Whether your goal is surfing in Costa Rica, climbing Mount Washington, hitting the gym, or crushing your local trail race, the key to ramping up your performance may lie in your feet. Yet when you train for your favorite activity, odds are you overlook the 10 toes and 40 muscles that literally carry the day. Jay Dicharry, author, physical therapist, and director of the REP Lab, in Bend, Oregon, says that’s a mistake. “You train your quads, your hamstrings, your upper body, but you need to focus on your feet, too,” he says.
Where to start? By spending more time barefoot, doing a few simple foot exercises, and slowly transitioning into walking, running, or working out in shoes that, like Vibram FiveFingers, assist the natural form and function of your foot.
Do Toe Yoga
If you do only one foot exercise, says Dicharry, make it this one. “Most people can’t move their toes individually,” he explains. “It’s not because you’re weak, but because you’ve lost coordination.” Start in your bare feet and drive your big toe down and “through the floor,” Dicharry explains. At the same time, lift your smaller toes and hold for a few seconds. Then switch, keeping your small toes on the ground and lifting your big toe. Dicharry emphasizes keeping your arch in a neutral position throughout the moves.
Walk Around in Your Bare Feet
This simple action—whether in your house, the beach, or your backyard—will allow your feet and toes to spread out and feel the ground. The hundreds of nerve endings in the bottoms of your feet will collect information and send it to the brain, helping your body process where it is in space and how it moves through it. This instinctual understanding is known as proprioception, and it helps us to balance and react as needed.
Treat Your Feet
Who doesn’t like a good foot massage? While you can certainly go to a massage therapist for this, self-massage is a great way to get familiar with your feet. Try using your elbow to rub the base of the foot; run your fingers between your toes and move them up and down; use gentle pressure with your thumbs to feel all those muscles, tendons, and nerves, loosening them up as you go.
Play "Pass Around"
Another one of Dicharry’s recommended moves starts with a gallon of water, which you’ll pass back and forth from one hand to the other. First, however, stand on one foot, again driving the big toe into the floor. Holding the jug of water in front of you, hand it from your right hand to your left and back again, repeating up to about 10 times. “The instability from the water really makes this move quite challenging,” he says. “Your feet will have to work to stabilize your body.”
Take the Dog for a Walk in Your FiveFingers
If you can’t get outside in your bare feet, shoes that encourage natural movement, like FiveFingers, are the next best thing. “Start with a short walk around the block,” says Mark Cucuzzella, a family physician and professor at West Virginia University School of Medicine. “This will increase the strength and function of your feet, gradually leading to longer, more demanding activity if that’s what you’re after.”
Try the Tippy Twist
Dicharry likes this move as a way to integrate hip movement with foot movement. Stand on one leg with your hands on your hips. Hinge forward at the waist and raise your leg behind you as you lower your torso. Once you’ve reached a point where your torso and leg are parallel to the ground, rotate your hip toward the floor and then toward the sky. Repeat several times on both sides.
Just Remember to Go Slow
Once you get started experiencing the world through your bare feet or FiveFingers, it’s tempting to go all in, all the time. But caution is in order, as your feet need time to return to full function. Plan to slowly transition to this different way of walking, hiking, or running. Closely monitor for pain or discomfort and back off if you experience either. By training your feet back to natural function, you’re setting yourself up for success—and more fun—on future outings. “When you can feel more with your feet, your body can make better decisions,” says Dicharry. “Then you tend to perform better.”
Vibram is recognized worldwide as the leader in high-performance soles for outdoor, recreational, work, and fashion footwear and is relied on by the world’s greatest athletes. Vibram’s FiveFinger shoe line was at the forefront of the minimalist footwear trend, inspiring athletes and adventurers to better Connect to the Earth.