Functional feet are my fondest favourites! For fancy footwork and for fleet feet, follow these four fun facts:
- Move your toes
- Walk over non-level ground
- Go barefoot or transition to a more minimal shoe
- Go forth. As in walk. A lot.
Let’s break that down shall we?
Move Your toes: Toes spend a lot of time in socks. Socks spend a lot of time in shoes. Ergo, feet spend a lot of time in shoes, and both socks and shoes conspire to keep your toes from moving as much as they want to. Believe, me your toes want to. They are dying to move. Or maybe they’re just dying. Yes, as alarming as that sounds, a rather common condition of the toes is pinched nerves between the metatarsal heads. The nerves that travel down to your toes have to squeeze in between the bones of the foot which are essentially your toe knuckles. These bones are called metatarsals and the knuckle part is the head of the metatarsal. If your toes are squeezed together all the time, this space will decrease, and the nerves can get pinched, leading to tissue damage and numb toes and pain and neuromas. Some people describe a neuroma like stepping on a stone. I’ve had one, and it does feel bizarrely just like that.
Toes need to spread and they need to close, and they need to lift up and they need to curl under. They need to move in all the ways they are designed to for optimal health, and yet feet are neglected in a great many fitness models. When was the last time you spent an hour at the gym working only the muscles below your ankles? Oh never? That’s what I suspected!
Walk over non-level ground: Urban and rural dwellers alike move on very similar surfaces – flat and level. Sidewalks, driveways, parking lots, malls, roads, park paths, gyms and our own homes are all flat and level. If you need to change elevations, such as floors in a building, stairs are made so you can keep your foot on a flat and level surface as you climb. This does not require your ankle to move as much as it should, and eventually your ankles get weak. As well, all the muscles and joints (YOUR FOOT HAS JOINTS! WHAT?!) of your feet don’t have to move as much as they should, and they get weak and atrophied.
Do you have a habit of spraining your ankles? Do you have plantar fasciitis, neuromas, bunions, unmoving toes, hammer toes? Do you have flat feet? Yeah, me too. So cross train those joints and muscles by walking OFF the path when you can. Use common sense, start on the grass first, before you start hiking over rocks. Get a ball or two and practice standing on them with a bit of weight, to encourage your feet to move in different ways. Use a cobblestone mat at work or at home under your sink.
I made a cheap rock box by going to my grocery store and picking up a cardboard tray (like strawberries come in) and filling it with river rocks from the nursery. Here are a few photos of different scenarios: walking on big and small rocks, barefoot and in shoes.
Go barefoot/transition to minimal shoes: If you wear stiff soled shoes, or heels, transitioning to a more flexible sole and less heel will help your feet be more aware of what’s under them, and also allow them to move over that surface (particularly if it’s uneven). There are special companies that make minimal shoes – which are very bendy twisty. You should transition into these shoes VERY slowly and VERY carefully. You might not be aware of what a weakened state your feet are in right now, and transitioning too quickly can lead to injury, which will be very discouraging. Go slow and go for the long haul.
Go forth: Walking is great for you, your feet, your eyes, your shoulders, your hips, your knees, and your dog. So try to fit in more walking. (Running is not recommended for long term foot health for a currently sedentary population because the G forces are such that pounding on your feet can lead to more or worse conditions. If you want to run, I suggest a thicker soled shoe like an Altra to start.) You can start small and work up. Walk a bit more each day/week and your feet will become stronger, particularly if you can walk off the flat and level path and wear shoes that don’t prevent your foot from at least spreading your toes.
If possible, work up to 8km a day over several walks and at least one longer walk a week.