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Introduce Your Feet to Natural Loads
Feet, meet Natural Loads. Natural loads, meet Feet.
To help your feet recuperate from their lifetime imprisoned in shoes and walking 99% of the time on flat, level pavement, you need to start exposing them to the kind of work they would have done if you’d grown up in nature. Lumps, bumps, rocks, sand, hills and other varied terrain will mobilize stuck foot joints & strengthen atrophied foot muscles.
But say you live in a house, in Toronto for example, and you don’t have much nature around you?
And what if your feet are super weak and stiff from their stay in the shoe lock-up? How do you make sure you’re not overdoing things and hurting them by accident?
The answer to both is: you fake it.
There are lots of cheap, easy ways to help give your feet a daily dose of totally unnatural loads that are nevertheless incrementally closer to the natural ones your feet need. This will let them gradually and safely regain the supple strength they should have had all along.
Today, I’m going to show you the exercise you should start with – and my next couple of posts will show you more advanced alternatives.
It’s pretty simple – you’re going to spend some time stepping on a ball. Not rolling, although rolling is nice to do too – but what we want to do here is start adapting the feet as though they were walking on stuff that wasn’t 100% flat. So stepping it is.
Step One: Pick a ball. It should be tennis-ball sized or smaller. Generally, larger will be a bit easier on your feet and smaller will be more difficult. Similarly, the squishier your ball, the easier it will be. You do not want to overdo this – you can injure your feet if you pick something small and hard right off the bat. If your feet are very tight, use a half-ball instead. If you’ve been doing this for two years, then go ahead and use a rock instead.
Yoga Tune Up balls are great and have other uses (but expensive because stepping on them will make them squashy). MELT balls are great, and have other uses too, but are also expensive and are quite advanced. Use ’em if you have ’em but don’t run out to get some just for this. Best easy and inexpensive options are Half Rubber balls and Dollar Store pinky balls (available at Mastermind stores in Toronto, not sure about elsewhere in Canada). Rocks are obviously cheap but really hard. One of my favorites is my Yamuna foot savers – super expensive but I love them. Tennis balls also work but I like rubber better and so I don’t have one to show you. Use your imagination but also use care so you don’t hurt yourself.
Step Two: Set yourself up near a chair or counter that you can use for balance. You can also do this sitting down if your feet are very tight.
Step Three: Mentally divide your foot into a 3x3 grid (or 4x3 if you are a keener). I think of this as a line of three spots down each of the middle, the outside, and the inside of my foot. Each place the gridlines meet is one of the spots.
Step Four – the stepping Step: You are going to start by placing the ball under your foot, on any of the 9 spots where the grid lines cross. I usually start with the front middle. Keep your heel on the ground but press down on the ball with your forefoot. Get bonus points by wiggling your toes. Stay here for 20-60 seconds then move to the next spot on the grid.
I usually do 3-4 spots down the midline, then move to the outside line of 3 spots, then finish on the inside. Then I’ll switch and go all the way across the top 3 spots, then the middle three, and finish with the last three.
Just remember to keep your heel on the ground, and to use your forefoot actively – you’re not trying to hammer your body weight into the ball, but to actively form your muscles around it. This can be quite a lot of work, as opposed to just regular old stretching.
If you have been doing lots of work lifting, wiggling and unsquishing your toes, then the muscles of your forefoot will already be on the way to mobility. If you’re short on time, you can focus your work on the midfoot instead.
Give it a try today if you have a ball around! If not, buy a ball and try it anyway. Then do it every day from now on. You can do it while you talk on the phone, while you cook, or while you brush your teeth. It is a PERFECT office stretch. There are no excuses for this one, people! And if you love it, you can do it all day, or as long as your feet can stand it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body - and she's always happy to chat about it. When she's not teaching, you'll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.