Source: BY FARAH SHAFIQ 31 AUGUST 2020
From grounding to activating the tiniest muscles, the barefoot approach and the benefits of massage – here’s why it’s time to look beyond the pedi and pay some real attention to your feet.
Our only connection with the ground, the feet have a lot of responsibility and, arguably, don’t get the respect they deserve. “Unfortunately we’ve forgotten how important feet are to us,” says physiotherapist Sarah Parker. “They tell our brain what’s going on beneath us in order to guide biomechanics. We’ve put rubber soles between our feet and the ground and bound them so tight they can’t move as they should. Our feet have hundreds of joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments, which are meant to move and adapt to surfaces to tell our brain what’s going on. You can tell a lot about a body by how the feet are!”
While Parker specialises in pelvic health, there’s a surprisingly relevant link to the feet. “The feet are right next to the genitalia on the hermunculus [aka the homunculus, a map of the brain’s sensory neurons in each part of the body] – I call it ‘her’ because it’s always been a [map of a] man – sexist. And Hebbs law states that things [in the brain] that fire together wire together. So, I always work on feet as well.”
The most common problems
If the feet are out of whack, it’s likely to have an impact on the rest of the body, albeit different for each person. “We see all the typical foot problems associated with modern footwear and insufficient movement,” says Vivobarefoot coach, Ben Le Vesconte. “From back pain, knee pain and shin splints to plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis and Morton’s neuroma. Many people simply have squashed, achy, tired, weak feet from narrow toe boxes and cushioning.”
Sports scientist, gait analyst and self-confessed running biomechanics geek, Emma Kirk-Odunubi explains that “if the feet aren’t functioning well, for example if they are too flexible or too stiff or not strong enough, it can affect how well the force [of impact from the ground] travels through our bodies as we move. Currently, the most common problems I see from running are knee and shin issues. From a gait perspective, this is usually due to over-striding.”
Le Vesconte agrees. “Almost everyone walks with too long a stride (low-to-medium heels and cushioning enable this) and a heavy heel strike, and this exaggeration carries into running with a slow, sticky stride.” Runners, read on.
Learning to walk before you can run
When it comes to walking and running, the barefoot approach is hotly debated. Rather than abandoning shoes entirely, the best advice is to go gently. Your gateway shoe? Vivobarefoot – sustainably made, with a wider toe shape and thin, flexible soles to mimic the benefits of being barefoot. Research from Liverpool University has shown that wearing Vivobarefoot shoes improves postural stability and physical function. “Our balance is immediately better when we can feel the ground,” explains Le Vesconte. “Over time we see increases in foot strength, an indicator for reducing the likelihood of falls.”
A coaching session with Vivobarefoot involves a full assessment of aches and pains, injury history, balance and foot function using a plantar pressure plate, video analysis of walking and running technique – alignment, cadence, relaxation, symmetry and foot strike. You name it, they cover it, then coach you to address any imbalances, including micro-movement drills to help reconnect the mind, body and feet.
Alternatively, Le Vesconte suggests videoing yourself walking or running past a static camera, then slow it down and take a look at your posture when you make contact with the floor – “Are you landing way ahead of your body? Bent at the hip?” – and check your rhythm. “When walking it is natural to land just ahead of the body, however, think heel stroke rather than heel strike,” he explains. For those looking for specifics, we’re talking a rhythm of 120 steps per minute, which encourages a shorter stride, with a softer heel contact and a more upright posture – “hips forward, lead with the torso and walk tall.”
For barefoot-shoe running, Le Vesconte advises upping the beat to 180 steps per minute, maintaining the upright position and short quick strides. “The most important advice is to build running very slowly, after weeks, even months of walking. Just a few minutes, a few times per week, to begin with. Listen to your body and build slower than you think.”
Elsewhere, for the non-barefoot approach, Kirk-Odunubi recommends visiting an independent running store for free gait analysis. “Otherwise, I suggest people go for a stable neutral shoe if they are unsure of their gait style. My go-to shoe is the UnderArmour Sonic 3 – it’s the Goldilocks of shoes, not too soft, not too firm, very responsive and light.”
5 foot exercises to do every day
Stand on one leg
Balance on one leg for one minute, and then the other for one minute, while brushing your teeth. “It’s simple, but effective, and will work all your small intrinsic muscles without you even having to think about it,” promises Kirk-Odunubi, whose foot strength videos on Instagram make for a good starting point.
Roll your feet
Use a tennis, golf or spiky ball to release tension through the feet and stimulate the soles. As demonstrated by Parker on her IGTV.
Pick things up with your toes
Kirk-Odunubi suggests starting by using a towel as your pick-up prop. “Place both feet on a towel and use your toes to grab the towel, lift it and place it down. Repeat on both sides until fatigued. And interchange with foot rolling to help loosen any tension.”
Let’s toe dance
Lift and spread your toes (can you see light between each?), then place them down one at a time, from little toe to big. To further spark that brain-foot connection, try big toe isolation: lifting the big toe while keeping the rest down, and then swapping.
Activate your arches
Place a small-loop resistance band around the feet while standing. Keeping the toes down, move from relaxed feet with flat arches to strong active arches, pushing out against the band and down into the ball of the foot. As a bonus, this will also help to activate the glutes.