Everyone was positioned on one knee, as if they were about to perform a lunge. I then noticed that some people had their toes extended (toes curled up towards the shin) or neutral (toes pointed). I then asked those who didn't use their toes to attempt to curl them back so the toes were on the floor. Many really struggled. I decided that it would be a good point to explain a little about the toes and their importance in how the body works.
The toes are designed to move in many ways which we restrict by wearing shoes or simple not moving very much. As we get older, you see people walking as if they are wearing a plaster cast on their feet. It's almost mummy like, as their feet shuffle towards their destination. One of the major contributors of this adapted gait is the inability to be able to flex and extend the toes. This then helps to propel and cushion the feet towards their destination. The lack of movement isn't an ageing issue. It's a lack of movement over a long period of time which has caused this. The actions of flexion and extending the toes, move the foot through positions which allow stiffness and suppleness of the foot and ankle joint. Alongside the ankle joint, this allows force (you + gravity) to be distributed to provide a cushioning for your joints when your foot hits the floor. The amount of force returned up through the ground can vary from two (walking) to ten (sprinting) times your body weight. If this force wasn't dissipated, it would most likely lead to serious injury to your knees, hips or pelvis. Then, when you push off (extend the toes) you are propelled forward. The muscles around the hip then bring the leg back around to strike the floor again. This is what is known as the gait cycle.
What I like about teaching is you learn a lot about how people move on a daily basis. If someone can't use their toes very well in a class, chances are they will not use them as much when walking around. This stiffness was apparent in the stretch I tried to get the participants to do (see the pictures at the end). Some were quite amazed at how little movement they had. It can create all sorts of walking and running styles. Some good and some not so good. I don't want to make this post technical, but I do want to point out a few things.
- Keeping your feet locked up in your shoes all day is a really bad idea.
- Force and loads from walking and running must go somewhere. If the foot and toes don't allow weight to be disspated, the loads will increase through the knees and hips.
- If your parents have bunions, I would advise you work on your toe flexibility, especially if your toes crowd or you have the beginnings of hammer toe.
- If you can't spread your toes or push up onto the balls of your feet without swinging forward, you've probably already started to decrease the function of your foot.
- Try the flexion, extension and spreading exercise to see if your toes are tight.
If you have good knee flexibility, this should be comfortable. Don't attempt it if you don't.
Make sure you do this under a soft surface.
Try these two to see how your toes move. You should be able to hold each one comfortably for 10 seconds. Note that your bum comes down to your heels. It doesn't have to touch, but you need to make sure that your bum is the same distance from your heels in both exercises.
I'll also put up an accompanying video to explain this further.
Let's see your feet out!