Did you know that April is foot health awareness month? So let’s talk about your feet. It’s been a long winter. Your feet have been locked in stiff winter boots, skates, ski boots, etc., for long enough. But before you slip into sandals or flip flops, you’ll need to unlock stiff joints, and stretch and strengthen the hundreds of muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your feet and ankles.
The feet and ankles also contain one-quarter of the bones in the human body, dozens of joints, and a network of blood vessels, nerves, skin, and soft tissue. “These components work together to provide the body with support, balance, and mobility…The human foot combines mechanical complexity and structural strength. The ankle serves as foundation, shock absorber and propulsion engine.” (1)
Try this simple exercise: take off your shoes and walk around with “stiff” ankles - i.e., lock your ankles so they can’t flex your feet as you take each step. How does it make the rest of your body feel? Can you walk quickly? When your ankles lose mobility, as is wont to occur when your feet are constantly encased in footwear, it slows down your walking speed. As you slow down to account for ankle stiffness, it changes the alignment of your weight-bearing joints and impacts your posture. All of a sudden, muscles aren’t being used the way they should be - i.e., for the job they were designed to do. This shift in muscular roles can lead to pain and injury in other parts of the body.
When your feet and ankles lack stability and balance, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments lack strength or flexibility, or both. Tendons and ligaments are connective tissue; tendons connect the muscles to bones, while ligaments connect bones to other bones. Connective tissue has less “give” - i.e., potential flexibility - than muscles. If you over-stretch tendons and ligaments, you risk injury and a lengthy healing process.
“Once a muscle has reached its absolute maximum length, attempting to stretch the muscle further only serves to stretch the ligaments and put undue stress on the tendons…ligaments will tear when stretched more than 6% of their normal length. Tendons are not even supposed to be able to lengthen. Even when stretched ligaments and tendons do not tear, loose joints and/or a decrease in the joint’s stability can occur (thus vastly increasing your risk of injury).” (2)
Earlier this year, my son injured his foot playing basketball. What we originally thought was a broken bone was actually a partial lateral ligament tear. Good news and bad news: the good news was that it wasn’t a complete ligament tear, while the bad news was a slow recovery time and an increased risk of re-injury for the next 1 to 2 years. Six weeks that included crutches, two types of foot braces, multiple appointments, and daily rehab exercises got him to a 90% return of strength and mobility in his foot. And he’s 13 years old. The older you are, the longer the recovery time after an injury.
Exercises for Your Feet and Ankles
At least once a day, you should lose the shoes and love your feet. Your entire body will thank you for it. And you’ll thank me later.
Amanda Sterczyk is a Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM), an Exercise is Medicine Canada (EIMC) Fitness Professional, and a Certified Essentrics® Instructor. She offers in-home personal training in central Ottawa. Amanda specializes in helping older adults maintain and increase strength, flexibility, and mobility. No fitness goal is too small, in her opinion.