These 7 moves and 6 massage techniques will keep feet happy.
Spring is here, so it’s time to get outside and start moving around! Whether you like to log in a lot of miles in distance running or just get together with friends to shoot hoops, your feet and ankles can take a pounding. You can lace up in heavy shoes and braces, but I prefer strengthening my feet through specific exercises to keep them healthy and strong.
Unfortunately, a lot of us don’t work on our ankles and feet aside from the occasional calf raises and stretches, and when it comes time to spend more time on them in different physical activities, we can get various tweaks and twinges. It’s much better to work on yourself beforehand than to get hurt and have to build yourself back up to where you were!
In this article, I’ll share a variety of relatively uncommon strategies for taking care of your lower limbs. These include strengthening, mobility and coordination exercises to bulletproof your ankles and feet to make your running around much more enjoyable.
Your feet and ankles can do a lot more than you think
Having shoes on all day at work (and even in the gym) can give us the impression that our feet are just blocks on the bottoms of our legs. But our feet and ankles are marvels of bioengineering that have a multitude of ranges of motion in circles and diagonals through all the many small joints that work with the muscles from the large calf to the tiniest ones along our toes.
The following exercises emphasize a lot of these different angles and motions to strengthen and improve mobility in a unique way. Don’t be surprised if these simple-looking movements are difficult for you to do on the first try or even cause your muscles to cramp. It will get better with practice and just shows you that this is something you need to do.
Foot Circles With Toes Flexed
Be careful on how strongly you flex your toes on this one! The small muscles in the soles of your feet may not be used to working in this way, and cramping is very common but should not be unbearable and will fade away if you gradually increase the intensity. This exercise combines circling the ankle while you squeeze your toes downward to work these oft-neglected muscles.
Toe and Ankle Movement Coordination
These combined motions alternate your toes being pulled up or down as your foot is either up or down. It’s pretty natural to flex toes down as you flex your foot down, but to do it the other way (pull toes up as you flex your foot down) can be surprisingly difficult. These new movement patterns help you understand how your feet and ankles can do different things, and they provide an interesting stimulus!
Different muscles are emphasized with the various ways we can move our feet and ankles. We can exercise these different muscles by visualizing the foot within a box and trying to touch our toes to the four corners of this box: up and in, up and out, down and in, and down and out.
Rolling Up Onto Toes
This is an especially useful exercise for those with plantar fasciitis (pain in the sole of the foot) issues. More mobility through your big toe is important for walking and running with less chance of overuse issues. Play around with how much weight you put through the big toe if you have too much discomfort.
Ankle Rolling Side to Side
Unfortunately, sprained ankles can be far too common when people start heading out on jogging trails or simply running after Frisbees. This exercise helps condition not just the strength of our ankles, but it also gives us a better awareness of being in positions that can compromise our ankles. And even just this simple body-awareness exercise can help your body recognize where it is and react appropriately. As always, play with how much weight you place on your foot here and gradually increase it to strengthen safely.
Weight-Bearing Ankle Circles on the Heel/Ball of Foot
There is a different effect on your joints and muscles when you place weight through them, so with this exercise, you’ll be doing ankle circles while you are standing. Adjust how much of your body weight you put on your foot by shifting to your other leg. Clicking and popping is normal in these movements (as long as there is no pain) and is just an indication of the joints and muscles working in a different way from what you may be used to.
You can do all of the above for one to two sets of five to 10 repetitions (in each direction), depending on how much time you have, either as a warm-up before your activities or as part of your normal workouts.
This deceptively simple balance exercise is a staple in gymnastics and dance workouts. Your supporting leg should be locked out straight, and you won’t be able to adjust your balance with your knee muscles. So your balance will primarily depend on the strength and reactions of your ankle and foot muscles.
Start at holds of 15 seconds for two sets, and work your way up to one minute on each side.
Along with the above exercises to get your feet and ankles supple and strong, it can be very helpful to do a bit of self-massage to loosen up your muscles after a particularly hard training session or as a nice preparation before other exercises.
The key here is that you don’t have to “smash” your muscles at all! It’s much better to gently increase pressure so that you feel a “good pain.” The sensation from the pressure should feel like it gets better within 30 seconds or so, even when pushing with the same force. Generally, a minute or two in each area is enough to get benefits without overdoing it.
Treat your feet well and your whole body will thank you
Don’t let your feet get forgotten and encased in footwear until they start to bother you. Take a few minutes a day to strengthen and stimulate them with the exercises we’ve shared and your training and outdoor activities will be that much more enjoyable.
Photo credit: kasto, AdobeStock; video credit: GMB