As fit and active people, we often take our feet for granted and instead choose to concentrate on the larger vanity muscles. We like working the areas we can see or the ones that help us fit into our skinny jeans.
However, ignoring these small paddles, we miss out on one of the most important aspects of all athletic endeavors: performance.
The human feet have 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments. They are our shock absorbers and push the pavement away with the entire weight of our bodies, powering us through our run.
The stronger your feet, the more power you have in your push and the faster your legs can move.
If you're a runner looking to shave multiple seconds off your mile, or minutes off your marathon, these foot strengtheners will get closer to your goal. Please note, it is important to remain barefoot during these exercises so that your feet can fully articulate.
Barefoot Calf RaisesThese are a good warm-up for any speed or strength-training workout because they wake up the entire lower half of the body. Stand barefoot with your feet hips distance apart and slowly raise and lower your heels.
When lifting, make sure that the tops of your feet, your ankles and calves are all in a straight line; if your ankles bow out, you could wind up with an injury.
If you are unsure about your form, it may help to have a chair or railing nearby for balance and to start by performing these exercises in front of a mirror.
Heel-Raised SquatsFor those looking for a more interesting way to squat, these are for you. Unless your balance is so good you can practically levitate, you will probably want to rest your hand on a railing or chair, and place a block or small round ball in between your upper thighs. Once your props are in place, stand with your bare feet hips distance apart and lift your heels off the floor. Once you feel stable, squeeze the ball or block between your legs and bend your knees as far as you can while keeping your heels raised and back straight. Hold here for a count of 30, then rise up an inch, and drop an inch.
Repeat for a set of 30 and then finish with another 30-count isometric hold. To get the greatest benefit, make sure that your heels do not drop as you squat and try to keep your thighs parallel to the ground at all times.
Barefoot Squat JumpsJumping barefoot is one of the best exercises for your feet, and you can add a medicine ball to get a more intense lower body workout.
This exercise is best performed on a soft surface, so try to find grass, sand or carpet if you can. Then stand with your bare feet hips distance apart and if you're using a medicine ball, hold it to your chest.
Bend your knees as far as you can while keeping your back straight and then explode up, pushing off the ground with as much force as possible.
If you're using a medicine ball, push it over your head as you leap for a little shoulder and triceps workout. Try to land softly to protect your knees, and repeat for three sets of 20.
Balancing PosesBorrowed from yoga, balancing poses are a gentler way to strengthen your feet. Start with your bare feet touching, then slowly bend forward, touch your toes with your hands and lift your left leg into a split.
Stay here for 10 breaths, slowly lift your body until your left leg and torso are parallel to the ground and your arms are pointing towards your back foot like airplane wings. Slowly count to 10.
From here, lift your torso until you're upright and slowly drop and the lift your left leg until it's pointing in front of you. Don't touch the ground and don't lean backwards; stay here for 10 breaths.
Finish this set by bringing your left foot to rest either above or below your knee. Bring your hands to your waste or prayer position in front of your heart. Stay here as long as you can stand it, and repeat on the other side.
Alternate Walking on Toes and HeelsThese exercises stretch and strengthen your feet and are a good cool-down. Walking on your toes strengthens the calf muscles and stretches the toe extensors. Walking on your heels strengthens the foot extensors, and stretches the calves and bottoms of your feet.
Start with your bare feet hips distance apart, raise your heels off the floor and take 50 steps on your toes. Walk back the way you came on your heels, careful not to lock-out your knees.
Lauren Hargrave is a writer, endurance athlete and a fan of all things related to physical and emotional well being. She also takes one week challenges from friends and family and writes about them on her blog 50 Two Cents.