Updated: Sep 10, 2020
If we have been in touch at all during these pandemic times, you likely know I have turned a fair bit of my attention + practice to the foundation of things. Back to basics. The fundamentals. Functional movement-informed massage therapy. The biomechanics of yoga asana. Unlearning and relearning the patterns of human physiology + the fundamental, systemic racial + socioeconomic issues that perfuse our culture (well, that's a whole other blog post - an important one, but I digress). I've become a bit obsessive with the WHY of things. How have we arrived here? What are the fundamental + functional systems that have been created + continue to perpetuate this outcome? If we don't understand the ENTIRE why (why does my lower back hurt? Why do I always get knee pain a mile into a run? Why do these headaches come out of nowhere?), how can we ever hope to fully correct the problem?
Human beings have become so passively complicit in systems of convenience. We just love our short cuts. Moreover, we love short cuts that make us feel comfortable. Oooh, driver's side lumbar support? Sign me up. They'll do my grocery shopping for me? Yes, please. Stop it, they have a robot vacuum AND a robot sweeper?Will they ship Prime? Look, I'm all for modern conveniences (you can have my Aerocinno 3 milk frother when I'm dead). But perhaps we shouldn't be quite so quick to embrace all this cushy contemporary comfort without acknowledging the very possible + possibly painful consequences.
A sedentary, conveniently paved-over + supportively shod existence does not make for particularly engaged feet. We lay in bed all night. We wake up. Sit for breakfast. Sit to get to work. Sit at work. Sit to get home. Get home. Sit. Eat dinner. Put the kids down. Sit on the couch. Sit to write a blog post. See my point? Being bipedal (denoting animals that use two legs for walking) means our feet were meant for... wait for it... walking. They were meant for many a thing, but walking is very simply at their core. And we have outsourced it. We drive, bike, elevate, escalate, bus, Uber, airplane + order-in our walking. And when we do call them to task? "Where are my springy in-soled, contoured foot bed, fully supportive, uber-trendy kicks?"
But let's assume you aren't here for an anthropologic lecture + you would like to figure out what you can do now - now that you you have the flat feet +/or bunions +/or generally unruly tarsal situation so pervasive in our society. "Bunion" actually comes from the Greek word for "small hill, mound or heap." I, for one, do not enjoy the idea of having a "heap" of any size on the side of my foot. But it's where we're at, unfortunately. Mr. Bravo has smaller versions of these feet hills coupled with some pretty problematic flat arches. So, let's talk about some of the simple movements + practices we all can implement toward engaging our whole feet.
Un-Flat + Un-Heap Your Feet
This short (ha) exercise focuses on engaging the small muscles that support the arch on the inside of of the foot - your medial arch. It can be a bit difficult to clearly envision as it is a subtle movement. Just think "contract your arch." (*I find it helps to repeat the mantra in my head Beatrix Kiddo-style).
Start sitting. Feet on the floor, hip distance apart, toes pointing forward.
Slide the front of your foot along the ground toward your heel without curling your toes, shortening the distance between your forefoot and heel. Hold shortened foot position 5-10 seconds.
Relax + repeat, 10x per foot.
Did you know you have 3 calf muscles? Most of us are aware of gastrocnemius, the meaty part of your calf that you see when you push up on your toes, and soleus, the deeper, stabilizing muscle of the lower leg.
Then, we have have plantaris. Poor, forgotten plantaris. Often dismissed as a vestigial muscle, while plantaris acts with the gatrocnemius, it is not a particularly strong flexor (read: mover) of the lower leg. In actuality, it may be more integral to proprioception, your perception or awareness of where your body is moving in space. This is important when it comes to our gait. Often, you will hear gait 'experts' describe the normal, human walking process as a "falling forward" motion. It's understandable that this is what is believed, because it is generally what we see. The underlying issue, however, is that it isn't how it is supposed to be. Your calf muscles play an important role in allowing your main arch function properly. They also help the toes perform several integral functions, like grasping, curling, balancing + guiding the body forward during the push-off phase of gait.
The simple calf stretch. Simple - but oh so important for the overall health + functionality of your entire body.
Begin by standing in front of a half dome (or block or rolled towel or whatever you have lying around the house). Find your PAR.
Place one foot on the dome + keeping your pelvis neutral + facing forward, bring the opposite leg in front of dome to increase the stretch through the calf.
Hang out here for a while.
Now, let's move to the stairs. Active calf raises are a great way to not only bring length into your lower leg, but also activation. As we ask the calf muscles to eccentrically contract, meaning they are actively lengthening under load, We want to strengthen the calves in a lengthened position as well as bring engagement to the smaller structures of your whole foot. Let's wake up all those foot parts you've been ignoring, shall we?
Stand with both legs on a step.
Drop your heels until you feel a stretch, then, rolling your feet to their outer edges, push up into a calf raise, grounding down through your pinky toes + hold for 3 seconds.
Continuing to contract your calves, roll slowly, toe by toe, into your big toes + again hold. Ground down through your big toes for 5 seconds + then roll back out the pinkies before slowly lowering your heels into a stretch.
After years of cramming your feet into toe boxes that, well, don't resemble the natural shape of your feet (more
on that in the next paragraph), it's time to give them some room to breath. After years of investing in multiple variations of toe spacers + bunion splints, I can pretty confidently report I have found the ones that just work. Not a paid advertisement: Correct Toes may not be the cheapest option on the market when it comes to toe spacers, but I have found them to be the most comfortable, customizable + effective.
On a tight budget? I highly recommend the free version - interlacing your toes with your oh-so-handy fingers. Move your hand around, squeeze + release your pressure, rotate your forefoot + explore new ranges of motion, all at the bargain price of engaging your external hip rotation (another movement plus). Lean into the uncomfortable moments + allow the mobility, flexibility + blood flow to return to your many foot parts. If you have 30 minutes to Netflix and chill (and let's be honest, who doesn't these days?) then you have 30 minutes to give your feet some very needed love.
Just keep in mind, toe spreading on its own + without a change in your footwear choices are usually not enough. They should be a tool to help you return to natural function, not a bandaid. You're in this mess because of the choices you (or your parents) made + improper load patterns you have instilled. If you insist on wearing your positive heeled, narrow shoes, if you are unwilling to engage in any foot strengthening or mobility, you can expect minimal results. Speaking of footwear...
We begin shoving our feet into compressive spaces at seriously young ages. A few years go by + you have inflexible work shoes, pointy-toed ballet flats, heels (for both men + women. That's right guys, you're wearing heals, too.) Take a look at your most often worn shoes. What are their general shape + function? Do you wear them to work? Do they need to look professional? Place your bare, relaxed foot next to your shoe. Now, keeping the foot relaxed, place it on top of the shoe. Does your foot "fit" easily or would it have to contort, the toes squishing together?
Now check out your heel. Chances are, at some level, there is one. This is a design element in nearly every shoe we wear, from dress shoes to casual slip ons to running shoes. But why? What is the benefit of an elevated heel anyway? Not surprisingly, there is little if any compelling evidence to validate its inclusion in footwear design. I've heard anything from a heal adding additional protection from wear and tear to high heels actually being meant to help men ride their horses. Regardless, there isn't much of a functional explanation for its pervasiveness today.
So what does a heel do now?
Quite simply, it elevates the heel above the forefoot. This positioning, however minimal, causes unnecessary stretching of the foot structures, forcing you into the equivalent of walking down a continual downhill ramp.This forces pressure + stress into the ball of the foot and essentially functions to invert the main medial arch of the foot. Not good things. It also causes prolonged contraction and subsequent shortening of the calf musculature (See? I told you calf lengthening was important. See 'Calf Stretching' exercise above).
I'm not trying to argue that shoes are the enemy here. We have just forgotten their true function. Shoes certainly were meant to provide needed protection from the ground beneath us. But we have now flattened, decluttered, de-debrised, de-texturized + paved over said ground and placed the bigger emphasis on the aesthetic function of our footwear. Modern culture likes the sleek, long-legged look of a pointy shoe. Are you self conscious about your height? Throw a heel on it. Your calves will look killer, too.
But our toes are meant to spread out + engage with the ground beneath us, offering balance + grip, regardless of us covering them up for protection. Our weight is meant to be over the bigger bones of our heels - not falling forward into the smaller structure you now cram into a restrictive toe box. Any amount of heel creates this "walking down hill" gait pattern. We have conditioned ourselves to fall forward through life, if even ever so slightly, on a nearly constant basis. So much so, that when we take off the shoes, our bodies continue to adjust our body weight forward out of habit, fostering small but significant adjustments to the angles and load patterns throughout our entire bodies.
So, am I a proponent of minimal footwear? Hell, yes. My clients have grown very accustomed to my sockless, nearly shoeless arrival at their homes. These days you can catch me running around the city in my Tadeevos or slightly less minimal Xeros as we transition into a Chicago fall. Am I telling you to throw out your shoe closet + start wearing 5-finger shoes to the office? No. In fact, switching abruptly from your typical contemporary footwear into a zero drop shoe isn't recommended. Surely you've heard some of the blow back minimal shoes got when everyone decided they were going to start training for the marathon in Vibrams. But you have to give your body the time + the tools to undo decades of ingrained, inefficient load patterns in order to avoid injury. So, this means we have some work to do first.
And just like toe spreading, even if you are on the tightest of budgets, I have something to sell you...
Just Walk Barefoot.
Seriously. If you do just one single thing for the betterment of your feet, kick those shoes off. Start at home. Walk barefoot on your carpet, hard wood (minimally, if possible), linoleum, up stairs, down stairs, over pillows, yoga blocks, (avoid the Legos), over tile, and then... over your threshold. Get outside. Put your feet in the grass, walk over cement, mulch, up hill, down hill, over sand, over big rocks, small rocks. Start giving your feet a chance to remember what they are capable of when unshod. Just start small. If your feet feel achy after 15 minutes of standing barefoot in the kitchen, is this really all that surprising? Not when you factor in all the years of passivity they've grown accustomed to. This does not mean they are a lost cause, however. Start with 15 minutes in the kitchen. Then 20. Maybe pour a glass of Barolo and walk your socked but unshod feet to the back porch. In a week or 2, can you remove the socks? Play with finding the edge of your comfort levels and moving just a little beyond them, one step at a time (ha, see what I did there?). Intersperse some of this barefoot living with your calf raises. What else can you do during your day to actively engage your bare feet? Can you get the mail without worrying about throwing on your flip flops? Can you take your morning coffee in your backyard, letting the proprioceptive cells of your feet remember grass?
Can you undo generations of improper gait beliefs + behaviors?
Can't hurt to try.
It just might hurt if you don't...