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It seems as though the use-it-or-lose-it list grows longer on the daily, with functional strength and balance being two of those essential things you don’t think about until they begin to falter.
If nagging lower leg injuries are becoming the norm or you’re stumbling more often, lack of foot strength, limited ankle mobility and leg-muscle imbalances may be to blame.
“The health of our feet, good or bad, directly relates to our run health,” says Eric Orton, an endurance athlete, coach and author of The Cool Impossible. “How we use the feet correlates to how well we activate proper muscle firing patterns up through the hip and ultimately creates equilibrium and stabilization.”
Orton says focused foot strengthening exercises, as well as focusing on support muscles in ankles, hips and even the spine, muscles that are often overlooked, are essential when it comes to developing healthy patterns in running muscles.
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“If you really think about it, our feet are the only thing touching the ground. They control movement, provide feedback about where you are in space and are the first line of stability and strength,” Orton says. “We are only as strong as our feet. If the leg muscles overpower the feet/suspension system, injury occurs.”
Foot massages, single-leg balance exercises, scrunching a towel with your toes and rolling your arches over a golf ball are good starting points to work on engaging under-utilized muscles. Incorporating activities like single leg drills and even jumping rope help to improve proprioception.
You can also up the effort factor by taking your workout off-kilter on a balance or wobble board. When using these inherently unstable tools, more muscle groups, from your feet to your core, are necessary to keep you upright, turning even basic squats into a dynamic strengthening workout.
“We need to get past the idea that slant boards and wobble boards are for stretching and balance, to the idea that the feet need to be trained to enhance performance and mitigate injury and muscle tightness,” says Orton, who thinks balance boards are an essential strengthening tool. “If we can changes runners’ perspective on muscle tightness and equilibrium, it will help reshape the concept of true strength for runners, ultimately helping them feel better with less muscle tightness.”
For performing exercises on a balance board, once you adjust to the unsteady aspect (don’t feel bad if simply balancing is a workout in itself!), try working through your standard mobility exercises. Squats, single-leg squats, tree pose, single-leg deadlifts, dumbbell curls and kickbacks—all become infinitely more challenging when using a balance board.
Many gyms have some sort of balance equipment, like the popular BOSU Balance Trainers. See if yours offers classes or try a workout on your own. If you prefer to balance in privacy, check out this list of options. Just be sure to clear plenty of space before you start your workout and hold onto a counter, hiking poles or a friend, if needed, as you adjust!