Happy Feet

By Tracy Ellis

The second part in our series on feet, shoes and all the things that go with it is a guest post by Tracy Ellis. She gives us the physiotherapists perspective on why training feet is important for the optimal functioning of the whole body and gives us some simple things we can do to improve our foot strength and health.

As we have discussed before, feet have a crucial role in how we move and the quality of our movement. Somehow they have been neglected during our day-to-day choice of exercises, mobility and footwear. Did we forget about them or do you not know how to treat your feet? Do you really think that deep –seated gnawing ache under your foot is normal after hours of walking around in tight fitted or elevated shoes with a heel? Of course not. Your shoe might look pretty but your feet are definitely not happy if this is you.

Let’s not be extreme and get ugly shoes either…

Perhaps you don’t have painful feet…yet… but are your feet able to move freely in the shoes you wear?

Feet have many joints, muscles and ligaments, which give them full movement in all directions. During walking, running and jumping the big toe needs to bend as your heel lifts off the ground and the toes need to widen as the foot “grips” the ground for stability. Any loss of this movement will cause the feet to become stiff and result in weakness of foot intrinsic muscles. This causes a loss of power and will change how you transfer force to the ground. Muscle weakness and joint stiffness can change the shape of your foot such as the classic “flat foot” position or bunions.

A lack of movement through the big toe from rigid shoes or an elevated heel-to-toe drop will cause stiffness of the plantar fascia and the connective tissue from the calves to the feet. This often results in forefoot, heel or achilles tendon pain. The tightening of plantar fascia can also change how you move through your knees, hips and lower back via the connective tissue network linking all parts of the body. This tightness may cause a loss in the “spring” of your movement therefore affecting how you walk, run and jump.

So now we know the why… lets look at how to unlock your feet and enable you to be free again!

Mobility drills for the calf and foot:

1.      Rolling out plantar fascia with a small ball to free up the big toe - roll from heel to toe for 1-2 minutes.

2.      Knee to wall stretch to mobilise and stretch the calf muscle – hold 20-30 seconds or mobilise 20 times.

Balancing exercises to strengthen the calf and foot intrinsic muscles:

1.      Stand on one leg and push the big toe into the ground while lifting the arch (the “good foot position”) - hold for 1 minute on each leg and stretch the opposite leg forward, backward and sideways to challenge balance.

2.      Balance progression 2: Stand on one leg with a “good foot position” and bend the knee. Straighten the knee and lift the heel off the ground maintaining big toe push and arch lift. Repeat for 1 minute per leg.

3.      Balance progression 3: Stand on one leg and lift the heel slightly balancing on the ball of the foot. Bend the knee slightly and stretch the opposite leg forward, backward and sideways for 1 minute per leg.

Toe exercises to strengthen and mobilise the foot intrinsic muscles:

1.      Rainbow drills x 20 per foot.

2.      Window washing drills x 20 per foot.

These exercises need to be done regularly to be effective. Make it part of your daily routine before training and during the warm-up. If you wear conventional shoes then you most likely have stiff calves and feet and mobilising on a daily basis will be essential especially on the days that you wear shoes that do not allow much freedom. Consider changing shoes if you notice the plantar fascia tightens up regularly.

These drills can also be done before running or jumping to improve your range of motion and force production. Integrate these drills into your training routine to improve consistency and to make it part of your process to become more awesome and have happy feet!