Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It's A Game of Feet

Coco Austin trains her feet under a load.

Almost a consistent theme with many as we mature is the pain in our feet. Sometimes it is caused by injury. Sometimes it caused by excessive bodyweight. I'm going out on a limb here and suggesting that it is caused a reduction of flexibility, strength and conditioning of our lower legs and feet. Modern times do not place extraordinary demands on our feet. We should not be surprised.
The use of the shoe as a protective tool is very, very, old. Realize the use of the word "protective" and not supportive. The shoe has actually changed our feet. Below is a famous illustration of someone who walks barefoot and another who lives in shoes. It's quite a difference. 

Obviously there is something going on here. Perhaps we can represent it with this analogy. Place your arm in a splint for 8 to 12 hours per day, every day. What do you think would happen? Atrophied muscles, loss of movement, loss of size and loss of function? Why should it be any different with the muscles of the lower legs and feet?

Let's compound the ideal of atrophied feet and increased load. Take feet that have been trapped in shoes during working hours and sometimes during non working ones too. As the muscles atrophy over the years and reduce their strength and flexibility,... you decide to increase the load placed upon them by gaining weight year by year. This can also load the lower leg, upper leg and torso area. Your posture will change with age and the stress on the weakened feet will increase. 

In some cases, increasing the load on the feet is necessary. Fashion and social style may indicate for example that women wear high heels. It is NOT a very healthy option, but with proper conditioning it can be folded into a lifestyle where fitness and looks do not have to be mutually exclusive. 
In another case a soldier may hike miles over rough terrain with unwieldy loads. The US Military has spent many years researching and altering the footwear of soldiers, who are young and strong, to manage this stress.

There is one simple alternative. Spend more time walking, hiking and running barefoot. This may not be practical in an urban area with broken glass, rocks and possible contamination risk. The "barefoot running" craze has stimulated a need for products that manufacturers are more than happy to develop. New shoes with little support have popped on to the marketplace. They are not the be-all-end-all, but they increase the choices we have to improve foot fitness. Here are two such examples.

The Inov-8 Shoe
The Vibram 5 Finger Shoe
These shoes are just two possibilities of a currently expanding market. Make sure to get a proper fit with either shoe. For more information on either of these brands, check out:

Even with barefoot or protected walking or running, the addition of exercise for the feet can have quite a dramatic effect. Below is an illustration of just some of the structure of the lower leg and feet. There is plenty muscle tissue to work with.

Let's work our way through some lower limb drills that may relieve pain,  increase flexibility and develop some strength.

1. Stretching the front of the ankle is very important. When we spend some hours in traffic,.. the front of the ankle gets fixated into position. It's a far cry from hunting in the plains for Bison and running to avoid being eaten by Sabertooth tigers. Using a foam roller or even a rolled up towel can increase the range of motion. Focus on sitting in this position for about a minute. If it is painful, start with several short holds.

2. The next drill is to squat on your toes, then flex the plantar muscle on the sole of the feet. You end up rocking forward and back. [not up and down like a squat]. Usually bodyweight is sufficient in the early stages, but you can add a barbell plate in your lap for an extra challenge. You will also need to hold on to a fixed object for balance.

3. The third drill is to increase the strength of the muscles on the front of the lower leg. The shin area. The requires a wooden block. Place just your heels on the block and lower your toes towards the ground. Let the muscle stretch then contract it slowly to a position we call dorsiflexion. Repeat until you feel fatigue.

4. The standard calf raise is the next drill. Keep the knees locked and place the ball of the foot on a wooden block as shown or even a doorway. Lower the heels and let the calf stretch for 10 to 15 seconds. Then reverse the action and stand on your tip toes. Continue this process until you are fatigued. This drill will also enhance the shape of your lower legs.

5. This drill is a stretch for the muscles surrounding the toes. This is often neglected. Simple insert your fingers between your toes. Then squeeze and let the muscles relax and stretch. 

6. There are small muscles around the ankle that are addressed in other drills. The use of a Theraband however, adds unique resistance to the foot. Simple loop the band over the end of the foot, flex and relax until you are fatigued. 

7. Finally, using a golf ball we can do some soft tissue work by rolling it on the sole of the foot. This drill alone is quite beneficial. 

You can use all of these drills or just the ones that give you the most benefit. Tailoring an exercise program is using the Bruce Lee idea of "Absorb What is Useful, Reject What is Useless, and Add What is Specifically Your Own". Feel free to experiment. 

In addition to this article on exercise and barefoot running, here is a link to a great source of foot information. America's Podiatrist
It's time to start thinking of your feet as a part of your body that can age and this article is chock full of information to REVERSE it.



  1. Excellent blogpost Tom!!! Totally agree with these principles and drills!

  2. Good shoes also improve the health of the feet.Just a moment back I was searching for the information on the same topic and now I am here. So much information, really well executed blog.Thanks!

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