Your feet are so unbelievably important. You use them to walk, skip, jump, hike and to run away from danger. They are especially important during a long hike where they take a pounding mile after mile.
So, if you have asked yourself recently: How can I strengthen my feet for hiking? Then you have come to the right place. Here are 15 tips to improve your hiking experience by making your feet stronger, tougher and more agile.
How to strengthen your feet for hiking:
1. Barefoot lunges
Lunges will strengthen your legs as a whole, but it is also an exceptionally good exercise to bolster your foot muscles and improve your balance; particularly if done without shoes. Without the sole of a shoe to stabilize yourself, your foot and ankles muscles are forced into action to provide balance.
Begin by standing with both feet together. Lunge forward with one leg as far as comfortable and shift your weight forward. It is important that your knee does not stretch further forward than your ankle. Hold that position for 10 seconds, getting a better balance-muscle workout, before pushing off and bringing your legs back together. Repeat with the other leg.
You should be looking to work up to 3 sets of 8 repetitions for each leg, and I would do this once per week.
2. Roll the bottom of your feet
As your feet are quite a distance from your heart, sometimes they can lack a bit of blood flow. This exercise is more for recovery than strengthening, but you need to be fully recovered before you can continue your workouts, so this is an essential step in the process.
Sit on a chair and place either a tennis ball or a golf ball on the floor. Sit your foot on the ball and roll it back and forth, getting into all the soft, tender parts of the foot. If it is a little sore, then use you arms to support some of the weight of your leg. This will actually enhance blood flow to all the little muscles in your feet, which in turn will aid recovery.
3. Calf raises
This is a killer workout both for your calf muscles and your ankles. There is no point in having the strongest feet on earth if your ankles and calf muscles are stringy and weak. This should be your go-to calf strengthening exercise, and it is invaluable for when you are powering up those slopes.
Stand on a step (preferably the bottom one, just in case your balance isn’t all that) and shuffle back until half your foot is on the step. Lower your heels below step level and then extend fully until you are standing on your toes. To get the most from this workout, make your raises slower to increase time under tension.
To make this workout harder, do one leg at a time. When your body becomes accustomed to this, you may want to increase your own body weight by sitting dumbbells on your shoulders.
4. Seated shin stretch
This exercise is designed to stretch your anterior tibialis muscle on the front of your leg. This muscle is in control of the raising and lowering of your foot, and it often hurts after an unusually large amount of hiking or running. This exercise will give the muscles a decent stretch while improving flexibility in the ankle tendons.
Kneel on the ground and stretch your feet backwards so that the top is face down on the ground. Gently lower yourself back until you feel a stretch through your ankles and shins. If you are flexible enough, you will be able to place all your body weight on top of your feet for a more complete stretch.
5. Hike more often
I have always said that one of the best ways to prepare for hiking, is by actually hiking. If you are training for a long backcountry adventure – or maybe you are thinking about a thru hike – then you should be out in the wilderness for smaller preparatory hikes. I am talking day hikes and multi-day adventures.
This naturally strengthens your feet through activity-specific exercise, and has the added benefit of getting your feet accustomed to your boots (if they are not already well broken in).
6. Jog barefoot on loose sand
This is a useful exercise if done properly as it targets your foot muscles and provides you with a cardio workout. Running on sand will naturally stretch for foot muscles as they try to propel you forward. Joggers should begin this process with short jogs of less than 10 minutes, using shorter-than-normal strides. It will call into action a lot of muscles that rarely get a workout if you spend most of the day wearing shoes, so if you overdo it, you are going to have all kinds of trouble walking the next day.
7. Marble pickup
While it may seem like child’s play, this is an essential exercise that gets your tendons moving while strengthening an array of different foot muscles. Sit on a chair and place a marble on the floor in front of you. If you do not have a marble, then get creative and find something else.
Keeping your heel planted on the floor, lower your toes and pick up the marble. Raise your toes off the floor and then lower again, dropping the marble. Raise your toes again before repeating. Do as many as you can before your muscles start screaming. It won’t be long!
8. Toe grabs
You can perform this exercise as a substitute for the one above, based upon your preference. Sit down and place your foot onto a towel. This time, keeping you heel stuck to the towel, lower your toes and grab the towel before lifting and lowering again. Once again, repeat until the muscles in your lower feet and toes can take no more.
9. Seated toe stretch
This is similar to the seated shin stretch; except this time the tops of your feet do not run parallel with the floor. Instead, curl your toes to gain traction with the ground before gently leaning back from the kneeling position. This stretches the muscle in the bottom of your feet and improves flexibility in your toes. Start off slowly. If you are not used to this position, it can be a little uncomfortable at first.
10. Training while on the trail
A big part of your strength training happens while you are out on the trail. And it starts with a good pair of broken in hiking boots, shoes or sandals that are a perfect fit for you. Cut your toe nails to avoid any ingrown issues.
Take your shoes and socks off when in camp in the evening to allow your feet to dry out. This will prevent you from having soggy skin that is more susceptible to blisters. Stretch your feet using any of the above stretching exercises. And do not forget about your legs. Stretch out your calf muscles, quads and hamstrings as well to have everything firing for the next day.
11. Switch to zero drop shoes
Zero drop shoes mimic what it is like to walk around barefoot. The height of the sole is the same for your heel and the balls of your feet, meaning that to walk around in a pair of these is similar to having no shoes at all.
If you take the time to get properly accustomed to zero drops, then you are actually slowly building strength into different muscles that you do not normally use, which can have a plethora of benefits for when you are out hiking the trails.
Also read: Are Zero Drop Shoes Good For Hiking?
12. Rehabbing after the adventure
After hiking – whether your feet hurt or not – it is an excellent idea to go through the motions of recovery. I would start with the aforementioned ball rolling technique to get the blood flowing, which in turn promotes healing. Stretch those foot and leg muscles. Soak your feet in warm water with Epsom salts. When you sit down for the evening, elevate your feet and let them recover.
Yoga is a fantastic way to stretch out your foot muscles, which helps to prevent against the occurrence of foot injuries. If done correctly and under the proper guidance, it can be used as a remedy for inflammation, and people diagnosed with plantar fasciitis can find pain relief in yoga. Just as importantly, yoga should teach you mindfulness.
This will bring your attention to your feet, the way that you walk and how careless you sometimes are. It will help to set you on a course where improved mindfulness leads to deliberate steps and healthy feet. Yoga will also teach you the connections between your feet, how you walk, and the state of your upper body as well.
People have often found that by taking up yoga, the simple improvements in foot control and strengthening have led to natural improvements in leg, hip and back health as well.
14. Barefoot squats
More and more people are turning to barefoot strength training as science begins to turn its back on cushioned shoes. As you squat with shoes, the flatness of your soles take away any emphasis there might have been on your deep intrinsic foot muscles, instead transferring all the pressure onto your legs. Take your shoes off and try again. This forces those muscles into action in an attempt to balance your body.
Stand with feet slightly wider than your hips. Bend your knees and drive your hips back while keeping your back straight. Holding your arms horizontally in front of you improves balance. Go as low as you can without losing balance before returning to an upright position. Make it harder by adding weight to your workout.
15. Walk around barefoot more
By now you have probably picked up a bit of a theme. And that is: walk around barefoot more! It will suck at first, particularly if you go everywhere and do everything in shoes – even around your own home – but this will help to strengthen your foot muscles and even the skin on the bottom of your feet, making you far less susceptible to blisters.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.