Going barefoot: Strong ‘foot core’ could prevent common injuries
Barefoot activities can greatly improve balance and posture and prevent common injuries such as shin splints, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, bursitis, and tendonitis in the Achilles tendon, according to Patrick McKeon, a professor in Ithaca College’s School of Health Sciences and Human Performance.
The small, often overlooked muscles in the feet that play a vital but underappreciated role in movement and stability. Their role is similar to that of the core muscles in the abdomen.
The foot core feedback loop
McKeon describes a feedback cycle between the larger “extrinsic” muscles of the foot and leg, the smaller “intrinsic” muscles of the foot, and the neural connections that send information from those muscle sets to the brain.
“Those interactions become a very powerful tool for us,” he said. When that feedback loop is broken, though, it can lead to the overuse injuries that plague many sportsmen and women.
Shoes are the chief culprit of that breakdown, according to McKeon. “When you put a big sole underneath, you put a big dampening effect on that information. There’s a missing link that connects the body with the environment,” he said.
Muscles serve as the primary absorbers of force for the body. Without the nuanced information provided by the small muscles of the foot, the larger muscles over-compensate and over-exert past the point of exhaustion and the natural ability to repair. When the extrinsic muscles are no longer able to absorb the forces of activity, those forces are instead transferred to the bones, tendons, and ligaments, which leads to overuse injuries.
It’s not that McKeon is opposed to footwear. “Some shoes are very good, from the standpoint of providing support. But the consequence of that support, about losing information from the foot, is what we see the effects of [in overuse injuries].”
Strengthening the foot core
The simplest way to reintroduce the feedback provided by the small muscles of the foot is to shed footwear when possible. McKeon says activities like Pilates, yoga, martial arts, some types of dance are especially beneficial.
“Anything that has to deal with changing postures and using the forces that derive from the interaction with the body and the ground [is great for developing foot core strength],” he said.
McKeon also described the short-foot exercise, which targets the small muscles by squeezing the ball of the foot back toward the heel. It’s a subtle motion, and the toes shouldn’t curl when performing it. The exercise can be done anywhere while seated or standing.
He notes the exercise seems to have especially positive results for patients suffering from ankle sprain, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis. It’s even been shown to improve the strain suffered by individuals with flat feet.
The easiest way to get started on strengthening the small muscles of the foot, though, is to kick off your shoes in indoor environments.
“The more people can go barefoot, such as at home or the office, is a really good thing,” McKeon said.
Source: Ithaca College