I’ve never been a runner, though I played lots of sports when I was younger. Inspired by Born to Run and determined to break out of staring at computers all day, I started running after 40. The first 10 months were an incredible adventure with the San Francisco Half Marathon being the highlight. But the most important thing I learned is running alone doesn’t get you the strength you need, especially if you are just getting started. The challenge with running after 40 is finding time to incorporate strengthening exercises in our already hectic lives. I was looking for natural exercises that simply use your body and gravity. Remember Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby? The way she’s shuffling and shifting weights on her feet, practicing her boxing moves while she’s being a waiter at the diner? The following 10 exercises are like that. You can do these all day: when you brush teeth, at work, while you are waiting for the kid’s soccer game to finish, short breaks between time on the computer. And if you are doing these at home, they work best if you are barefooted.
Created by W.G.George in the 1800’s, this is a such a simple exercise that helps with balance, proprioception, calf strength and proper posture all in one go. My variation on this is to simply stand tall and lift up one knee to your waist while you raise your heel on the other leg. I do sets of 25 or 50 with multiple reps throughout the day.
This is a great warm up, but also a terrific way to activate all the little ligaments, muscles and tendons in your feet and ankle. Sit straight on a chair and lift one leg up. Use your big toe to trace the alphabet, from A-Z and then repeat with the other leg. The first time when you try this, you are going to feel sore by the time you cross your T’s, because you are waking up all those muscles and tendons that’ve atrophied.
Place a thin towel (about a foot long) on the hardwood or tile floor. Stand tall, place one foot over the towel and crunch up your toes to drag the towel close to you, while your heel is still firmly planted on the towel. Do this for 30 to 40 seconds on each foot, rest up a bit and do 3 sets each. Once you get the gist of this exercise, you can easily skip the towel and focus instead on the motion of your toes.
I never heel strike when I’m running, but heel walking feels great on your calves and also helps tremendously with shin splints. Walk 10 to 20 steps just on your heels and you’ll feel it in your calves. This is also another great warm-up exercise before a run.
This exercise focuses on proprioception and balance and you’ll be surprised how tricky this one is the first time around. There are two variations that I use. In the first one, stand straight with your knees bent a little. Lift up your right knee until it’s waist-high and then hold for 30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg. In the second variation, after you lift your knee, bend forward to touch the ground and then back to the raised knee position again. Repeat 10 to 30 times and then switch to the other leg.
When I started running, this one was a huge helper in getting my calves and ankles strong again. Find a step or a raised platform and stand on your toes with your heel hanging out from the edge. Raise both heels and then bring up your right knee waist-high. Now slowly drop your left heel as far as it can go. Bring your right knee back down and use both feet to rise back again. Repeat 10 times on each leg.
There are two variations for this exercise that I do throughout the day. First variation is stand tall with both feet firmly on the ground. Lift up your heels as far as they can go and then bring them back down. Repeat 10 to 20 times. For the second variation, stand arms-length distance from a wall for balance, lift up your heels as far as they can go, but hold in that position for 20 to 30 seconds. Once you are comfortable, then you can increase the duration. See my earlier post on Using ballet exercises when you start running for more tips on this exercise.
Just like your regular squats, but stay on your toes as you lower your body all the way. Keeping the heels off the ground during the squats teaches your body about proprioception and balance and it’s great for your quads too.
This exercise is great for strengthening your ankles and all of the muscles, ligaments and tendons around them. It’s best done with the Thera-Band while sitting on a chair. Loop the band around your right ankle, run the band under your left foot and hold it with your hands creating sufficient tension. Now shift your right foot further to the right, pulling the band in the process against the tension. Repeat 10 to 20 times and then switch to the other foot.
Granted you can’t carry the exercise wheel everywhere, but this made it to my top-10 list just because of its versatility. Used by martial experts like Jackie Chan, the is a simple and effective device to strengthen your limbs, shoulders and core all in one go. Kneel down on the floor with both hands on the wheel in front of you. Roll the wheel forward while gripping both handles tightly. Keep your arms straight as the wheel moves away from you. Once you are fully extended, hold for a second and then return to the starting position. Repeat sets of 10 or 20.
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