|Often our problems can start at our feet.
When any part of the body is injured, our movement is either halted or limited to some extent in that area, or even well beyond it, and sometimes right throughout the body. In these circumstances, the focus of both brain and body is simply getting us moving again. Limping, hobbling, hopping or crawling will do — as long as we can move.
Because our survival has always depended on that movement, we naturally take the path of least resistance in achieving it, meaning that if something can be done without pain or with less energy, we take that option without any conscious thought.
However, that option isn’t always ideal, as it tends to require that we heavily compensate for the inactivity of the bones and/or muscles in the injured area by employing other muscles and bones to do their job. This can lead to muscle imbalances and strains, and poor movement patterns down the road.
Last issue, I mentioned ankle sprains as being a common cause of compensatory movement. For example, if we limp, where we shift our weight unevenly as we walk, this in turn leads to dysfunction, and ultimately pain or injury, further along the ‘kinetic chain’ that links the body parts together.
On a recent Functional Movement Screen (FMS) course in Melbourne at ReadPT, one of the creators of FMS, Lee Burton, mentioned this very problem: in some studies they noted that people who had sprained an ankle were still shifting weight to their non-injured side some two years after they sprained it!
We want the foot to be stable, but that doesn’t mean the foot should be stiff. We want a mobile foot that is able to instantaneously stabilise when it needs to. The ankle must have freedom of movement (you can’t have restrictions there) yet with sufficient strength to be stable; however, one of the most common barriers to this is a lack of dorsiflexion (range of movement in bringing the toes up toward the shin).
If this lack of dorsiflexion means your heel, big toe or little toe are leaving the ground during a squat, for example, then something higher up the chain is probably doing more work that it should. Even the big toe (great toe) is a linchpin for movement in the body. Ever seen anyone try to split-squat or lunge without adequate mobility in the big toe? The whole body shuts down.
While there is a massive movement to barefoot training and doing leg exercises without footwear to promote correct function and motor control of the feet and ankles, not everyone is quite ready to make that jump. In the meantime, though, start to do these exercises.
I see many people who get on the barefoot/minimalistic footwear training bandwagon with the best intentions, but fail to adequately do the work on their feet and ankles for it not to be problematic later down the track and to severely affect their technique and movement. Show me a poor squat, and I’ll probably be able to show you someone with terrible feet and ankles. There is a reason my Olympic lifting shoes have an elevated heel! So, if your squat and leg exercise technique/movement is better with shoes on, then stay in your shoes.
In the meantime, if you didn’t do so well on last issue’s test of ankle mobility, try the other exercises shown here. Try several repetitions of each, but ensure you keep your discomfort level very low. Sometimes just five-to-10 reps will do.
While we are looking to move the tibia to the front of the talus, many think the restrictions are at the rear of the ankle, but realistically there are many restrictions at the front and side of the ankle that can stop dorsiflexion from happening too.
So if you feel something happening at the front of the ankle as you do the standing pulses or the rocking, try rocking with the toes and feet pointed and down, or sitting in seiza (the traditional Japanese seated position) for a while to open up the ankle joints another way.
Most people foam-roll or stretch their calves out but these unorthodox foot, ankle and big toe openers will really help — and you’ve probably done most of them before in your traditional martial arts classes. Enjoy…and remember, never forget your feet!
Read more on training here.