The Forgotten Foot
Anyone who has spent any time thinking about improving their fitness or body composition has probably spent time thinking about specific body parts, or movement patterns that they would like to improve/change. One area that I have never had anybody bring up wanting to add
ress or improve is their 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 (knee’s, hips, spine, etc.) to work and function properly. Many of us now live rather sedentary lifestyles where we are lucky to find ourselves on our feet for more than 1-2 hours per day. On top of that 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 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 said dysfunction or discomfort. However, when it comes to the foot many Podiatrists default to 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 to improve function. When it comes to optimizing the foot and therefore the rest of the human body's function there are 4 main things to consider: Footwear, Soft Tissue work, Training, and Programming.
Ideally the foot should be level, the toes allowed to spread out, and sensory input allowed to the bottom of the foot. While being barefoot offers all of this naturally there are some safety concerns for this and certain situations that will require some form of footwear. When we are talking about sporting competition there is efficacy in wearing footwear that lends itself toward optimal performance. The shoes that have been developed for baseball, track & field, football, basketball, wrestling, etc. have come to be to maximize performance in that given activity. Those shoes can and should be worn in training for that sport and in competition. However, the rest of the day and in fitness training sessions it is better to be barefoot when appropriate or wear footwear that allows the foot to operate similarly to the way it would when being barefoot.
Many of the shoes that are worn in popular fashion, for running, or cross training have a toe box that narrows, which smashes the toes together. Many individuals have poor running mechanics so shoe manufacturers have offset this by making a larger more shock absorbing heel. While this may feel better to run in, it doesn’t change the impact forces traveling up through your knees, hips, and lower back. Running barefoot is rather self correcting as it hurts to run with poor running mechanics. I have had countless clients instantly improve their squats and deadlifts simply by removing their shoes. Foot injuries can be a problem though, so in situations with lots of impact, chances of dropping something on your foot, or training somewhere where stubbing your toe, or encountering hazardous debris it is better to use a solid cross training shoe. Over the last 20 years I have trained in a variety of different shoes from traditional running/cross training shoes, wrestling shoes, weightlifting shoes, and more recently more minimalist style shoes. Of the better cross trainers I’ve used (Reebok Nano’s, New Balance Minimus, several Altra shoes, and Merril Trail Glove 4) the best I’ve come across is the Prio from Xero Shoes. This shoe has the best traction of any shoe I’ve worn on any surface, allows for the toes to spread, has zero heel drop, and is the most durable shoe I’ve worn to this point. I’ve lifted, sprinted, done agility, etc. in these shoes with no issue or excessive wear. The sole gives you some protection but also allows you to feel the ground you are walking on. I’ve also used Xero’s Z Trek hiking sandals for multiple long hikes and weight lifting with great performance as well. Precautions: When training barefoot or in a minimalist style shoe you are working muscles in your foot that you have likely never or rarely worked before. Just like strength training any other muscle you want to ease into it to avoid injury, excessive soreness, etc. When transitioning I would recommend only wearing minimalist footwear or being barefoot for 10-20% of the day/training time and then gradually increase by 5-10% each week assuming everything feels good. The other thing to keep in mind is properly warming the foot up like you would any other body part. This will be covered in our next installment.
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 and sometimes Lacrosse ball work for pecs, traps, and the foot. As mentioned above the foot has 100,000-200,000 sensory nerves in it’s sole. Soft tissue work addressing the sole of the foot has the same benefit 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 talked anecdotally 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 2x6” 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 countless 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 3 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 a 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 foriegn debris, sharp objects, things that you could jam your toe on etc. A gravel driveway, small stones attached to a 2x6” board, a path of your kids legos, or simply use a Rox board. Simply stand on 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.
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 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 3 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 4 “baby” toes into the air. Hold this for a 5 count. Do 5 reps in this fashion. Next reverse the movement by pressing the baby toes down into the ground and lifting the big toe. Hold for 5 seconds. Perform 5 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 and grip the floor with your foot. This is done by pressing all toes down into the floor. Again not curling 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 5 seconds, for 5 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 this is done 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 5 reps per side for 1 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 the 1 training session/week, or 15 minutes of each training session, and/or implementing the above foot drills is a great place to start.
A big problem with barefoot or minimalist training is a lot of people jump the gun and go from supportive, restrictive footwear to being barefoot 24/7. This leads to overtraining and injury in most cases. Vibram shoes (the toe shoes) actually had some lawsuits against them from the amount of injuries people incurred wearing their shoes. The barefoot craze had erupted, people bought the “toe shoes”, threw out their old running shoes and took off with high mileage runs in their new shoes. This would be a problem with any lift. Imagine you had no training background or experience and on your first day in the gym I asked you to do 10 sets of 10 on squats with a challenging load. This would lead to extreme soreness in even the most seasoned gym vet, let alone somebody brand new to training. That is essentially what you are doing to your feet when you alter your footwear drastically especially when it comes to things like running. Here are some sensible ways to look at transitioning your footwear if interested.
Standing/light walking: Implement your new footwear 20% of the time. For an 8 hour work day that would equate to about 1.5 hours. Assuming things feel good add about 10% (45minutes for an 8 hour work day) longer durations each week until you are fully transitioned.
Hiking/Jogging: Implement your new footwear for 10% of your daily or weekly mileage or time. If things feel good then increase by 10% every 2 weeks. If you are running in this style of footwear realize that some faulty running mechanics may be exposed. If this is the case, your running is likely not great for your body in the first place. You will either want to enlist the help of a qualified running coach, or find a different mode of exercise.
Strength Training/Conditioning: If lifting barfoot refrain from Dumbbell or KettleBell lifts that can easily be dropped on your foot. Start by transitioning for the first 25% of your workout, or pick 1 workout day each week to transition. If things feel good then you can go half of your workout or workout days. High volumes of jumps and sprints will likely not be tolerated well. Keep sprints or jumps lower in volume and pay attention to how your feet feel while doing them. For higher volumes of jumps and sprints or sport, shoes designed for that specifically should be used.
After gradual implementation of soft tissue work, footwear, and training a weekly overview incorporating everything should look something like this:
Footwear: Barefoot (when appropriate) or minimalist style footwear worn 50-75% of the time.
Soft Tissue work: 3-10 minutes, 2-6 days per week
Training: Foot specific exercises 1-2 sets or 5 reps done 2-4 days per week