Building the foundation of your body from the ground up
The feet and ankles are used more than any other part of the body (except the hands) on a day to day basis.
This area of the body allows us to do so much from the minute we start walking as a child, and for the rest of our lives.
So my question is ‘how much care and time do you spend on ensuring your feet and ankles function correctly?’
I expect not a lot, or you may not have given it much thought. This is true of most of us.
If we were to spend a bit of time (like we do on our hair or general cleanliness) I personally believe that we will and should be moving the way we did when we were much younger.
Think of seeing a toddler playing with their toys. They’re squatting down like in the picture below.
Can you still do this today?
I’m guessing probably not unless this is something you have maintained over your life or have been working towards.
This primarily comes down to good ankle mobility (dorsiflexion) and good foot stability to hold the position in place for a period of time.
Other key factors are hip mobility and any previous injuries/surgeries to the hips, ankles and lower back area.
The foot and ankle are made up of a large number of small bones, large bones, joints, ligaments, plus major and minor muscle groups.
As you can see, there are a large number of tiny bones in the foot, which allow for many intricate movements (the same as the hand).
The main bones are tibia and fibula, which connects to the talus bone, and bridges the gap between the calcaneus (heel bone) and tarsals (bones at the top of the foot).
The main muscle groups involved are the gastrocnemius, soleus and tibialis anterior.
The muscles at the back of the leg ie gastrocnemius and soleus allow us to produce an action called plantar flexion, which basically means bringing your heel up from the floor or pointing your toes down/away from you.
The gastrocnemius muscle does this when the leg is straight (ie walking) and the soleus allows us to do this when the knee is bent (ie sitting at a desk). The opposing muscle group to this is the tibialis anterior, which is located at the front of the lower leg ie shin area.
This allows us to go into an action called dorsi-flexion ie pointing or pulling your toes up to the sky or shin and is one of the main actions we lose as we get older, for a number of reasons.
Some of the main culprits that effect ankle mobility are things like:
- flexibility of the gastrocnemius/soleus muscles
- the ankle joint itself, along with any restrictions
- previous injuries
- hip mobility
- wearing footwear with an elevated heel
The flexibility of the actual muscles that allow for us to go into plantar flexion can get very short and tight, as they may constantly be put into a shortened position via a persons footwear.
This shortness/tightness can also happen if the person has strained/torn any of the major groups around that area or Achilles’ tendon itself. This then creates scar tissue, which causes restrictions when fully healed and can be difficult to break down.
Plus another factor that can effect our ankle mobility is further up the chain at the pelvis/hip area. With our lives being more sedentary and working behind desks, a persons hips can be put into a position called anterior pelvic tilt which causes the bodies centre of balance to go off and make the person shift their weight more on to the balls of there feet, which in turn causes excessive plantar flexion (calf shortening) to compensate for this posture.
There are stretches that can be done to ease up some of the tension in these areas.
Here are two very good exercises to try:
As you will see, these stretches should be done in a controlled manner to avoid any muscle strains and allow the full benefits of the stretch to take place.
They should be done dynamically in the warm-up phase of a training session and statically at the end of a workout or rest day.
Ankle joint restrictions
An important bone that effects this action of dorsi-flexion is the talus bone, located at the front of the foot, between tibia/fibula and the tarsals (bones of the foot).
If this area has been injured or otherwise commonly, fractured, this can effect a persons ability to go into deep dorsi flexion as the compression of the joint causes extreme pain.
This will be felt commonly during some sort of squatting movement, or when bringing the knee over the toes, but can sometimes be mistaken for a tightness in the muscles at the back of the leg ie soleus and gastrocnemius, so a good way to test this is the 5 inch wall test below:
This restriction can be loosed with a specific banded calf mobilisation techniques:
This should allow the talus bone to sit correctly and comfortably in the right place in the ankle joint and allow the ankle properly move into dorsiflexion with minimal restrictions.
The base of the foot
In order for the ankle to move correctly, it has to be able to work from a base of stability.
This came to notice in the fitness industry, when top Physical therapist Gray Cook and certified strength and conditioning specialists Mike Boyle came out with the stability/mobility chart back in 2010, they noticed some familiar trends in the following joints:
“The foot has a tendency toward sloppiness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of stability and motor control. We can blame poor footwear, weak feet and exercises that neglect the foot, but the point is that the majority of our feet could be more stable.”
“The ankle has a tendency toward stiffness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of mobility and flexibility. This is particularly evident in the common tendency toward dorsi-flexion limitation.”
Taking into account the stability/mobility chart devised by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle, not only having good ankle mobility is important, but having good foot stability is just as important a factor when it comes to allowing the body to do what is what programmes to do.
The picture below gives a good example of this.
The body cannot produce good quality movement from a point of instability, so building up that stable base all starts with the foot.
We are looking for an even distribution of weight along the 3 parts of the foot, as shown in this diagram:
If we distribute too much weight into one certain part of a specific arch constantly over time, this can contribute to ligament strains, bone breaks and possibly even Achilles’ tendon strains/tears.
To avoid such possible injuries or chance of injuries in the future, we can work on strengthening and loosening off any of these weak areas to make them more stable for us.
First of all loosening off any tightness or restrictions in the foot is our first point of call, as we can’t go forward if we keep looking backwards, so certain techniques like SMR / massage on the base of the foot using a stick or small dense ball, can ease of some of these restrictions or even painful conditions like plantar fasciitis.
The video below shows how to do this techniques correctly:
This will help relieve any tension at the base of the foot, as over time our feet just become big immovable blocks of ice.
The second step to take would be to develop some stability or ie grip strength in the base of the foot, which would give us a stable base to move from (ie see cannoe picture).
The picture below from the FRS explains also the importance and how to perform one of the possible strengthening exercises:
This is one variation of doing the exercise, another is actually gripping with the toes to develop some strength in the tendons and ligaments at the top part of the foot. Below is a video demonstrating this:
Developing foot strength is not something that we regularly think about it even think about strengthening, but if not used then our foot and ankle will start moving in ways it should not and developing a number if issues. Could you imagine not being about to grip anything or use the muscles in your hands or forearms, what that would do to that area?
A great way to integrate the positive effects of foot stability and ankle mobility into more day to day actives, is by working on our single leg stability.
This allows us to see what we may need to work on by showing us how we are distributing the load of our body through single leg stability and developing a better neurological pathway between the brain and muscles, tendons, ligaments.
This is especially good for people who have had previous injuries / operations, as the neuro -connection is one of the first things we lose when we tear or operate on a part of the body, so it makes sense to get the WiFi connection between body and mind signalling properly.
Below is a video of exercises to do for this:
The feet and ankles are such important parts of the body that tend to be ignored by us, until something happens or doesn’t function correctly, but from my experience of coaching and exercising over the years I can honestly say that looking after yourself from the ground up has such a domino effect on how the rest of our body feels.
So a bit of of foot and ankle care along with a nice pair of cozy socks will keep us on the right route to moving the way we should.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave below.
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you”,