By Jane Morris
Feet are our supporting pillars, our primary contact with the ground. Feet are perfectly engineered to withstand all sorts of pressures from standing, walking, running, jumping or climbing, and adapt to virtually all types of terrains, whether uneven or flat, soft or solid, smooth or spiky. The elegant play between the small bones in our feet, our balance system (proprioception) and the work of the small foot muscles allow for all of this, along with the way in which the foot is connected to the ankle, tibia (shin bone) knee, thigh and up into the hips and beyond.
But something may have gone wrong… in a large proportion of us, feet may be far from expressing their perfect function, contributing to some of the aches and pains we commonly experience in modern society (ie. knee pain, back pain, even shoulder of neck pain). Really, I hear many of you say!
The structure of the foot
The foot is a complex section of the body consisting of 26 different bones, 19 small muscles that sit within the foot (intrinsic muscles) and 10 muscles that originate in the leg but then cross over the foot. A lot of stuff! Then there’s all the ligaments, nerves and joints. As you can imagine, it is an incredibly well-designed section of the body, each element working in coordination with the other to allow us to remain stably planted on the ground, no matter what you're doing.
The sense of proprioception
Proprioception is the ability of our brain to perceive body positioning and movement, often referred to as our sense of balance. There are millions of nerves within our feet providing vital information to the proprioceptive system of the brain each second that passes. Our feet work like little pressure pads constantly mapping where the weight is being borne. They send information up to combine with visual and vestibular input which informs the brain where to place our centre of gravity.
Our feet are also the initiators on the positive feed forward response - this means that weight bearing pressure through the feet activates our antigravity muscles, in particular those that extend our hips and knees. This is what equips us to walk, run and jump.
So, if you want well-functioning glutes – first start a conversation with your feet!
Many of you who have been treated by me are more than familiar with that concept.
Here in the West, we desensitise the feet, wearing thick soled shoes and socks so we rarely expose our feet to a wide variety of sensory variation.
If we don’t receive enough stimulation and feedback then in order to create more sensory noise we increase tension in our feet, making them more rigid. However, all this does is make our feet and ankles even less supple and we in fact feel even less, which can potentially lead to hammer toes, clawing of the toes, digging in of the big toe to the ground, restricting the ankle mobility and too much contraction to the muscles around the foot, ankle and lower leg. This makes balance even harder, not allowing us to adapt to fluctuations in the surface of the ground and so our posture can become even more compromised.
There are occasions when a foot can be too unresponsive and become saggy – this is just as problematic, as the foot isn’t listening and talking to you to provide that support response. That then doesn’t light up the circuitry in the nervous system to support you posture.
So, feet need to listen.
This is such a common problem and affects so many people from all walks of life, not just the older age group, but office workers, people who have sustained injuries in a range of different parts of their body such as lower back pain, knee pain, even shoulder pain and right through even to the elite athletes.
Why not try and explore your feet:
First take off your shoes and socks.
Sit in a comfortable position in a chair and feet on the ground.
Imagine your feet are like big play – dough feet – lovely and soft.
Now focus on one foot for the minute and notice how your foot settles on the floor – do you feel one part of the foot more than another.
Place your hands around the back of one of your thighs - focus on one foot at a time. Feeling those hamstrings at the back of the knee, as if they are a set of reins, on the inside and outside of your thigh.
Gently and with minimal effort roll your foot from side to side… what do you feel? Stay soft and do this with minimal effort. See how little effort you can make to produce some lovely movement into the foot.
Feel how those hamstrings also work as you move your foot.
If you struggle with this, then place your fingers onto your shin so that you are circling your leg with your hands and roll your soft foot from side to side. Notice how the shin bone also moves as you roll your foot from side to side.
If that is still difficult pick up your foot and give it a rub to remind it that it is indeed a structure that feels! Then have another play.
Then do the same with. The other foot.
There’s no right and wrong… what do you experience?
Was it easier on one side. Was there more mobility or more sensation on one side. Does one foot feel more pliable or even more solid on one side.
This is the beginning of teaching feet to listen!
So, remember having feet that listen, means that forces are dissipated and spread right through the body instead of travelling up to impact directly the knee, hip and lower back (for instance, when walking, running or jumping). This will give a better sense of connection and improve the body’s support mechanism and therefore help reduce likelihood of injury.
So, do your feet listen and have a conversation with the rest of your body?
What did you experience?