Tis’ the season to trade those winter boots for sneakers, sandals and flip-flops. It also means a lot more walking and running. But, before you set out for that 5k run or slip on your sandals, read how you can keep your feet supported to put a healthy spring in your step.
By: Margot McKinnon B.Ed., M.Ed.
Let’s start with your feet and how they work. The entire structure of the human foot allows it to function like a spring that stretches and contracts with every step. On an average day of walking (about 10,000 steps), the total forces on your feet can reach up to a tonne – the equivalent weight of a fully loaded cement truck. The hard-working foot springs need to be elastic and resilient in order to create a proper foundation to walk, run, jump, and climb.
Feet get neglected until they hurt. But, it’s critically important to make your feet a priority because healthy, functioning feet help take care of your entire body. Feet set the equilibrium of the body from the ground up. When they are misaligned, or their ability to move properly is compromised in some way, there will be a ripple effect up the chain. It’s common to track issues in the knee, hip and back to faulty foot function.
What are signs that your foot springs aren’t serving you well? One typical scenario is pronated feet. Pronation is an essential flattening action of feet that should happen with every step. With pronated feet, however, arches stay flat, the spring system weakens, and an efficient push off the ground efficiently becomes impossible. Another faulty pattern called supination occurs when feet remain arched and never flatten out. In both cases, the foot spring gets compromised; discomfort can become commonplace, and the stage set for injury.
How your foot takes a step also contributes to a faulty spring system. Ideally, the back outer corner of your heel strikes the ground, followed by a series of serpentine motions through the mid-foot and a strong push off from your big toe. All too often, push-off happens from the ball of the foot or the baby toes rather than the big toe. When this happens, hip flexor muscles can be overworked and lead to stiffness in your hip joints and lower back. Dorsiflexion (bending the ankle upwards towards the shin) plays a role in how your foot moves too. When dorsiflexion is insufficient, your foot, knee and hip mechanics become altered, and this can translate into knee issues.
Unfortunately, summer footwear can also wreak havoc on your feet. A cushioned shoe, for example, can contribute to the flattening of your arches. The added external support means your foot muscles work less and rely on the shoes more. Slip-ons and flip-flops are no good either. You unconsciously flex your toes to grab the loose-fitting shoes to keep them securely on your feet. This toe flexing effectively shuts down the foot’s spring system and makes your hips and legs work harder with every step.
When you consider all this, plus the fact that you transfer a cement mixer worth of weight through your feet every day, it makes sense to rethink footwear choices and condition your feet for optimal foot mechanics. Opt for harder shoes like Converse or Keds runners rather than super-cushioned sneakers, and make sure your sandals have a strap around the ankle. It goes without saying that high heels should be avoided as much as possible, but if you must, go for a low, wedged heel to keep your body weight more evenly distributed front to back.
Taking a few minutes a day to work on your feet will also make a world of difference. Your feet will feel alive, supported, and adequately springy which will positively affect all other body mechanics.
- A human foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments.
- The average person takes 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day, or 115,000 miles in a lifetime – more than 4x the circumference of the globe.
- About 60% of all adult foot and ankle injuries are ankle strains/sprains.
- Women are 4x more likely to have foot issues – most from footwear.
- A 2 ½ inch heel can increase the load into the forefoot by 75%.
- Walking is the best exercise for our feet!
1. Modified lunge to improve ankle dorsiflexion (Krause et al. and Kasayma et al.)
- Facing a wall, stand in a lunge position, with your right toes against the wall. Bend your right ankle to touch your knee to the wall. Be careful to keep the knee and thigh in line with the foot.
- Next, move your foot slightly away from the wall and repeat the ankle bending motion. Repeat this process, gradually moving your foot further from the wall.
- Continue to gradually increase your distance from the wall with each repetition until you reach your limit.
- Do 6-10 repetitions
- Note: If the motion strains your knee, step your foot closer to the wall to reduce the angle of knee flexion.
2. Heel domes (adapted from Barbara Clark)
- Stand with feet approximately hip-width apart. Feel your heel bones on the floor.
- Imagine your heel bones like domes and suction them up through talus bones (ankle bones) and up the lower legs.
- Feel the energy travel up your legs into your pelvis and spine.
- Do 4-6 repetitions with the left heel.
- Do 4-6 repetitions with the right heel.
- Do 4-6 repetitions simultaneously with both heels.
3. Active toe extension
- This exercise conditions the big toe extensor muscles which help you push off the ground properly when you walk.
- Stand or sit and actively lift and lower the big toe on each foot.
- Start with your right big toe and then work with your left.
- Avoid pressing the other toes into the floor as you lift and lower the big toe.
- Do 10-15 repetitions with the right big toe.
- Do 10-15 repetitions with the left big toe.
- Repeat this exercise with the other toes (they all
Note: If your toes stay stationary, try imagining them lifting. One day they will!
Margot McKinnon, M.Ed., is a Pilates and Movement Specialist, founder of Body Harmonics movement and health centres in Toronto and London, ON, and is the creator of an internationally recognized Pilates & Movement Teacher Training program. Margot has been at the forefront of helping people move well, teach well and be well since 1998, and has helped thousands of people transform their lives and careers through Body Harmonics’ unique whole-person approach to movement, health, and well-being. Find out more at bodyharmonics.com