Feet demonstrate their ability to "hammer in the toes" and create bunions, they can develop plantar fasciitis in the arch and heel, they can present a Morton’s neuroma and osteoarthritis, bursitis, claw toe, or they can fall flat or host a stress fracture. And when I hear these conditions of the feet labeled as "inherited" or a condition of aging!! Well, I simply want to lie down where once I stood and suffer the agony of "defeet!" If you are doomed to have poor feet from getting older, just end it soon, and if god-forbid you have a genetic string of bunions running rampant in your DNA, start hoarding your pain meds now, because those are getting harder to come by!
Rather than wait for the other foot to drop, I want to pursue ideas and practices that help you create stable, responsive, pain free feet. Here again, for as impressive and complicated as the layers and mechanics of the foot truly are to allow for the endurance and adaptation demands, with such an ability to absorb a wide and impressive range of heavy-hitting support, the care of feet is kinda straight forward. Qualifier, foot care is most "straightforward" when you still sit in a place of prevention with the feet you have. If your feet experienced scar tissue, fracture or strain they most surely require steps for strength and mobility, but with slightly more specific considerations. Ultimately enhancing the ability of your feet is like any training, we look at what forces you have adapted your feet with, and we determine what can stay and what should shift. This article is intended to offer current insights of the toes of the foot. How your toes support your movement and how regular stretching of your toes can support your feet, and be part of the training to increase the strength and responsive features of those fabulous feet!
This month, as we navigate the Flexibility key of EQUIVITA’s Five Keys of Fitness, our foot care focus centers around stretching. Stretching the toes to be specific, as a way to create space in the tissues of your foot (the joints and tendons, the bones, the muscles and the fascia).
● The space between the toes allows for an effective dispersement of force as you strike the foot into the ground.
● The muscles in the foot are able to develop in balance, and perform a strong push through the ground, helping to ensure everything "up-stream" (ankles, calves, knees, hips) has access to its full muscle potential.
● The plantar fascia has the space and support to perform its trampoline-like function
● You are able to move the toes freely and independently, allowing you to best perceive and navigate changing terrain, and accommodate for more deft balance demands to your movement.
I have drawn an example of how the position of the toes, whether wide or more compressed, can influence the concentration of force of your foot system--in this drawing most specifically to the arch of the foot. Notice the shift from foot #2 where the wide toes support more central load to the arch of your foot, where the compressed toe pattern on foot #1 shift the load to the inside of the foot. This is where the content gets to be overwhelming, but shifts like that are what influence the body to create patterns of adaptation that over time manifest as painful conditions, like some of the foot conditions referenced in the above info chart.
Stated simply, it seems that healthy feet have wide spread toes, as the wider the spread of your toes the bigger your base of support--this translates into a better ability to balance your weight transferred during motion. Although it seems some professionals for the foot feel there is merit to being able to independently move each of the toes; there’s consistent agreement that the big toe should be able to function separate from the other toes, and perform as an anchor for movement and direction.
So if you find that you look at your feet and they hold the shape of the shoes you wear, or you have struggled with painful or tight feet, perhaps you start with simply stretching your toes. In the images below I have a couple ways to initiate toe stretching:
● Lace the fingers between the toes and twist them forward backward, then side to side for roughly 2 minutes (I use a timer...longer than you think)
● Use a set of toe stretchers. The YogaToes gems in the one photo are a pretty big stretch, the thinner profile and softer material of the Mind Bodhi Toe Separators have stretch but less intense.
The danger is in the dose, right? While that statement is a tad dramatic, it underscores the belief that adaptation is the result of demand. If you only wear the amazing wedge heels a few hours a month, the ratio of demand is pretty low. If you never go barefoot, what happens then? Demand by another disguise.
There are a lot of questions raised around how constant use of athletic sneakers, widely thought to be the best shoe for good foot care, are guilty of over lift to the heel(marketed as a good heel cushion). Not having a wide enough/round enough toe box in the shoe to allow for the toes to support the foot, rather the front footbed of your foot is responsible for most of the force you generate and cannot receive support from the toes. Having a shoe with a thick cushion sole (marketed as a stability shoe), which suspends much of our ability to push out through our toes.
In some ways I think of feet as our body’s ears to the ground on which we walk, which means if we wear shoes over them all the time...well, it’s like wearing ear muffs to class, sure you can hear, kind of. Barefeet are the way the body listens to the surface of the world. It seems worthwhile to help our feet manage some time out of shoes. If that is a highly uncomfortable situation for you, maybe that is how you start to structure a toe stretch target for training. Stretch the toes a couple minutes and walk around your home barefoot for a short time.
I’m not saying those sweet Lucky-Red sneakers are leaving my uniform for good, and while I am sad to think about introducing the use of ‘natural’ footwear into my world, because I LOVE FASHION!!! And it’s not obvious to me that those two worlds have met...I am taking the dumb plunge, because I love life-long strong feet the most. Natural shoes are defined as having a large round toe box so the toes can seat themselves apart and flex and extend without restriction. It is my preference to increase the use of my barefoot, introduce some wide toe shoes to my workout/running life, and occasionally into my workday. Dynamic balance considerations, we at EQUIVITA built a brand on it.
Next month we will focus on the Cardio Key, and I will continue to move the conversation on training strong responsive feet. That article will focus on practices that support agility drills that you could adopt as a warm up to your walking/jogging/running practice. If you have questions about any part of this content on stretching your toes, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In good health!