The Forgotten Foot–Part 2
Anyone who has spent any time thinking about improving their fitness or body composition has probably considered specific body parts or movement patterns that they would like to improve or change. One area that never gets much attention is the foot. Nobody ever talks about wanting to strengthen, improve mobility/stability, or address function in any other manner when it comes to the foot. This is unfortunate as the foot is arguably one of the most important players when it comes to overall health and function. There are between 100,000-2000,000 sensory receptors in the bottom of your foot. This is 3rd only to the mouth and hands. Dr. Emily Splichal DPM uses this fact to draw attention to the importance of training the foot and giving it the sensory input it needs in order for everything else above the foot (knees, hips, spine, etc.) to work and function properly. Many of us now have rather sedentary lifestyles where find ourselves on our feet for about 1-2 hours per day. Our footwear tends to be more along the lines of what strength coach Chris Duffin refers to as “foot coffins”. Typical shoes worn in our society push our toes together, elevate our heel, and give very little sensory input to the sole of the foot. These things all greatly hinder our foot’s ability to function the way it was designed to and to communicate important input further up the kinetic chain. Rarely would a good Physical Therapist or Strength Coach advise permanently bracing or supporting a knee, elbow, or shoulder as a long-term solution to an injury or dysfunction. Instead, they would get a health history, assess the involved joints and movement patterns, and then put together a plan of action to correct the dysfunction or discomfort. However, when it comes to the foot, many podiatrists recommending orthotics or more supportive shoes. While there may be some very limited situations that call for this, I don’t think it makes sense to permanently brace/cast your foot, and limit/eliminate sensory input in hopes of improving function. When it comes to optimizing the foot and therefore the rest of the human body’s function, there are four main things to consider: Footwear, Soft Tissue work, Training, and Programming. Over the next few weeks, I will address all of these.
Soft Tissue Work:
At Fenton Fitness, we start all of our workouts with some form of soft tissue work. Most commonly, we will use foam rolling or lacrosse ball work for pecs, traps, and the foot. As mentioned before, the foot has 100,000-200,000 sensory nerves in its sole. Soft tissue work that addresses the sole of the foot has the same benefit as it does in other areas of the body, but it also acts to wake up the foot and body with much needed sensory input that is often lacking throughout the day due to sedentary lifestyle and poor footwear. Strength Coach Dan John spoke at a conference I attended about how he suffered from chronic back pain for years. It was recommended that he address the lack of sensory input to his feet. He glued a bunch of small smooth pebbles to a 2×6” board and would walk on it for 10-20 minutes per day, and within weeks, his low back pain was gone. While this is completely anecdotal and lacks any peer reviewed evidence, I’ve heard stories similar to this. There is very little risk to addressing the bottom of the foot with soft tissue work and potentially great pay offs. There are three primary methods that can be used for the bottom of the foot.
- Massage: With the right massage therapist, this is probably the best and most effective method. However, there is a cost, convenience, and time issue here.
- Self-massage: Using a small ball (tennis, baseball, lacrosse ball, golf ball, etc.) simply roll the ball across the ball, arch, and heel of the foot. Apply as much pressure as you can tolerate. This should not be comfortable or feel good/relaxing. This should carry discomfort on a 5-7 on a scale of 1-10 when 10 is the worst pain of your life.
- Barefoot walk: Pick a safe area free of foreign debris, sharp objects, things that you could jam your toe on, etc. A gravel driveway, small stones attached to a 2×6” board, a path of your kids legos, or simply use a Rox board like we have at Fenton Fitness. Simply stand or walk on this surface for 2-5 minutes, 3-5 days per week.
Start slowly with 1-2 minutes of work or whatever you can tolerate for 2-3 days per week and see if you can work up to 3-5 minutes daily. If you wear more restrictive footwear and are rather sedentary, you may want to do more. Conversely, if you are often barefoot or wearing minimalist style footwear you may not need to do this as often.
Jeff Tirrell, CSCS, CSFC, Pn1