Build Strong and Healthy Feet for Life! (+ Mobility Routine)
From the Bottom Up
When it comes to the realm of sports many people think about optimizing a lot of different areas of their life. Not seldom people micromanage themselves and focus on the tiny changes that don’t matter much. One example of that would be protein shake timing – it doesn’t matter much but many overvalue it without making sure other more important basics are in check.
One of those basics that get often overlooked are feet. Coming back to the introductory idea, people train a lot of structures isolated – rotator cuff? Yeah. Wrists? Yep. Serratus anterior? Some freaks. But what many forget and take for granted are feet. Strong and healthy feet are very low-maintainance once achieved, but in our modern society, they experience a borderline lifestyle between fashion and functionality.
And those are what we’re looking at in detail today, to bring the joint health serious forward. If you missed the first part about wrists, you can find it here.
Your feet are the distant siblings of your hands. Although surprisingly different, many structures are similar. Even outside of your feet, the ankle is more similar to your wrist than one might think. Evolution is smart, not fancy.
Likewise your wrists, and almost every other body part, your feet are a very complex piece of engineering. It took nature a few hundred million years to build them into the product they are today. Plus, we humans are some kind of experiment, as most animals aren’t bipeds. We got a special treatment regarding upright posture, feet as our only load-bearing structures, brain size, vision as our primary sense, and many others.
So let’s look at first at how your feet are build, to make it easier to understand how they function, why they could cause foot pain and what training can fix them for lifelong, healthy feet. Keep in mind that I am no anatomy professor and try to restrict us to the most important structures to get a basic understanding. With that disclaimer said, let’s first look at the scaffolding of your feet!
The Bones of your Feet
Bone anatomy is one of the main facts where you can see the similarity between your hands and your feet. Within your feet, you have a hindfoot, a midfoot, and a forefoot made up from 28 bones in total.
The Hindfoot is the base structure connection directly to your two shinbones. This is where your two ankle joints are located and a lot of force acts upon. That’s why this area is predominated by strong bones, a lot of range of motion, and many ligaments keeping it in check. The two bones making them up are the talus and the calcaneus.
The midfoot consists of five bones. It has many joint connections between each of them, but these joints tend to be rigid in comparison, not able to express a lot of motion. The five bones are the three cuneiform, the cuboid, and navicular bone.
The forefoot is made of five metatarsalia, fourteen phalangeal bones, and two sesamoid bones. These whole lot of bones make up for plenty of variables to promote movement.
Although technically not in your feet your two shinbones, the tibia and fibula, promote massively to foot function through your ankle joint. Those two are mainly connected with your talus bone.1
The Muscles of your Feet
When it comes to muscles your feet are like your hands the two most complicated structures to learn with regard to soft tissue anatomy. First and foremost you can divide your muscles into muscles locate directly in your foot aka intrinsic or in your shin and therefore outside of your foot aka extrinsic.
So let’s first look at the extrinsic muscles:
You can further divide the muscles outside your foot into an anterior, lateral, deep posterior, and superficial posterior department.
In these 4 departments are the main movers of your foot located. For example your tibialis anterior in the anterior department – it flexes the foot. Or your gastrocnemius and soleus in the superficial posterior department as main flexors.
They’re connected with the bones of your foot through long tendons and held wrapped to your bones through strong ligaments. That’s how the flexor of your big toe can sit in your shin. Sounds crazy? Welcome to evolution.
Next on our list are intrinsic muscles. These are many small muscles sitting directly in your foot. They mostly have a stabilizing function or promote small movements, unlike the big extrinsic movers.
Other Important Structures to hear about
One structure we already talked about is the Talus Bone. Because of its importance in regard to movement, it makes sense to talk about it a bit more. Also called the roll bone it does exactly that and promotes rotation throughout many joints with a lot of bones. That’s why your talus is almost completely covered in cartilage while not restricted by a single ligament.
Another super important and often foot pain invoking structure is the famous Plantar Fascia. It is simply a fibrous structure spanning from the very heel of your foot to the bottom end of each of your five toes. Think of it as a tight parachute spanned at the bottom of your foot. So what’s that parachute for? Arch Support through tightening and loosening when you walk. On each step. That’s an amazing piece of architecture!2
Last but not the least comes the arch – which is in fact 3 arches, two longitudinal and one transverse arch. They consist of 26 bones, 36 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments per side. If that’s not complex, I don’t know what is. The arches job is mainly to make walking efficient. By its elasticity, it saves energy with each step and performs tasks that otherwise jet done actively by muscles. Moreover, the arch is one of the stablest and best weight-bearing structures known to mankind – ask every architect.3
How to warm up your Feet
As already touched upon, feet need very little maintenance once in a good baseline condition. They are very resilient structures build for load and well-adjusted to it. What often makes problems is mobility and stability:
Dorsiflexion at the Ankle
Extension of the Feet
The many joints within your foot enable mobility as well as stability. So where do the problems come from? Often wrong use. By not reading the user manual and stuffing them in rigid springlike footwear. But we’re going later into that topic. Let’s first look at a few nice warmup exercises that can help to prime them before moving on to more complex movement patterns.
As many people have problems with flexing their ankles spending some time to warm it up is very beneficial before lower body movements like the lunge or the squat. I would utilize a deep split squat for this pattern, doing 5-8 reps and spending around 3-5s on each rep in the deepest flexion your ankle manages. Therefore try to pull yourself deeper into the position by contracting your shin muscles. 1 set of those should be fine. You can find Tom Merrick explaining this exercise well in this video on YouTube.
If you experience a pinching sensation at the front of your ankle distracting yourself while split squatting with a thicker resistance band* might be beneficial, as it enables the talus bone to roll better by creating more space within the joint.
Next comes a version of the Japanese toe sit. It works your feet in extension and is very intense, especially the latter pushup version so make sure to progress intently.
Sit on your toes with both of your feet extended and spend some time there. If comfortable push yourself up with your hands and try to balance on your toes while pushing your legs actively into the ground.
Short Foot/Single-legged Balance
What the Short Foot exercise does is build up the arch within your foot and strengthen the intrinsic foot muscles, that keep the tension up. It is a great exercise to feel the weight distribution in your feet in a tripod form and how that arch is supposed to feel. Also, the short foot exercise is a great one to do while balancing on one leg.
Stand on one leg while trying to create a tripod with your foot. Your big toe, your small toe, and your heel should be your main points of contact to the ground, while you feel the weight of your body evenly distributed. Push your big to in the ground to tense your intrinsic foot muscles and build up the arch. Do this for around ~30s-60s per side or 10-12r of 3-5s.
Keeping your Feet Healthy!
The Problem with Modern Footwear
Keeping healthy feet isn’t all too hard to maintain, what can take some time is getting there at first. Of course that strongly depends on your starting point. The thing about feet is they are an often neglected body part locked away in stylish, but very restrictive and biomechanically-suicidal footwear.
What I mean by that is that most of modern footwear strayed away from the roots too far. It forgot why its there and got to an object of fashion with tremendous health impacts.
What were shoes made for?
For one thing – protection. Especially mechanical protection against sharp edges and the like, as well as against temperature. Just imagine walking barefoot on snow for a prolonged period of time. No fun, unless you’re Wim Hof.4
Nowadays footwear has more tech in it than was needed to first get to the moon. Cushioning here, a raised heel there and flashlights to finish it off. While some sneakers may look like cushioning and raised heels come for a price
Of Cushions and Raised Heels
As we’ve seen the foot is an incredible piece of architecture shaped by evolution over millions of years to what it is today. How can one industry think to know better? Our striving for ever-growing comfort makes us weak. Feet worked for eons and truly the uprising of footwear was a big plus. You could run faster by not stepping onto stones everywhere and avoid frostburn by not walking on ice. That worked for 99% of our time as Homo sapiens sapiens. That changed with the upcoming of industrial footwear and shoes getting a symbol of status and fashion.
The problem with cushions is that they rob you of all the sensory feedback you get from the ground. Like your hand, your feet are full of nerves to experience touch. Plus, uneven ground mobilizes your foot joints and needs your muscles to work hard. With cushioning you get rid of that. Not entirely, but to a large degree.
Raised heels influence your gait strongly and necessarily create compensations upward the chain. You need to even out the raised feet somewhere, otherwise we all would walk tilted frontwards not upright. And this compensation comes with a ton of biomechanical changes to posture, as well as your gait and running technique. The mechanisms behind how modern footwear influences your body is a topic worth a post itself…
Rethink Footwear and choose minimal
While certain shoes are important for specific jobs, generally I would recommend transitioning towards minimal footwear. Get rid of cushions and raised heels and back to traditional footwear – as a means of protection without any biomechanical impact. Nowadays most minimal shoes look good and not like clown shoes anymore. They combine functionality with fashion. The way it should be.
Keep your specific shoes for their tasks for god’s sake – no one wants to go climbing barefoot, work in a mine without steel caps, or go to a meeting in sandals – but most of the time you should go minimal.
What you do most of the time matters. If you wear your fancy business shoes for important client meetings 2 hours a week, your body couldn’t care less. But if you run around all day every day in your new fancy super-cushioned shoes you will notice a difference.
Help the transition to minimal footwear with clever foot mobility. But later on, you want to do as little as possible. A bit of foot rolling here for pleasure and there within a warmup, but as already said they are easy to keep healthy once you got strong feet.
The Foot-Restoration Routine
I got most of the methodical style from the FootCollective. This team of Canadian physiotherapists does great work regarding foot health – check out their website and YouTube for detailed advice and many explained exercises. They not only have content about feet, but also hips and general movement.
The Routine works by first releasing muscles, mobilizing your foot’s joints afterward and strengthening important muscle chains. You should perform the whole routine barefoot – a chance to go barefoot more often. It is also a good habit to walk around barefoot at home, rather than in socks and ditching shoes completely. Plus, it should be done 5-7 times a week and takes you around 10 minutes. It is designed to help you to make the long transition back to a barefoot lifestyle. And by long I mean it can take some time until your feet simply work again. Until you can walk again. Until you can run again. All barefoot of course without pain. Sounds good?
That said, let’s have a look into this awesome routine!
Foot Rolling (2min per side)
Take a Blackball, golf ball, lacrosse ball, or something comparable. Roll with your foot over it in a longitudinal and latitudinal direction. You can also try to combine both and do a rotating motion.
Apply as much pressure as possible without you suffering too much for around ~2minutes per foot. Aim for a 7 out of 10 on the pain scale. It will get better eventually. Later on, this will feel heavenly.
What that does is loosening up your plantar fascia and the intrinsic foot muscles on the sole of your foot.
Foot Mobility Work
Short Foot (20r +30s hold)
The Short Foot exercise looks like that. It is an exercise to train your intrinsic foot muscles and restore the tripod-like functionality of your foot. This function is not necessary in many modern shoes because of the inbuilt arch supports and raised heels. You basically build an arch with the only big contact points with the ground being your big toe, your small toe, and your heel.
Banded Toe Point (10rx3s)
The Toe Point trains your point and therefore your overall foot extension, as well as your flexion. It should look like in this video. Grab yourself a light resistance band* and wrap it around the tip of your foot while sitting in a seated pike. From there you push your feet into the band until they are fully extended. What you do then is flex your toes. A word of warning – this will in 99% of the time end in cramping but eventually get better.
Split Squat (12rx5s)
The Split Squat trains your dorsiflexion – an often heavily restricted movement pattern of your ankle. To do so go in a stable and relatively close lunge. The focus is on your front leg. What you now do is to push your knee as far over your ankle as you can. When you hit the bottom position try to hold it for 5s on each rep. Within this fully flexed bottom position it is crucial to activate your shin muscles and really pull yourself muscularly into the position.
Hip Stability Work
One Legged Stance (~2-5 minutes per day)
Simply stand on one leg. Really feel your lateral glutes working hard and create actively a stable foot. Later on, you can move around while standing on one leg and try to go into different shapes. Get creative and play. Cool ones are single-legged Romanian Deadlifts or Stuart McGill’s Hip Airplane exercise.
Knowing and Troubleshooting Foot Pain
What can be the Causes of Pain generally speaking?
Pain is complex. Fucking complex:
Pain can be solely your brain talking to you. It’s the brain’s native language to get your attention to a certain location.
It can be an unknown, new stimulus. Or a repetitive stimulus, like deskwork.
In rare cases, it can be a byproduct of a serious systematic illness.
Pain depends strongly on environmental and psychological factors, too.
You even have a pain memory. And body parts can hurt, because they hurt previously, although they’re fine ATM.
Or it can be real damage at some location.
That’s why most of the time pain is highly multifactorial and hard to tangle to a specific cause. Nonetheless, we suffer sore wrists and wrist pain most of the time as athletes, because we use them. That’s why I wanna cover this particular pain!
How does my Pain look like?
Before you can treat something you need to know how it’s supposed to look like. To get a better picture of your particular ache, ask yourself the following questions:
What does it look like? Is it symmetrical, on both sides of a joint, or asymmetrical, at a particular point?
When does it hurt? Does it hurt all the time, even when doing something different? Or does it hurt solely in specific positions, like for example when in a flexed position?
How strongly does it hurt if you would rate your pain from 1-10?
How does the pain feel like? Pinching, tearing, burning, …?
Is the area red, warm, swollen,…?
What’s special about Foot Pain?
Many conditions that lead to foot pain come from misuse, not reading the manual: Look at a hallux valgus for example – because of super restrictive footwear, especially in women.Plantar fasciitis? Often the same, by neglecting the ways your feet should work and altering these through cushions or raised heels.Flat feet = Weak feet. Nothing some strengthening can fix.
Of course these conditions can have other issues, too. Likewise many other topics binary thinking in medicine often misses the mark. Nonetheless, contributes restrictive and non-biomechanic footwear strongly to these. My guess is that most of these issues could be gone completely if people would make a wiser choice and be educated on this serious topic. Pain and malfunction is nothing to joke around with.
Evaluate your Pain and come to a Solution!
With these answers at hand you can evaluate your pain and start to think of a solution:
Mostly symmetrical pain or pain at certain muscles goes away quickly. It is solely the muscle that entirely got its beating and needs some time to heal.
Asymmetrical pain, especially at the sides of joints can be a more timely thing to wrestle with and indicates damage at the passive structures. These aren’t that well perfused and need more time to heal.
If you experience pain solely in a given position, step back from it and work around it. If your wrists hurt on the floor, take your training to the parallettes* and start loading your wrist gradually, taking baby steps on the floor, as soon as the worst pain is over.
Pain Treatment is complex
Most will say if you experience pain step away from it completely. While this is not wrong, it is not optimal either. It is simply the safe and legally right thing to say to anyone at any time.
Loading to aggressively causes more harm than good. It is a very effective, self-caring, long-term, and introverted approach to come back to one’s old potential stronger.
TL;DR – How to Avoid Foot Pain and keep Healthy Feet throughout Life?
Restore natural foot functions by clever foot mobility
Ditch traditional, restrictive footwear completely unless you need a niche pair of shoes for a specific task
Go barefoot as often as you can, but start slowly while making the transition, especially when it comes to long walks, hikes, and runs
Have also a look upstream at your hips and see if they rotate properly to stabilize the leg and help in creating the arch through torque
Healthy Feet are Simple and Low-maintenance
And here we are, 4.000 words later. Thanks for staying with me until down here! I hope this post could give you most of the information you need to transition back to a more natural choice of footwear. I live barefoot for 7 years now and never looked back. That’s why spreading the message is a heartfelt topic for me. It is insane to see all the folks running around in this super uncomfortable footwear without even questioning it. Buying those for tons of money plus paying interest with health issues down the road. People need to wake up!
Minimal shoes aren’t cheap either, but they do their job. Protection. That’s it. My favorites are the one’s by the Stealth III* and Primus Lite* by Vivobarefoot.
And as often stated – once achieved healthy feet are easy to maintain just let them do their thing. They’ll be golden just with that bit of attention. It’s about making the right choices isn’t it? Let’s give the people better options!