In a society where going barefoot is an exception and technology has taken footwear to such an extreme that we’re walking on just about anything from air to NASA foam to gel, have you ever stopped to wonder how we used to manage walking and running back in the good old days, without all the accessories? With the barefoot running trend gaining momentum over the past few years, do you ever wonder about how the feet can cope with such load? Quite often, we forget to give our little tootsies the time of day when it comes to exercising and maintaining fitness. Until Pilates. So what is Foot Form?
Our feet, at the most basic level, provide our base of support while upright, they are our reference point, our connection to the ground and our base of stability. The feet are designed first and foremost, to provide a flexible base for us to stand on, adaptable to any terrain and able to sense where we are in relation to the ground. They are also there to provide cushioning for our joints while being strong enough to help propel our whole body forwards (with a bit of help from above).
In some cases due to anatomical variances, for example hypermobile arches, bunions or osteoarthritis to name but a few, we need to rely on external support in the form of shoes and/or orthotics to maintain a “neutral” foot position or foot form, which will minimize load right up the kinetic chain. However, in a normal anatomical environment, our foot muscles should be responsible for holding the foot in a perfect position to fulfill all the abovementioned bipedal roles. So, is it too far a stretch to suggest that sometimes our overreliance on footwear may be over- stabilizing (read: stiffening) our feet, hence altering our gait and causing weakness further up the chain? Or that we are often forgetting about the important of prioritizing optimal function within these important structures?
So what can go wrong with the feet, from a musculoskeletal viewpoint, that can lead to foot, knee, ankle, hip or lower back pain? Firstly, due to footwear, posture or not using barefeet enough our feet can become stiff in the joints, at the toes, or the midfoot, or through the ankle. Our intrinsic foot muscles or the larger muscles surrounding the foot and ankle can become weakened or tightened. Or we can lose our joint position sense (proprioception) due to injury, or other neurological reasons. Or, there could be a problem further up our biomechanical chain leading to poor foot loading….
Below is an example of how poor foot control or foot form can affect the whole biomechanical chain and is should be easy to see how it can lead to pain anywhere up the kinetic chain, and therefore highlight the importance of maintaining good foot form while mobile.
The Pilates method, aka Controlology as Joseph Pilates liked to refer to it as, was founded on principles of precise movement, control and correct muscle activation. He wanted his students to become aware of every single joint in their body (including the feet!) which is why we prefer to do pilates sans shoes (but don’t forget your grip socks!). Any seasoned Pilates-goer will know all too well the emphasis on spine/pelvic/hip/knee alignment, but how many of you are thinking about how your feet are positioned during exercises? What physiotherapists call “foot form” is one of the most important techniques to implement during Pilates practise and what it really does, is strengthen the intrinsic foot muscles responsible for creating strong, flexible, adaptable joints to decrease our reliance on footwear, decrease foot pain and improve lower limb biomechanics.
When performing upright or weight bearing exercises, we emphasize holding a “neutral” foot position or good “foot form“. Sometimes referred to as “tripod feet” in yoga or Pilates, what the position should feel like is that you have weight through the centre of your heel, around the outside of your sole and across the forefoot to the big toe (three focus points). Another way of thinking about good foot form is like you’re creating a footprint stamp on the floor without letting the arch rest flat. Or, when you’re standing, gently lifting the arches away from the found as if you’ve got a thumbtack sitting directly under the middle of the arch. This positioning will help you to engage your stability muscles up the chain, maintain healthy loading of your joints and improve intrinsic foot muscle strength.
In conjunction with learning the how and why of maintaining neutral foot form position during exercising barefoot, below are a few tricks of the trade to help maintain good foot form biomechanics.
- Stretch the calf muscles daily
- Use a trigger ball under the arch to roll out any tightness within the intrinsic muscles
- Use your hands to mobilize and stretch the different joints of the toes and mid-foot to gain flexibility in all planes of movement.
- Sit down with your foot on a towel, use the toes to scrunch the towel up under the foot and repeat until you’ve scrunched the whole towel. Do this during the ad breaks or at the kitchen table for a couple of minutes.
- Walk around barefoot (if comfortable) at home.
- Practise good foot form when standing for a long time.
- Strengthen all the pelvic girdle, core and lower limb muscles regularly
Foot Form Image References: