Hiding, camouflaged behind their leather casings, there are armies of feet toe gripping for dear life.
Slip off your shoes and take a peak. Do you see feet that claw the ground? Maybe a hammer toe or two? Maybe one foot is clenched more than the other? Do you find that you get regular cramping into your calves or feet?
A foot that grips is a foot that is seeking stability; a foot that perhaps has lost confidence in itself. My first awareness about the role of the foot was as a fresh faced 18 year old when I took my first dance class. Off came the foot coffins (otherwise known as DM boots) and my shy naked feet walked to the dance floor, where they gripped and shook as they were asked to balance, leap jump and spin for the next hour and a half. Standing on one leg might as well have been balancing on a tight rope. 18 years old and I was unable to organise my centre of mass over one leg without wobbling like a jelly. Fast forward 3 years and regular movement exploration and those shy feet had become extroverts. Instead of balancing on top of the floor they had become one with it, widening and adapting to the surfaces underneath them. My torso and limbs were no longer isolated body parts teetering over their foundations, but instead they spoke to each other and had become a functional unit.
“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” – Leonardo da Vinci.
As our foot hits the floor it widens and distorts enabling it to adapt to the unpredictable ground beneath it. We call this pronation. As the foot pronates it initiates a chain reaction of bone movement and muscle reaction all the way from our feet to our skull which allows us to load our system ready for movement.
If pronation is Ying then supination is Yang. A foot in pronation is a mobile adaptor however a supinating foot is on its journey to becoming a rigid lever from which to push off of (think of your back foot in walking). The bones of the foot tighten, the muscles shorten and the arch lifts to create a stable platform.
Lets return to those overworked toes searching for stability. Given a choice between chilled out and relaxed pronation and rigid lever supination those exhausted toes are trying to achieve the latter. If you can not trust the body above you to work as a synchronised team to support you as you twist and turn, those digits are going to save the day by clawing back some support. Where do the muscles that enable this strategy originate from? In the feet and behind the calves. Where do most people get cramping and tightness? Yup you guessed it in the feet and into the long toe flexors behind the calves.
Flip flops or thongs as my Australian cousins call them are fantastic at helping you to keep cool in the summer however they have a sinister side. Have you ever tried running in flip flops? The only way to do it without losing those rubber time bombs is to grip them with your toes with every single step. Even gentle walking with them requires a toe gripping strategy to hold onto those slippery suckers. As summer arrives so does knee pain, neck stiffness and back pain thanks to our friendly Havaianas. If you have ever had difficulty activating your Gluts you might want to check out if they have been hiding all this time in your toe flexors and calves.
So are you a toe gripper?
To try this experiment you will need a friend to help out. Stand with your feet about hip width apart and ask your glamorous assistant to stand behind you and gently push you forward from between the shoulder blades (this is called perturbation). If you find that one or both feet instinctively curl under and grip the floor it is likely that you have adopted a toe gripping strategy.
Now close your eyes and, if you trust you glamorous assistant, ask them to take your hand and guide you on a walk around your sitting room. Having your eyes closed will allow you to really tune in with how well your feet adapt to the floor. Ask yourself if one foot feels harder, does it feel less stable, do other muscles compensate more for this instability?
Congratulations you have now become proactive in understanding how your body functions.
“So what do I do about it?”
Most articles reward the reader for having got to the end with a solution – ‘Fix your feet in 3 easy steps’. I am afraid I am going to disappoint. Every body is different. Your body has chosen to function the way it has based around its unique history, injuries, habits, fashion sense etc. and to promise a quick fix would be fraudulent.
I have seen toes gripping from ankle sprains, gripping to stabilise movement onto the other weaker and more painful leg, from hip replacements and of course from flip fops. I have seen toes gripping for week hands, unstable shoulders…the list is endless. What I do know is that your strategy will be serving you at this time and allowing you to continue functioning. Might it be causing pain?….sure. Is it optimal?….probably not. Is being aware of it pretty cool?…..definitely.
Next time you get a cramp in your foot or you calf maybe take a quick peak down and see what your feet have been getting up to. Perhaps even take your shoes and socks off and have a walk around the house or on the grass outside and remember what it feels like to be grounded and to trust your feet again.