barefoot for a week and let the pain go away.”
Tip No. 2: Just Do the Damn Mobility Exercises
New York-based Spartan SGX coach Luis Pertuz notes that in training, people often tend to overlook protecting their ankles.
"A lot of people run, jump, hike, or partake in physical activities and throw caution to the wind," he says. "Mobility exercises aren't glamorous or pretty, so unfortunately people don't do them.”
But mobility exercises can prepare your feet for the stress of a race, making sure you bring your A game to any course.
Pertuz, who’s the founder of the fitness podcast More than Meatheads, has a few dependable drills that he uses for ankle stabilization and mobility, but his go-to exercise is a standing toe touch, which he performs like this:
- Stand tall with your hands above your head.
- Raise one leg up and with the opposite-side hand, touch your toes (i.e. right hand to left foot).
- Reach toward your toes as much as possible without bending. Maintain your core and a strong spine as you do.
- Come back to the starting position with your hands above your head and standing upright. Then do the same on the opposite side.
- Do 15 on each side.
Tip No. 3: Jump to It
Pertuz also suggests incorporating plyometrics, or jump training, into your workouts.
“For something more dynamic, jumping jacks or jump rope can help,” he says. “Strong ankles are developed via strong calves and shins.”
In fact, he’s not wrong. Studies have shown how plyometric workouts can improve ankle functionality, particularly proprioception and response speed. One report published in the Journal of Athletic Training showed how a six-week plyometric exercise course resulted in better balance and more muscle strength in athletes with ankle sprains.
Pertuz notes that jumping jacks are a good start, but that box jumps, quick-feet drills, or any exercise that involves quick acceleration and power is important for strengthening the ankles because it exposes you to a change underfoot.
“That's just a fancy way to say that your feet won't get surprised when they land on a different surface,” he adds, “If you’re racing on trails, that's what's going to happen."
For an added level of "surprise", he suggests trying anything lateral.
“Lots of running takes place on a flat plane of motion, but trails are rarely flat," Pertuz says. "The lateral plyo training conditions your ankles to not always expect flat surfaces.”
Here are step-by-step details on how to do box jumps and lateral plyometric jumps:Box Jumps
- Select a sturdy box somewhere between 12–24 inches in height.
- Stand with your feet facing toward the box and hip-width apart.
- Look at the spot on the box you’re aiming to land on, and then jump as high as possible while swinging both arms forward for added momentum.
- The goal is to land softly with both feet on the box, knees slightly bent, and hips extended. By using the momentum of your arms, they’ll naturally extend out in front of you.
- Step back down and repeat.
- An easy start to this exercise is to lay a rope or line on the floor with the objective being to jump side-to-side.
- Place your feet slightly hip-width apart. Keep your shoulders facing forward and bend your knees into a squat position.
- Your weight will initially be on your heels, but shift it to your toes as you push upward and sideways to jump to the other side of the line.
- Land softly in a deep squat to help you absorb the shock.
- Repeat jumping back and forth across the line for 10–20 intervals.
- Repeat for three sets.