When we think of running a race, a long-distance marathon, even using running as a way to get in shape or stay in shape, we take for granted that we need to build up our legs, glutes, and core so that our bodies can perform based on the stress we’re about to put it under. But do you ever give thought to strengthening your feet and ankles? After all, before your legs come into play, it’s your feet and then your ankles that are taking the pounding stress of hitting that road or mountain trail. So why wouldn’t want to make sure they both are as strong as they can be in order to stand up to this punishment.

During a one-hour run, your feet push off the pavement about 10,000 times – enough of a workout to build some pretty impressive foot muscles, you’d figure. “Considering the countless miles that runners put in, most think that they have very strong feet,” says Matt Ferguson, the president of Vancouver-based Progressive Health Innovations. “And they do, but only for one motion.”

Running does wonders for the muscles involved in plantar flexion – pointing your toes toward the floor – but leaves a host of other small muscles throughout the foot and ankle weak. The result is an increased risk of common running injuries like plantar fasciitis, shin splints, Achilles tendon problems and even ankle sprains.

“What many don’t understand is that all those miles running straightforward on flat ground can cause very significant muscle imbalances,” says Mr. Ferguson, whose company recently introduced an all-in-one foot strengthening tool call the AFK Ankle Foot Maximizer. “Those imbalances can affect their performance and be a major source of injury.”

Here are four ways to making sure your feet are strong enough to handle the pounding:

Run barefoot

Yep, this is true! Without the support provided by running shoes, the stabilizing muscles in your feet and ankles are forced to work much harder. “The key is to be cautious,” says veteran coach and two-time U.S. Olympic marathoner Pete Pfitzinger. Start with some barefoot walking on grass, then try adding 30 seconds at a time of jogging, keeping your stride short. Build up until you can run five or 10 minutes at a time; doing this twice a week after finishing your “normal” run will strengthen your feet and lengthen your Achilles tendon.

Elastic bands
Use an elastic band, that can be purchased from just about any sports store, even some pharmacies to provide resistance. Tie one end around your foot, the other to a table leg. Do three sets of 10 pulls in different directions: lifting your toes toward your shins, rotating your foot inward and rotating your foot outward. You can also use gravity for resistance: Put a soup can in a big sock, tie it around your foot and then lift your toes.

Towel pulls.
Now, this may not sound very beneficial in promoting foot strength, but after doing this for first, about 5 minutes and building it up to 10 minutes you’re going to notice the tension you’re putting on the upper part of your foot, from the toes back up to the arch.

Heel lifts (great for weak ankles especially sprained ones)
Find a wall with feet parallel and facing side on. Use one hand for balance and the other hand on opposite hip.
Rise up on your toes as high as you can and stay on your toes as you bend the knees without the arches collapsing (don’t take the knees further than your second toe). Keeping the knees bent and posture strong press the heels away back along the floor. Once the heel has touched the floor press away to stand tall. Repeat five times but make sure they are slow and controlled. Reverse that action five times.

Ankle Circles
Moving the ankles in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions will help strengthen the muscles in and around the ankle region. To do this exercise, sit on a chair with a straight back, extend your right leg, knee straight, and rotate the foot 10-20 times clockwise. Take a break of 5 seconds and rotate it again in anti-clockwise the same number of reps. Repeat the movement with alternate legs, doing 3-4 sets per side

And remember, anything worth doing is worth doing well, and by that I mean keep tracking what you’re doing, how much intensity your putting into each routine and setting a goal for each so that you have something to work towards. Using an Activity Monitor like the
Garmin Vivosmart 3 HR Activity Tracker that will allow you to keep track of just how much extra training your putting into getting those ankles and feet into shape so that you can count on them to carry you through each phase of your running game. You’re able to track everything you need from heart-rate (thanks to Elevate wrist heart rate monitoring), steps, distance, calories burned, floors climbed, distance traveled, intensity minutes, and VO2 max.

These are just a few examples of different types of exercises you can do to help strengthen the muscles in your ankles and feet.

The stronger they become, the better your overall posture and balance will become which will aid you in being a better runner.