Flex your foot muscles

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By Peggy Tschauner

After seeing many people wearing the new “minimalist” shoes that look like gloves for the feet, and hearing how much people loved their new-found foot freedom, this author decided to try a pair.

It didn’t hurt that she found them on deep discount at her favorite after-Christmas store.

So one evening after spending about four hours walking around the fitness center in the new shoes – this “fitness expert” was rudely reminded that any change in exercise requires a breaking-in plan. Going from full-support athletic shoes with orthotic inserts to near-bare feet caused muscle cramping, shin splints and a re-evaluation of the trendy new shoes.

So, like any good scientist (in this case, exercise science) the research began.

After reviewing several articles on minimalist shoes, foot health, and thinking about how to train the body, a new “foot workout” plan was developed. Happily, the feet are now enjoying the new shoes, along with greater flexibility, strength and comfort.

We often forget to appreciate our feet until they are abused to the point of pain. Following are some tips for every foot — whether they run, wear high heels, or just walk from Point A to Points B, C and Z during the day. Caring for your feet pays off.

Be sure that shoes are proper-fitting for your foot style. If buying athletic, walking, or running shoes consult an expert.

In Louisville, Swags and Ken Combs shoe stores have well-trained and knowledgeable staff. Some stores even allow a person to “test drive” shoes and return them for exchange if they are not happy!

Exercises that can help strengthen and stretch the foot and lower leg muscles are important for everyone. They ease discomfort and improve balance, strength and protect the bones and tendons in the feet. Perform these only after warming up with walking or other weight-bearing activity.

“Monkey Toes” was one of the author’s nicknames in college because she had such long and talented toes, using them to pick things up off the floor. Little did she know that this actually helps strengthen foot muscles and improves dexterity. You, too, can practice “monkey toes” by picking up a sock from the floor, hold for 10 seconds and release. Repeat several times with each foot.

“Spread Your Talons” – If you have ever seen a bird of prey come in to snatch its next meal, you’ll see the talons spread wide apart, ready to grip. Practice spreading your toes like an eagle. Open wide, hold a few seconds, then release. Repeat several times.

You can work on resistance training your foot muscles by wrapping a wide elastic band or old nylon stocking around your toes to create resistance as you spread your talons.

“Calf raise” does not mean lifting a baby cow. In this context you will stand on one foot, holding a door frame or counter top for balance. Then rise up onto your toes like a ballerina. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 10-15 times on each foot.

Doing this barefoot or in flexible shoes will help to strengthen the muscles supporting the ankle and foot. Interestingly, in working with equestrian clients, fitness trainers find that the calves tend to get overstretched and weakened from hours in stirrups, where the heel sits below the ball of the foot. Calf raises are especially important for anyone who spends time in the saddle.

“Calf stretches” are probably the most recognized runner/walker stretch. These should NOT be done when the muscles are cold, as it can damage the Achilles tendon and plantar fasciae. These are especially important for anyone who wears high heels, which shorten the Achilles tendon and irritate the plantar fasciae.

Sit with one leg out in front of you and wrap a towel or stretch band around the ball of the foot. Pull gently so the toes point back towards you, feeling the stretch in the arch of the foot and the calf. Hold for 20 seconds & repeat 2-3 times. One can also stand on a stair, hold the railing and hang your heel over the edge.

Carefully lower the heel below the edge of the stair until the stretch is felt. Perform this standing calf stretch with the leg straight to hit the gastrocnemius and then again with the knee slightly bent to reach the deeper, soleus muscle.

“Toe ABC’s” is a great way to maintain flexible ankles and feet. While sitting watching tv, reading or anytime you are barefoot, just draw the entire alphabet – A to Z – with your foot. Perform with both sides, one foot at a time. This exercise moves the ankle in all its planes and improves circulation to the feet while sitting (especially good for long rides in car or airplanes).

The author’s favorite treat for feet is a foot massage. If you can get someone to do it for you at a massage center, pedicure shop or at home, good for you! If you prefer doing it on your own – here are a few tips for simple foot massage. Freeze a golf ball then roll it around under your foot. The chill and bumpy texture give a great massage.

Rolling a tennis ball might be softer for someone with sensitive feet. Soaking in Epsom salts is great relief for tired feet and the mechanical foot massagers that you rest under your feet are wonderful, too! But the author’s favorite, by far, is a professional foot massage or reflexology treatment. It perks up the entire day.

When one considers that there are 26 skeletal bones in each foot, 33 joints in each foot and 20 muscles in each foot, is it any wonder we should exercise our feet as much as we do the rest of our bodies? Here’s a toast to happy feet and monkey toes for everyone.