Friday, April 23, 2010

Touching your toes

A brief guide to foot health


Sometimes hidden, mostly forgotten, our toes take a lot of abuse.

The height of your arches, too small of a shoe and your toe positions all affect the health of your feet. That's no small thing, because the human foot is both the most functional and most punished part of our anatomy. Over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments in our feet expand and contract to impart movement and propel us in any direction, sometimes at great speeds, while sustaining forces that are many times our body weight. According to an American Pediatric Medical Association study, a 150-pound person walking one mile exerts a force of 63.5 tons on a single foot.

The ankle works with the rest of the foot to function as both shock absorber and propulsion engine. Collectively, along with the tendons of some of the leg muscles that enter the sole, our foot muscles also help support the three arches of our feet and move our toes. As we make the transition from cold weather to biking, running, hiking, golfing or climbing shoes, there are ways to keep the intrinsic and extrinsic foot and toe muscles healthy. Deviation from normal arches and toe angles can lead to foot problems. Scrunched up toes don't allow for a broad platform for power and speed in sports.

In this column, I will show you ways you can stretch and improve the soft tissue of your toes.

The following stretches are adapted from the Mattes method, a stretching method that isolates individual muscles. Each stretch is held for two seconds to allow the targeted muscle to lengthen without triggering the protective stretch reflex. The stretch is released, then repeated, to allow the surrounding muscles and fascia of your joints to become more flexible and resilient.

· Front shin stretch: This stretch is good for gaining greater power and speed in sports. Seated, bend your knee, your heel at the edge of a chair or table. With your hands assisting the stretch, point the foot and ankle straight downward (toward the surface) by tightening the muscles on the bottom of the foot and back of lower leg. Hold for two seconds, and release up to starting position. Repeat 10 times.

Turn the foot inward and downward, assisting with the hands. Repeat 10 times.


Turn the foot outward. Repeat 10 times. This helps prevent shin splints or tendonitis.

· Toe flexors: Hold the end of your foot with one hand. One toe at a time, extend your toe upward, slowly and gently, using your thumb and index finger of the other hand.

For greater isolation, stabilize the toe at the middle of the toe. Use your thumb and index finger to stretch the toe downward. Do one to three sets of 10.

· Toe extensors: This stretch is good for people with hammered toes, poor arches or extremely tight calves. Hold the foot with one hand and gently pull the toe upward with the opposite thumb and index finger. Keep your calf muscle tight.

To further isolate the stretch, hold the distal joint with your thumb and index finger, below that joint. Flex the toe downward. Do one to three sets of 10.

· Toe web stretch: Muscles and connective tissue between the toes can become very tight from shoes, or the inability to stretch the toes outward or surgery. Use your thumb and index finger to stabilize a single toe, gently spread the toe. The other thumb and index finger assist with gentle stretch. Release and repeat with each toe. Do one to two sets of 10.

· Big toe stretch: Speed, balance, the ability to push off properly, tight Achilles and calves are all affected by the ability of the big toe to extend. Conditions such as inward angling of the big toe or very high arches as well as neurological conditions may result from limited great toe range of motion. Stabilize the big toe with thumb and index finger, immobilizing just below the joint. Flex the toe downward, gently assisting the movement with your other thumb and index finger. Assist, release and repeat. Do one to three sets of 10.

Regular stretching takes consistency and patience. The end result, besides perhaps better-fitting new shoes or a pedicure, are happy feet, ready for summer.

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