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Why your feet can impact your performance?

Feet: the weak link

Have you ever given thought to how strong your feet are? You can probably recite your squat and jerk PR’s off the top of your head. You have likely been told at nauseam the necessity for a strong core. I predict you have worked on building strength and technique to achieve your first muscle up.

What if I told you the weakest body part of nearly every athlete I treat on a daily basis are his or her feet?

Crossfit has helped many of us learn about the importance of balanced, whole body strength. The variety of movements performed week in week out do wonders to illustrate weaknesses we may have been nurturing for years. And as these weaknesses are exposed, solutions are, or should be, sought.

I would like to expose a missing link in the armoury of many Crossfit athletes, their feet.

Our feet comprise 66 joints and 40 muscles in total. Without even knowing the ins and outs of how these joints and muscles interact with the rest of the body, those sheer numbers alone should warrant attention.  Unlocking the potential of these amazing structures will reap benefits not just in your Crossfit performance but also in life in general.

Why are our feet so weak?

The weakness and dysfunction that keeps me employed as a podiatrist stems from the shoes we have incarcerated our feet in since kindergarten. Very simply, if you put your arm in a sling for a few weeks, it gets weak; similarly, if you put your feet in stiff, rigid, supportive shoes, they get weak; and the weaker they get, the more support we tend to subject them to.

Foot function 101

In order to truly appreciate the potential we are squandering with weak feet I will briefly take you through the role of feet in human movement.

The human foot has two main functions to perform…ten thousand times each day. The first function of our feet is to be a soft, flexible, shock absorbing structure. This function is necessary for walking, running, skipping, jumping; basically any movement where the feet contact the ground.

The second function of the human foot is to be a strong, propulsive structure when we push off the ground. If we push off weak, floppy feet, our ankles, knees, hips and back are already behind the eight ball in respect to function and performance.

So, in essence, our feet need to transition from soft, flexible to strong, propulsive…ten thousand times each and every day. The more proficient your feet are with this transition the fewer problems you will experience further up the body.

Digging a little deeper, this transition from soft, flexible to strong, propulsive largely occurs around the big toe joint (or first metatarso-phalangeal joint). As you roll/drive up onto your toes, this joint winds up the super tough plantar fascia underneath your foot, engages the four layers of muscles in the arch, and results in a powerful structure to launch into our next step/jump/skip.

Put another way, if there is one joint you want to work perfectly in your feet it is this one. It sets the tone for efficient movement from the ground up. In fact, I spend every working day of my life training this joint to function more efficiently in my patients and runners.

How do I know if this joint functions well?

The first test is to look at your feet. The inside of each foot should run in a straight line right through to the end of the big toe. If your big toe darts off towards the outside of your foot, you have a problem. It might seem like a small problem visually, but functionally this problem is about 10 million repetitions (i.e. steps) over the next two years.

Feet: The weak Link | Wodnut

The answer to the above picture is A. To go on a slight tangent, this sheer volume of repetitions is what makes feet so essential and such a vital asset in your tool kit. A single 400-metre effort is likely to be more than 400 steps. If we did 400 squats with poor movement and technique we all know what would happen. When I teach people to run I always refer to each step as a repetition. For example, if I can train each running step to be 20 percent more efficient, times 5000+ reps in a 5k effort…wow!!! That 20 percent improvement is now a HUGE deal.

Okay, back to the big toe joint; go inspect all of your shoes. Check whether they run straight along the inside or whether they taper inwards at the big toe. An alarmingly high percentage of modern shoes pull your big toe out of alignment, gradually causing deformity. An engineer would be hung, drawn and quartered if he or she altered the angle of such an important piece of machinery in a similar way.

Feet: The weak Link | Wodnut

The answer to the above is the right. Very simply, feet are rectangles, not triangles! My 18-month-old twins long ago worked out that the square and rectangle toy blocks do not fit in the triangle window of their toys. It is time we did the same with out feet. Match your true foot shape to your shoe, as opposed to allowing shoes to mould your feet to their chosen shape.

As important as shoe shape is the direction your feet point as you walk. If you walk with your feet turned out sideways, you will push off the side of your big toe – that is why you develop hard skin there. Pushing off the side of your big toe gradually deforms the big toe joint in a similar fashion to shoes as outlined above. This foot position also puts unwarranted stress on the insides of your knees, throws patella-tracking balance out the window and deactivates your glutes. An analogy I use for this involves car tires. It is not efficient to drive with your car tires turned outwards. Similarly, it is not very efficient to drive your body with your feet turned out. For maximum return on your feet and everything they connect to further up the body, point them in the direction you are going.

Conclusion

As much as I am biased on this point, I encourage every human to make it their duty to de-shackle their feet and re-train these amazing structures.

This begins with the shoes we wear (or do not wear) whilst not training. I have four simple rules to get you in appropriate footwear: shoes need to be light, flat, flexible and the shape of the human foot.

The closer you can adhere to these features, the more return you will get from your feet. And when you do not absolutely have to have shoes on, well…don’t. Let your feet do what they were designed to do.

You will not get strong feet whilst you blast out a 10-minute AMRAP in your favourite Nanos or Fivefingers. You earn strong feet from every step you take throughout the day. Choose your shoes wisely and do not be afraid to teach your feet to love being naked; start here and then you will be ready to progress to specific foot strengthening protocols to seriously capitalize on the 66 joints and 40 muscles at the end of our legs.

The Running Lab | Wodnut

Tim Brandson

Tim is the founder of The Running Lab and owner of Wollongong Podiatry, where running “diseases” are addressed by going after the root cause of these injuries - mobility, strength, posture, footwear and technique. Tim’s treatment philosophy is to rehabilitate and strengthen dysfunctional feet rather than support and increase their weakness. Having competed at Regional’s (team) in 2012, Tim has a particular interest in teaching Crossfit athletes the skill of running. For more information head to: www.therunninglab.com

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