12 Easy, Anytime Moves to Strengthen Your Feet and Ankles
Last Updated: Sep 10, 2013
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You may not give your feet a lot of thought, but you use them in almost every fitness routine you do! Whether you’re a runner, a cyclist, a yogi, a CrossFitter or a Zumba dancer, strengthening and stretching the muscles in your ankles and feet can help improve your balance, performance and comfort. That’s why we asked Katy Bowman, MS, biomechanist and director of the Restorative Exercise Institute to create a foot care routine that you can easily do at home. Bowman recommends doing this 15-minute routine barefoot every day (or as often as possible) for best results. Do all the movements in a row, or do them separately (in any order) throughout the day whenever you can squeeze them in. Simply kick off your shoes, and grab a towel, a tennis ball and a few throw pillows.
This single leg balance allows the upper thigh muscles that assist with ankle stabilization to participate, explains Bowman. HOW TO DO IT: On a flat surface, stand on the left leg with knee straight (but not hyper extended) and bend the left knee to lift the right foot slightly off the floor, balancing for up to one minute before switching legs. To make more challenging, Bowman recommends keeping your arms down by your sides letting the lateral hips do the work and placing your foot straight -- not slightly turned out, which reduces lateral hip use [shown]. Repeat up to three times on each leg for strength work.
SINGLE-LEG TOWEL BALANCE
Though it seems similar to the previous exercise, the towel adds a unique surface (similar to the varying terrain we walk on) that will deepen the work in the foot, ankle, and thigh muscles. “Ankle sprains often happen “on the field” when you are walking or running in one direction while looking in another. Developing the strength and skill to stabilize your body without visual support can come in handy when you head to your workout,” explains Bowman. HOW TO DO IT: Fold a towel over several times and repeat the single-leg balance while standing on top of the towel, balancing for up to one minute before switching legs. To make this more challenging, turn your head from side to side to mix up your visual field.
ACTIVE TOE SPREADING
A lifetime of footwear can weaken the intrinsic muscles of your feet. According to Bowman, this exercise helps to restore foot strength. HOW TO DO IT: Stand with feet about hip width apart and spread toes as wide as possible, keeping them flat on the ground as you create space between each toe (much harder than it sounds!). Repeat as often as you like, with or without shoes, throughout the day. In fact, Bowman says doing this exercise while in footwear is a great way to determine if the toe box of your shoe is wide enough for your feet.
GREAT TOE LIFT
The muscle group that lifts your big toes (the extensor hallucis group) is one of the strongest muscles in the foot, Bowman explains, and restoring strength to the group can assist in restoring strength and motor control of the foot and stability of the ankle. HOW TO DO IT: Stand (or sit) with feet about hip width apart. Keeping all the other toes on the ground, lift just your big toes off the floor, then lower. Repeat 1-3 times. To make it more challenging, Bowman recommends trying to eliminate sideways motion of the big toe as it lifts -- which is no easy feat. “[The big toe] should lift up, not lift up and go sideways,” she explains.
WALK ON THE PILLOW TRAIN
Walking on this type of uneven “terrain” helps expose the muscles of the feet and ankles to unique angles and workloads, Bowman says. HOW TO DO IT: Create a short “train” of various sized pillows and cushions on the floor. (If you have kids, they’ll love this exercise.) Walk a few laps back and forth on top of the pillows. If you don’t want your pillows to touch your floor, you might try placing them on top of a mat or a towel.
“This simulation loads the ankle in constantly varying ways,” says Bowman, “many of which are found in movement programs or athletics.” Since most of the time we walk on flat ground, as opposed to continuously different surfaces, we are weak when new angles present themselves. Wheelies help to recreate those angles in a controlled environment, and they can aid in creating a more stable ankle in any environment,” she explains. HOW TO DO IT: Stand with feet hip width apart and arms by your sides. Push the pelvis out to the right, leaning into the right hip and begin walking quickly in a full circle from right to left, leaning into the right hip the entire time. Walk in a circle 2-3 times in a row and then repeat on the opposite side.
CALF STRETCH - GASTROC
“This stretch targets the larger of the main calf muscles, the gastrocnemius muscle, which can become tight due to the excessive frequency of knee flexion found in chronic sitting,” says Bowman. “The better range of motion in this muscle, the more ‘oomph’ you can get from your lower body without the ‘ouch’ in the knees.” HOW TO DO IT: Roll up a towel and stand with the right foot on top of towel, with heel pressed into the floor, leg straight. Step forward with the opposite leg to increase the stretch. Hold for 30-60 seconds, and then repeat with the other leg. Do this as a circuit 3 times.
CALF STRETCH - SOLEUS
“This stretch targets the fibers of the soleus (the lower muscle on the calf) and the Achilles’ tendon, both which shorten over time due to heeled footwear, certain gait/running patterns, and during some strength building movements such as calf raises,” says Bowman. HOW TO DO IT: With towel still rolled, stand with right foot on top of towel, with heel pressed into the floor, and bend right knee without lifting heel. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then repeat on the left. Do this as a circuit 3 times.
PASSIVE TOE SPREADING
Toe abduction (separation) mobilizes the bones, muscles, and connective tissues for better intrinsic foot muscle strength, circulation and nerve health, explains Bowman. HOW TO DO IT: Sitting on a chair, cross an ankle over the opposite knee. Using your hands, gently spread toes apart, stretching the toes away from each other. If your feet are tight and cramp up on you, start with a little spreading for a shorter period of time, about 15 seconds. Over time, hold for longer (up to a minute or so).
TOP OF THE FOOT STRETCH
Bowman says this exercise helps to target the "grippers" -- those foot and toe muscles that over-clench due to excessive flip-flop or “slip-on” shoe use. HOW TO DO IT: Stand on right leg, with your arms by sides, and reach your left leg behind you. Curl left toes under and gently press ankle to the floor until you feel a stretch along the top of your foot. Hold this for up to a minute. Cramping on this one is normal, so start with shorter holds and progress to longer. Try a few times on each foot.
STANDING FOOT MASSAGE
“There are 33 joints in the foot that would normally be mobilized by walking over small pebbles, sticks and varying terrain,” explains Bowman. “Because our feet are only exposed to a flat sole and flat ground, these joints become immobile and the muscles that connect them are extremely stiff and atrophied. Working the foot over the ball introduces a range of motion to these joints.” HOW TO DO IT: Start standing with a tennis ball (or similar sized ball) under arch of one foot. Slowly load your weight onto the ball, moving the foot forward and back to apply pressure to individual joints within the foot. Work the sole of foot with the ball, applying more or less pressure as needed. Do this for up to 3 minutes per foot.
“The affects of wearing high-heeled footwear and certain gait patterns can shorten the muscles and connective tissues running from the soles of the feet to the top of the head,” says Bowman. “Stretching against the wall stabilizes the ankle to create a tensile load down the entire ‘back line’ of the body to help restore joint mobility.” HOW TO DO IT: Sit on the floor with feet pressed flat against a wall. If your hamstrings are really tight, Bowman suggests sitting on a pillow. Fold body forward, tipping the pelvis towards the wall as you lean into legs, reaching with your arms toward your feet. Hold for up to 60 seconds.
HOW ARE YOUR FEET AND ANKLES FEELING?
Do you have pain or other issues with your feet or ankles? Have you ever tried any feet or ankle exercises like these? Will you be incorporating any of these moves into your fitness routine? Leave a comment below and let us know.
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