Spring is here, and this means a lot more walking and running as well as time spent in sandals and flip-flops. 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.
How feet work
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 to create a proper foundation to walk, run, jump and climb.
Feet get neglected until they hurt. Simply put, you should make your feet a priority because taking care of them helps you 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 you 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.
When your springs aren’t springing
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 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 midfoot 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. Then, hip flexor muscles overwork, and you can end up with stiffness in your hip joints and lower back. Dorsiflexion (bending in the ankle so that the shin and the top of the foot come close together) 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.
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What does footwear have to do with it?
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. Then the spring system shuts down, and your hips and legs have to 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 rather than super-cushioned sneakers, and make sure your sandals have a strap around the ankle. It goes without saying you should avoid heels 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!
- 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 4 x the circumference of the globe
- About 60% of all adult foot and ankle injuries are ankle strains/sprains
- Women are 4 x 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!
Essential feel-good feet exercises
Here are three exercises to improve your ankle mobility and foot springs so that you can add more pep in your step.
1. Modified lunge to improve ankle dorsiflexion1
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.
If the motion strains your knee, step your foot closer to the wall to reduce the angle of knee flexion.
2. Heel domes2
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 toe
Note: If your toes stay stationary, try imagining them lifting. One day they will!
1Krause et al. and Kasayma et al.
2Adapted from Barbara Clark
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