Love your feet!

I guess that I should have known how important feet are, but I will admit that I took mine for granted. And so when I lost all feeling in my right foot after my accident, I was still way too nonchalant. After all, the Paralympians run like the wind with blades – I was sure that I would learn.

The foot is so complex

Each foot has 26 bones, 33 joints (20 of which are actively articulated) and more than a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments. Wow! And feet can move in so many directions and with amazing levels of control. And these link all the way up the leg into the lower back.

This is all so important to us, as tiny differences in the pressure and our movement at the foot level are all multiplied up through the body as the distance from the feet increases – with compensating and balancing to ensure that we stay upright and are able to do what we want to do. Think of how crucial footwork is in any fast-moving sport like tennis, squash, football, rugby, hockey etc.

So what should we be doing?

Given the importance of our feet, we really need to invest the same level of body care as we would in the other major muscle and movement centres. I went to a seminar with a physiotherapist who was proposing that runners should really do a 15 minute footcare workout every day in order to protect themselves from injury!

The toes are very important – especially the big toes

I remember a friend having an accident when we were in our 20’s and after it being crushed on a building site, he had to have the first section of his big toe amputated. This meant that balance and running were always really difficult for him, and he almost always wore walking boots with ankle support to stabilise his foot.

But it does not need to be as severe as that for us to lose mobility – in our feet and all of the way up through our body. Here’s a quick test – can you do the ‘vulcan salute’ from Star Trek (splitting your fingers between the 2nd and 3rd fingers) with each hand? Can you similarly control each of your toes?

Toes are very trainable – you only need to type ‘painting with feet’ into YouTube to be inspired at dexterity that people can develop in their toes.

A couple of foot work exercises for the toes

When sat down, can you use your toes to pull a towel along the ground? (without lifting the sole off the ground).

When you are lying in bed – when your feet are pointing upwards can you move your big toe up and down without the rest of the toes moving? And then the other toes, without the big toe moving? And now when you move your foot to point your toes, can you do the same toe flex and curl?

Difficult? You can help your toe mobility by continuously challenging your toes. Do also massage under the foot – through the arch just below the pads in the forefoot, feeling each of the bone/muscle and ligament complexes that control each toe (go gently, as it is always tender in there!).  Then extend the massaging and movement to each of the toes – pushing against your hand in different directions and with your foot in different positions.

Also, do roll the arch on a tennis ball. Be amazed by the simple test of touching your toes and remembering how far your hands reach. After 30 secs of rolling the arch on a tennis ball, focusing on those gritty, grainy parts with smaller circles. Then touch your toes again and check your reach. Amazing! (Some people sneakily have a tennis ball under their desk to do this arch-rolling in the office during the day!)

The amazing ankle

For all that the ankle is a hinge joint, you can do so much more than just the dorsiflexion/ plantarflexion movement of pointing the toes. You can actually roll the ankle from side to side in the inversion/eversion movement where from the feet being parallel, you can then bring the soles of your feet together and then roll the soles outwards.

This movement is incredibly important and useful for stabilising in walking and all sports.

So exercising it is good. Sit on a chair and with our hands on our knees to stop them moving, roll the ankle from side to side, so that the weight is over the big toe and then over the small toe. This may seem difficult to at the start, but is very trainable.

The feet are controlled from the lower leg

A lot of what happens in the feet is influenced by the leg (and indeed all of the way up the body).

Releasing the muscles in the lower leg associated with the foot movement is also very useful. It needs a lacrosse ball and careful placement and flexing, but this is worth doing daily if possible.

More inspiration

If you are battling with this, I have found the following website and podcast interesting and useful. Best of luck with getting your feet supporting your movement in the best possible way – reducing pain and increasing performance. Best of luck!

https://corewalking.com/

Masters athletes: looking after ourselves to avoid injuries

With half of the adults in the UK now over fifty, looking after ourselves and avoiding injury is something that is on the minds of a lot of athletes. And so many training harder for longer, and turning out new age-group records every year, there can be pressure for age group athletes to push ever harder, and potentially into injury.

I was struck by an interview with James Cracknell OBE last week, in preparation for rowing in the Cambridge Blue Boat for the Boat Race this year, aged 46. He claimed that he can still put out close to the power (in endurance terms) that he did in his 20’s when he rowed to Gold medals in both the Sydney and Athens Olympics, but that the recovery is completely different; he talked about nurturing every aspect of his body to make the start-line in a couple of weeks’ time. And of course James Cracknell is an inspiration in terms of injured athletes, having suffered a brain injury after being hit by a petrol tanker whilst cycling across the USA in 2010.

The realities of the body with age

Medical studies show that from our 30’s onwards, there are changes in the body (which we intuitively play into by moving into longer distances and more endurance events, rather than the short, explosive power of our younger years):

  • Muscle loss due to fewer, smaller and weaker muscle fibres
  • Greater rigidity and brittleness of tissues such as tendon and ligaments, reducing flexibility
  • Reduction in bone density
  • Slower release of synovial fluid in the joints
  • Reduced power due to fewer fast twitch muscles
  • Reduction of sensory inputs and responses for good balance
  • The long-term impact of posture and lifestyle factors

The good news is that exercise can hold back these declines

Weight-bearing exercise is excellent for bone strength, and also maintaining power and muscle strength.  There is also clear evidence that sports and interests that develop flexibility and balance can maintain these too – so things like yoga and tai chi can be low intensity things on your rest day that really benefit your body too.

The challenge is injuries get more frequent and recovery takes longer

The part that older age groupers will all tell you is that the battle to avoid injuries is more challenging and recovery takes longer. This just means that you need to listen to your body and give it what it needs.

Some simple ways to avoid injuries

Proven approaches that are worth building into your training plan are:

  1. Warm up for longer and do a good selection of drills that raise your heart-rate to the target zone, as well as mobilising your joints and activating the key muscles
  2. Have a longer and more gradually tapered cool down after aerobic exercise
  3. Follow a good stretching and muscle release schedule – daily if possible
  4. Focus on correct technique and good posture, ahead of the length of the session
  5. Make sure that you follow the goal of each session – and therefore have the right mix of lower intensity and higher intensity, not just always doing the same sessions at the same intensity
  6. Give yourself the right amount of recovery time, taking more if needed. Within this, uninterrupted overnight sleep is really important.
  7. Do resistance training as well as cardiovascular exercise. Use cross-training to reach your goals when you are concerned that you can get overuse injuries, and think about reducing impact and moving in multiple planes and with movements in multiple parts of the body.
  8. Keep working on flexibility and balance
  9. Keep your training plan adaptable, so that you can listen to your body
  10. Keep a training logbook that includes aches and pains, so that you can spot warning signs for injury early and act on them
  11. Take injuries seriously – don’t try and push your way through them. And give your body the rest and recovery that it needs
  12. Go for the health checks that you are offered – especially the checks on blood pressure and cardiovascular health

And of course, above all, enjoy your training and racing.

We only have one body for life, so it is worth taking good care of it as it matures