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The lower body works as one long chain of muscles promoting movement. When lower-leg muscles are weak, your foot will not be able to stabilize on the trails, and the large muscles of your upper legs are unable to work at full power.
“The best exercises for the ankles are also ones that involve stability challenges,” not just pure strength, says Dr. Heather Vincent, director of the University of Florida Health Sports Performance Center.
Plus, research conducted by Wake Forest University and the U.S. Army Research Institute has found that, as we age, biomechanical function at the ankle decreases at a faster rate than at the knee or hip complex, making strengthening work all the more important. Here are five exercises that target the lower leg.
1. Single-leg squat
Strengthens the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. Stand on your left leg with your right foot up off of the floor, holding onto a stable chair for balance if needed. Bending your left knee and hip, sit back and lower your body into a squat about six inches (you will be well above two-legged squat position). Repeat on your right leg.
2. Standing calf raise
Strengthens the calf muscles. Stand up straight and, for the most gains, hold a dumbbell in each hand. Lift both heels. Pause, then slowly lower your heels to the floor.
One-legged calf raises, which increase the stability component slightly (but necessitate lighter weights, therefore reducing the strength gains a bit) are another option.
3. Seated calf raise
Strengthens the calves in a slightly different way than standing calf raises, and increases ankle mobility to absorb the uneven terrain of trails. While seated, lift both heels up, pause for a second, then slowly lower, stopping just short of the floor.
4. Stationary lunges
Strengthens calves, glutes, quads and hamstrings. Step forward with your left foot about three feet. Lift your back heel. Bend both knees and lower your hips toward the floor about six inches (or more if able to keep your torso stabilized). Push through your front heel and extend both knees to complete one rep.
5. Holding lunge with heel raise
Strengthens quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. Step forward and lower your body into a lunge position. Hold that position, lift and lower your front heel, doing 12 to 15 reps. Release the position, and repeat on the other side.
6. Wall slides
Like lunges, these keep the lower-leg muscles under constant tension, as well as strengthening the quads and hamstrings. Stand with your back against a wall. Place both feet forward, about two feet from the wall. Slide down toward the floor until your upper legs are parallel to the floor. Hold for 10 seconds, then slide up the wall to return to your standing position.
7. Standing toe raise
These strengthen the tibialis anterior muscle that sits on our shin bone and is responsible for lifting the toes. While standing, keeping your torso straight and without rocking back with your hips, lift your toes, then lower half way to the floor.