You know the feeling.

That achy pain in your feet and ankles the morning after a big trail run. It feels like they just returned from battle.

It’s a sign that you’ve done something fun, but it’s also a cry for help.

Feet and ankles are at the core of everything you do as a runner. They’re your primary tool out on the battlefield.

You protect them with good shoes. You nurture them when they need care. But what are you doing to make them strong and sturdy enough to withstand the trials of the trail?

Running exercises tend to focus on the upper legs and core. Rightfully so, since strength in those areas give you power and prevent injuries. Today we’re going to branch out — or down — and put our energy into strengthening the feet and ankles. Because if they fail, all that quad or glute work means nothing.

Why Foot Strength Matters for You

It’s no secret that trail running presents several new challenges road runners never consider.

Most obvious is the terrain.

Depending on the trail, you could be cruising along a smooth path, or fumbling your way down a rocky descent. The variety of trails is one of their major appeals … all part of the adventure.

But that same variety causes major stress on muscles in your feet and ankles rarely tested otherwise.

Strong feet and ankles help prevent injuries from overuse, and help guard you against twisted ankles or strains. Strengthening lower leg muscles also helps to fight many of the chronic injuries plaguing runners, such as shin splints and Achilles tendinitis.

By incorporating a few quick exercises into your training, you’re guarding yourself from potential major problems.

Foot Exercises for Trail Runners

Below I’ve outline my two favorite foot exercises for runners. They’re my favorite in part because they’re so easy. You can do them while sitting on the couch — I even recorded these while drinking a beer — and they require little equipment.

So let’s get to it:

Towel Curls

What You Need:

  1. Towel
  2. Shoe or book to use as a weight
  3. Chair

Instructions:

Place one heel on the ground, and begin pulling the towel towards you using only your toes. You should feel the burn in the bottom of your arches. Once you’ve bunched of the entire towel, flatten it back out and repeat with the other foot.

Repeat this exercise 3 or 4 times with each foot. To make it more difficult add additional weight to the end of the towel.

Small Objects Toe Pickup

What You Need:

  1. Large bowl
  2. Multiple pens, pencils, or other small objects
  3. Chair

Instructions:

Grab each pen using only your toes, and place it in the bowl. You can use as many small objects as you’d like. After filling the bowl, repeat with the other foot.

To make things more difficult, use objects with a variety of shapes and sizes.

Ankle Exercises for Trail Runners

I’ve selected these two ankle exercises because they can be done just about anywhere, with minimal equipment. You could do these while traveling, sitting around the house, or just after you run in the park.

1 Foot Lateral Line Hop

What You Need:

All you need for this exercise is a single line. You can make it yourself with chalk, dirt, or tape, or you can use a line in the sidewalk, parking lot, or anywhere else you find yourself.

Instructions:

Standing on one foot, hop back and forth over the line in a lateral direction. Each rep should include 10-20 hops. After completing one side, repeat on the other. Keep in mind that you should be landing on the ball of your foot.

To make this exercise more difficult begin increasing hop speed. This exercise can also be done on two feet.

Resistance Band Lateral Ankle Pulls

What You Need:

For this exercise, you’ll need a resistance band. The most common brand is the Thera-Band.

Instructions:

  • For outward movements: Wrap the band around your right foot. Place the left foot on top of the band, and pull tight with your hands. Begin moving the right foot laterally away from the left. Make this movement 10-15 times. Repeat with the other foot.
  • For inward movements: Cross the left foot over the right, pressing up against the resistance band. Pull the band tight with your hands. Pull your right foot laterally inwards towards the center of the body. Make this movement 10-15 times. Repeat with the other foot.

If you’re feeling like a tough guy and want to step it up a notch, find a higher resistance band or pull the band tighter, creating more resistance.

A Few Minutes Can Go A Long Way

Foot and ankle strength matters.

If you’re new to trail running, these exercises will make the transition more comfortable. If you’re already busting out rugged trail miles, building additional foot and ankle strength will help prevent injuries, and keep you moving stronger longer.

Exercises and drills have the power to enhance our training quicker than anything else. And most of the time, they’re quick and easy.

Commit to stronger feet and ankles. They’ll thank you in the morning.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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2 thoughts on “4 Strength Building Foot and Ankle Exercises for Trail Runners

    1. Hey German, 100-ups are great, but they’re more for technique than ankle/foot strength. When done quickly, they will build some strength in your hip flexors and quads, though.

      Definitely keep that exercise in your routine, but I don’t think it belongs on this list.

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