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Don't Forget to Strengthen Your Feet

For serious performance gains, focus below your ankles

A woman runs at sunrise on the trails of Green Mountain near Denver, Colorado. (Matt Trappe/Tandem)
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The secret to setting your next PR may start with your toes. Fine-tuned foot muscles feel out the ground and tell your brain how to stabilize your body. That allows you to move explosively while running on uneven surfaces and protects you from injury. But most of us rarely think about getting burly from the ankles down. “The problem is that we don’t develop the foundation in our feet, opting to develop big muscle groups instead,” says Jay ­Dicharry, director of the Rep Lab in Bend, Ore­gon, and the author of Running Rewired. If you plan to ramp up your training this spring, build a different type of base by incorporating these foot-focused moves. 

1. Toe Yoga

Why: Roughly 85 percent of your foot control generates from your big toe. “Toe yoga develops muscle coordination by teaching people how to separate big-toe function from little-toe function,” Dicharry says. Coordinated muscles mean more responsive feet.

How: With your foot flat on the ground, lift your big toe and hold for one second. Then drive your big toe into the ground while lifting your little toes and hold for one second. Alternate for two to three minutes total. 

2. Tippy Twist

Why: “You want to develop active control between the outside ball of the foot, inside ball of the foot, and the big toe,” to create a solid foundation that can act as a springboard, Dicharry says.

How: Stand on your right leg and with your hands on your hips. Bending at the waist, raise your left leg backward and lower your torso forward until both are parallel to the floor. Rotate your left hip toward the ground and then toward the ceiling. Do three sets of eight reps on each leg.

3. Balance Twist 

Why: Most people naturally put weight onto the outside of the foot, which leads to poor balance. This drill trains the muscles in the arch to maintain proper foot-ankle alignment.

How: Loop a light resistance band around a doorknob and stand on your right leg, with your right hip and shoulder perpendicular to the door on your left. Hold the resistance band in both hands (together or apart), arms extended in front of you and parallel to the floor with the band taut. Slowly twist 30 degrees to the right side and then 30 degrees to the left side, your eyes following your hands as you move. Do one set of 40 reps, then switch legs.

4. Press and Pass-Around

Why: This sequence trains your foot muscles to make quick microcorrections to maintain stability as you shift your body position.

How: Stand on your right leg with a light weight (or a water bottle) in your left hand. Press the weight overhead ten times. Next, quickly pass the weight around your body five times clockwise and then five times counterclockwise. Repeat the set three times per leg.

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