It's All About The Foot
People are always talking about the importance of core strength in everything that we do - it prevents injury and makes you stronger in every way. Yes, that is all true, and please, do not stop working on your core! However, without foot stability you cannot be stronger and you will definitely get hurt.
The foot is beautifully designed, like a roman arch it maintains it’s arch-shape with a hundred times its weight on top of it. There is a built in torque converter in your ankle that will transfer the power of your core and everything in between to the ground to propel you forward. Your foot has four layers of muscles in your foot - the core only has three, or more like 2 and a half! It just goes to show that if your feet aren’t strong you are missing out on a huge source of power in everything that you do. With stronger, coordinated, stable feet you can be better.
When your foot musculature is weak you end up putting significantly more pressure on your plantar fascia, leading to plantar fasciitis. When your big toe doesn’t have the strength to push off and you don’t have good mobility in your ankle your achilles muscle pays for it and you get achilles tendonitis, or worse, an achilles tear. When your four layers of foot muscles are weak you end up overusing your leg muscles to stabilize your ankle leading to posterior tibial syndrome, or fibular tendonitis, dislocation, or tear. But before all of this happens your balance goes - to be functional you should be able to stand on one foot comfortably on a stable surface for a minute. Can you?
If you don’t have toe mobility it shortens every single step that you take, and when you are walking fast, or running you lose that push that propels you forward. This causes ankle pain, knee pain, and low back pain. If you don’t have ankle dorsiflexion, you cannot possibly squat or walk correctly and it leads to both achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. This also leads to knee and low back pain. If you are missing plantarflexion you can’t kneel comfortably, or do child’s pose (which just happens to be my personal favorite yoga move). Also, you will be limited in your push off as you run. If you are missing inversion or eversion it is the absolute worst. You are significantly more likely to sprain your ankle and you will be missing the thing that converts all of the power created by your core, hips, and knees into energy to propel you forward with you are running or walking, and give you lift when you jump.
In the last couple of years, people have been moving towards barefoot running or at the very least minimalist footwear for running. So the idea behind minimal or barefoot shoe is to use the foot to its full potential. I understand where they are going with this, and I agree completely, however, getting there should be a journey. People can have serious injury when they jump too quickly into minimal footwear. Those of us that grew up running around the neighborhood barefoot and never stopped can pull off a minimalist shoe, but let’s face it, we grew up and barefoot does not belong at school or at work so we have spent the last 20+ years wearing rigid shoes instead of depending on our feet.
Rigid shoes, or shoes that don’t move as much, are great for those of us who have weak feet. The same goes for orthotics - in an ideal world where your feet are strong and stable we wouldn’t need orthotics.
Speaking of shoes, let’s talk about how they bend. The middle of your foot is where that beautiful Roman arch is. It’s not supposed to move - your toes are supposed to. Make sure that the shoes you are in all day follow that rule. It doesn't matter how expensive that shoe is, try bending your shoe - does it bend in the middle or does it bend at the toe?
The problem is we shouldn’t be comfortable having poor balance, weak feet, and stiff ankles. We should be working to change that, but the change won’t happen overnight, it will take months or even years to get your feet working properly.
Start small, get your toes used to moving with toe massage, toe stretching, and toe yoga:
What you want to do is interlace your fingers between your toes so it's like you're holding hands with your foot. From there go ahead and really start to get your toes to move around in a circular motion, bending your forefoot in each direction, getting it loosened up. Do this to both sides and take your time.
Standing barefoot, try and grip the floor with your toes, spreading them out. Once you feel like you've got that down, try and lift all of your toes off the ground a couple of times. If you master that, practice lifting your big toe while keeping your other toes on the ground and then the opposite, keep your big toe on the ground while lifting all of your other toes up. There are so many versions of toe yoga that it would be a post in and of itself (maybe later), but for now, that's a good start.
Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, about 2 feet to 3 feet from a wall. When standing, your hands should be able to reach the wall in front of you. Extend your arms and hands and firmly plant your palms on the wall in front of you. Lean towards the wall. Take one step forward with one foot, firmly planting your foot on the ground and bending your leg at the knee. During this, the heel of your back foot should be firmly planted and your toes should be pointed toward the wall.
This is all about learning how to maintain your stability in different weight-bearing scenarios. Standing barefoot, with your feet close together, try and bring your weight as far forward as you can while keeping hips/knees straight and feet flat on the ground. Then see how far you can lean back - a lot like trying to stand up on a train or metro.
For this exercise stand on stairs, dropping your heel down, then quickly come up onto your toes, putting most of your weight on your big toe, and slowly lower back down to the first position. I would recommend starting out on both feet, then, slowly, start putting more and more weight onto the affected leg until you're able to switch to just one leg.
Try these exercises and let me know how it feels on your feet!