The feet are the very foundation of our skeleton and as such, play a critical role in our posture and movement habits. With 26 bones in each foot and multiple joint surfaces, a healthy, balanced foot has the capacity for an enormous amount of mobility and adaptability to the surfaces it walks upon. Unfortunately due to restrictive footwear and the monotony of much of the surfaces we now walk on (think carpets, tarmac, flat surfaces) the feet are not getting exposed to the kinds of challenging terrain and environments that keep them supple, strong and healthy.
Our feet are becoming increasingly stiff. The aches of our feet which are critical for healthy biomechanics in the knees, hips and spine begin to collapse, and in so doing we suffer from a sort of internal collapse (the ability to connect to our pelvic floor and core are very much linked to the support of our foot arches). Our toes shrivel, curl and deform and as the feet lose their mobility and strength we become vulnerable to a whole host of foot disorders such as plantarfasciitis, sprained ankles, bunions, shin splints and neuromas.
Dysfunctions in the biomechanics of the feet also have a tendency to ripple upwards causing instability and poor tracking in the knees, pain and dysfunction in the hips and even back pain. Indeed many therapists, including myself, look at the feet as a key contributory factor in lower back pain.
This makes sense when you think of the following analogy. In a building, if the foundations are unstable or weak, this will lead to subsidence and ultimately structural failure or collapse as you go higher up the levels of the building. Our skeletons are much the same, lack of mobility and stability in the feet can, and most likely will, end up causing problems for the joints that stack above them.
When I work with a client for the first time I spend quite a bit of time educating them about the important role of the feet and how they should be moving. The following exercises are just some of the ones I regularly turn to when working to bring the feet back to balance.
Massage, Sensitisation and Circulation
The first few exercises are all geared to re-awakening your brain-body connection with your feet. The soles of our feet are covered in nerve endings that transmit important information about the environment to our nervous systems and brain. Many of my clients are working with feet that are often de-sensitised and lack good circulation which is what these first few exercises work to address:
Plantarfascia ball rolling
I have a love-hate relationship with this exercise but it is one of my favourites for both waking up the feet and helping to work through tension and tightness in the sole of the foot. Thanks to our increased understanding about the role of fascia/connective tissue and its impact on our mobility we now know that rolling out the fascia of our feet has a knock-on positive benefit on the flexibility and mobility of the whole back of the body. Try this: From standing, come into a forward bend position reaching your fingers towards your toes. Take a few breaths and just notice how you feel, the level of intensity of stretch/sensations and where the tightness is located. Now take a spiky ball and roll it firmly under the sole of your foot for 1 minute. Put enough pressure through the foot to be uncomfortable but stop before the point you start to cry!
You can make long scrubbing motions, little circles or even just hold the ball still as you apply pressure through a particularly tender spot.Repeat on the other foot. Now come into your forward bend position again, reaching down to touch your toes. Notice the difference! How does the body feel now? What is the level of intensity? Most people find the second forward bend a lot easier, with more range of motion and less overall tension particularly in the spine and hamstrings. The moral of the story is this – if you have a tight lower back or hamstrings, roll out your feet!
This is also a particularly useful exercise for clients working with plantarfasciitis, heel pain and neuromas. Aim to do this at lease once a day or even keep these balls under your desk for you to roll your feet out whilst you work!
Fingers Between Toes and Foot Massage
I encourage my clients to get into the habit of massaging their feet or better yet getting a loving friend, partner, family member to step in. If you are prone to foot cramps you could do this with magnesium oil, which is thought to help reduce cramping and soreness in the feet.
Start by using your thumbs to rub firmly through the soles of the feet. Work into the heels, balls of the feet and around the toes.
Next thread each finger between each toe. Do the best you can – if you can’t get each finger between each toe that’s fine – just do what you can, it does get easier with time. Now stretch the fingers out to spread the toes out. Repeat this a few times. You can also point and flex the foot and roll it around in circles, keeping the fingers threaded between the toes. Continue for 1 minute and then repeat on the second side.
These next few stretches are about improving the pliability and mobility of the feet. It’s worth saying that many of these exercises can be quite uncomfortable and awkward when you first do them. Persevere – work within a tolerable range of sensation and avoid anything that brings on acute pain. Monitor the sensations in the foot both as you’re holding the pose and also after and adjust your position accordingly. Aim to hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds, gradually building up to 2 minutes for each pose:
Sometimes jokingly called Broken Toe Pose! Not an easy posture but so valuable and worth persevering with particularly if you do a lot of sport or running. Again, like many of these exercises it gets easier with time. Play with your edge but don’t push into acute pain. If you have bunions be mindful to keep the weight even across the ball of the foot and try to get the toes pointing straight forwards as much as possible rather than out to the sides.
Come into a squat position with your toes tucked under and your knees parallel and hip-width apart. Make sure that all your toes are tucked under you – you may need to work to get the pinky toes under! Make sure that your feels are not sickling outwards but instead gently draw the heels towards each other so that all 10 toes are pointing straight forwards and the heels are right behind the balls of the feet.
If your knees are sensitive you may need to lean into the hands, lifting the hips slightly or try rolling up a blanket/towel and tucking it behind your knees before bringing your hips back towards your heels.
You can rest your hands on your thighs (more intense), bring blocks under your hands or bring your hands to the floor either side of your knees (less intense) to help take some of the weight off the feet.
Start by coming into a kneeling position with the toes pointing straight back and the tops of the feet on the floor. This pose may be enough if you’re already feeling a stretch in the tops of the feet or front of thighs. Again, make sure that your heels are not sickling outwards but instead gently draw the heels towards each other so that all 10 toes are pointing straight back and the heels are right behind the balls of the feet. Putting a tight yoga strap around the ankles can also help with this.
If your knees are sensitive you may need to lean into the hands, lifting the hips slightly or try rolling up a blanket/towel and tucking it behind your knees before bringing your hips back towards your heels. Skip this pose if the knees are acutely painful.
The next stage is to explore lifting either one or both knees away from the ground. This will increase the stretch through the top of the foot and shinbone. Again make sure heels don’t roll outwards, keep them hugging in. Hold for 30 seconds and build up to 2 minutes hold.
Half forward bend with a rolled blanket or yoga block
Take a yoga mat and roll it up to about 2-3” thickness in diameter. Step the balls of the feet onto the roll with the heels on the floor.
You can bring a chair or 2 yoga blocks on the floor in front of you for support. Hinging from your hips and keeping your spine long (avoid hunching over), bend your knees slightly and start to forward bend bringing your hands to the chair, block or floor.
Shift your weight so that it’s balanced right over the front of the heels. Without rounding your back, locking out the knees or shifting your weight back, gently try to press the thighs back. You should feel a deep release around the ankles, calves and up into the hamstrings. Hold for 30 seconds and build up to 2 minutes hold.
Garland pose with a rolled blanket or mat under the heels
Start with your feet a little wider than your hips with the heels on the mat roll and the toes on the floor. You can keep the feet parallel or allow the feet to turn out slightly – check that the kneecaps are pointing in the same direction as your toes.
Keeping your spine long and lower abdominals lightly engaged, start to bend your knees and lower your hips towards a squat. If the heels lift, put more height under your heels. Allow the heels to sink down and feel the pelvis hang away from the spine. You can bring your elbows inside of your knees and use the arms to gently press the thighs out, knees over toes.
If this pose is relatively easy for you, you can do this without any mat roll under the heels. Hold for 30 seconds and build up to 2 minutes hold.
Strength, Stability, Proprioception and Balance
These last few exercises are designed to work on the stability and strength of the foot, ankles and lower legs. Be prepared for a lot of wobbling! In fact the wobbles and constant micro-adjustments are all part and parcel of the body building strength and you will find these decrease as you get more stable. Standing on the block whilst balancing adds another challenge dynamic into the mix – as you get stronger you can make the surface you stand on less stable for example by layering a soft spongy blanket on top of the block. Closing the eyes also ups the challenge level quite significantly!
Mountain pose – feet hipwidth apart
This is a useful exercise to see how you distribute your body weight through your feet and to make some micro-adjustments to be in greater balance.
Come to stand with your feet hip-width apart. Stand with your feet parallel with the 2nd/3rd toes pointing straight ahead, or if more comfortable for the knees slightly turned out with the big-toes pointing straight forward.
Standing tall with your spine tall and your knees unlocked, close your eyes and notice where your weight is. Is it more on the right foot or left? More towards the front balls of the feet or towards the heels? Now explore the following 4 small adjustments:
- Explore shifting your weight so that you are balanced between left and right foot.
- Bring the weight to the center of each foot, with the weight right in front of each heel.
- Now lift all 10 toes off the floor (keeping the balls of the feet on the ground). Notice how this action lifts the inner and outer arches of the feet. Can you keep this lift of the arches as you gently relax the toes down?
- Try to bring an even sense of weight between the big toe, little toe and center of each heel – like a tripod of support.
Notice how these little micro-adjustments change the feeling throughout the rest of the body.
Big toes raised
Now keeping the adjustments you just made in mountain pose intact, see if you can lift just your big toes off the floor, whilst keeping the other toes on the ground. Can you do this without locking your knees, or rolling to the outer edges of the feet? Try this a few times! It will potentially be very frustrating/difficult to do when you start but persevere – we are strengthening the neuro-muscular pathways of the feet. Repeat this action 10 times.
Four toes raised
The same as above but this time keep the big toes down and try to lift the other four toes off the ground. See again if you can do this without rolling to the inner edges of the feet or locking the knees. Repeat this action 10 times. Even if the toes don’t cooperate there is still value in just thinking about doing the movement – eventually the brain and the body will cooperate!
Heel raises with a chair
The key with this is to lift the heel straight up so that the weight is spread evenly between the balls of the feet. Avoid rolling the ankles outwards or inwards as you lift and lower. Squeeze and engage the glutes and legs as you lift and lower – you should feel this work in the glutes and backs of the legs.
Holding onto the back of a chair. Place your feet hip-width apart and parallel to each other. Inhale to lift your heels up, coming onto your tip-toes. Exhale to lower the heels. Make sure your body stays upright – try to avoid leaning forwards or back as you lift and lower. Repeat this action 10 times. Take a rest and then repeat 10 more times.
Hip stabilisation – leg circles
This exercise is designed to strengthen the muscles of the outer hips and improve the biomechanics between the feet, ankles, knees and hips.
Stand your right foot on the block (or book) and hover the left leg up so that the hip bones are now level. The standing right knee should be unlocked and the outer hips firming in. You will start to feel the outer hip of the standing leg working. Make sure the standing right foot doesn’t turn out but points straight ahead.
With control and without moving the hips or upper body, start to gently circle the hovering left leg and foot, forwards, out to the side and backwards as if you were tracing a circle with your big toe on the floor. Keep the outer hips firm and still and watch that the standing knee continues to track forwards over the toes – don’t let it roll in! Do not let the upper body lean forwards and backwards – isolate the movement just into the leg. Do this 5 times in one direction and then 5 times in the other direction. Switch sides.
Standing tall place your left foot onto the inner ankle, calf or thigh of your right leg. Make sure the foot is placed above or below the knee rather than directly on the side of the knee. Keep the hips and toes of your standing foot pointing forwards, as you widen the right thigh to the right by squeezing the buttock muscles gently. Find one point of focus to gaze at for greater balance and stability. Firm the muscles of your legs and outer hips in, lift tall through the sides of the waist and extend the crown of the head to the sky. Hands can rest on your hips, in prayer at the chest or reach them skywards.
To make this pose more challenging for the muscles of the feet, ankles and hips, you can stand on a soft surface such as a rolled blanket or spongy yoga block. To test your balance and proprioception still further you could explore closing the eyes! Hold for 5 breaths and then switch sides.