The Forgotten Foot–Part 3
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.
Since the foot is made up of a number of small intricate muscles, it needs to be trained just like every other part of the body. The simplest and most functional way to do this is to simply be on your feet standing, walking, and training with a minimalist style shoe or barefoot (when appropriate). If opting to do things barefoot, I recommend doing things in clear open space with minimal foreign debris and with little likelihood of something being dropped on your foot. Bodyweight movements and Barbell lifts work well for this function (with the exception of Sumo deadlifts) as a dropped weight will have a hard time finding its way to your foot. Common sense should still prevail here–if something is causing pain, don’t do it. There are also three, foot specific exercises that can be added in as part of your warm ups or simply done at home on non-training days.
- Toe Lifts: Start with the foot flat and weight evenly distributed. Push the big toe down into the floor while simultaneously lifting the four “baby” toes into the air. Hold this for a five count. Do five reps in this fashion. Next, reverse the movement by pressing the baby toes down into the ground and lifting the big toe. Hold for five seconds. Perform five reps in this manner. Press the toes down, don’t curl them. Perform 1-2 sets. If you are unable to execute these correctly, simply use your hand to assist holding the toes that should stay down on their own.
- Tripod Foot: Start with the foot on the floor with weight evenly distributed. Create a tripod with your foot be gripping the floor with your foot. This is done by pressing all toes down into the floor. Again, do not curl the toes. You should feel the arch of your foot lift higher off the floor when this is done. The weight distribution should be like a tripod with the weight evenly distributed between the heel, ball of the foot behind the big toe, and ball of the foot behind the pinky toe. Hold for five seconds, for five reps, and perform 1-2 sets.
- Ankle Rollouts: Start with the foot flat on the floor and weight evenly distributed. Roll your weight onto the lateral edge of your foot like you would with an ankle sprain, only in a slow and controlled manner. You should feel some light tension on the lateral portion of your ankle. Briefly hold and then return to your starting position. Perform five reps per side for one set. Do not press beyond mild discomfort.
Just like any other muscle group, it is not advised to train the foot every day or all the time. They need time to rest and recover as well. If new to addressing the needs of your foot, start slow. Starting with one training session/week, or 15 minutes of each training session, and/or implementing the above foot drills is a great way to start.
Jeff Tirrell, CSCS, CSFC, Pn1