Foot Anatomy, Problems and Top Tips for Functional Feet

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Foot Anatomy, Problems and Top Tips for Functional Feet

As summer approaches I often teach a series of classes dedicated to “unloved body parts” as we prepare to peel off extra layers and get ready for the holiday season. For many, feet fall into this category, yet as the foundation of our bodies they are a really important part of our natural balance-keeping systems.

Humans have a unique foot shape that allows us to walk, run, climb and do many other activities. Although hands have a similar structure, feet, because they bear more weight, are stronger and less mobile.

The bones of the foot are organised in rows, named tarsal bones, metatarsal bones and phalanges. These make up the toes and blade of the foot. The largest bone of the foot is the heel (calcaneus), it slopes up to meet the tarsal bones, which point downward along with the remaining bones of the foot.

Below these bones are the arches of the foot which make walking easier and reduce the load on the body. These arches (medial, lateral and longitudinal) are formed by the angles of the bones and strengthened by the tendons that connect the muscles, and the ligaments that connect the bones.

Other bones of the foot create the ankle, connecting it to the rest of the body.

It is important to realise that many of the muscles that affect larger foot movements are located in the lower leg, but the foot itself can perform specific articulations that help maintain balance. Therefore shoes that hinder the position and function of the feet can lead to misalignment and disturb the body’s natural weight balance.

Most people don’t think about how their foot hits the ground as they walk or run. After all, why would you, it feels automatic and you do this thousands of times each day. However, how you step does matter, especially if you participate in sports that involve running. Only when problems occur do we begin to pay attention. I’m not going to discuss minor problems like athlete’s foot, smelly feet or warts in this blog, but do ask me about them next time you are in the studio if any of these are a concern.

Understanding Pronation and Supination

Pronation and Supination are normal parts of the gait cycle as you walk or run. Pronation occurs when the foot naturally rolls inwards as you transfer weight from your heel to your forefoot (flattening of your feet). This is important and helps provide shock absorption at the foot. Supination is the opposite and occurs when your foot rolls out during the gait cycle (placing weight on the outside of your foot and raising the arch). Supination is important because it allows the foot to form a rigid structure for propulsion. Problems occur when there is excessive movement combined with incorrect timing leading to an uneven gait.

Over pronation is more common and means your foot rolls inward too much as you move. If you over pronate the outer edge of your heel hits the ground first, then your foot rolls inward onto the arch. This leads to over flattening of your feet, and causes an exaggerated internal rotation of the lower leg, knee and thigh. This in turn leads to strains on your muscles, tendons and ligaments of your foot, and lower leg, particularly the knee.

Over supination means your foot doesn’t roll inwards enough, putting strain on your ankle. Often this is inherited, or caused by structural problems in the foot , such as high arches or differences in leg length. However, ankle instability, incorrect footwear and body misalignment can also be a factor.

  • How can you tell if you over pronate? Check the wear on your shoes – if most is on the inside of the sole and near the big toe, it is likely you over pronate. Another sign is having low arches or flat feet when standing.
  • How to tell if you over supinate? Check the wear on your shoes – if most of the wear is on the outside edge only, it is likely you over supinate.
  • For a neutral foot the soles of your shoes will wear down from the outer edge of the heel toward the centre.

    Why does Over Pronation and Over Supination matter? Both place you at increased risk of injury! 

    Over Pronation Foot Problems include:

    • Aching feet
    • Flat feet
    • Ankle pain and/or Sprains
    • Plantar fasciitis
    • Bunions
    • Corns & Calluses
    • Achilles Tendonitis
    • Runner’s Knee
    • Shin Splints
    • Knee, hip, back pain

Common Over Supination Problems include:

  • Shin Splints
  • Spraining the ankle
  • Pain in the ball of the foot
  • Ankle, foot or heel swelling
  • Calluses or bunions
  • Hammer toes
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Illiotibial band syndrome affecting the knees
  • Weakness in the foot and ankle that worsens when running, walking or standing for long periods

Pronation and Supination are not the whole story – Dorsiflexion and Plantarflexion also matter.Dorsiflexion describes the bending backwards of the foot, or put another way the toes lifting up and away from the ground towards the ankle. Plantarflexion is the opposite movement when the foot points away from the leg, or pointing the toes. For more on this read my blog  – “Ankle Stability, Crucial to Body Positioning and Injury Prevention”

What Can you do?

  • The importance of finding good shoes that fit you properly cannot be understated.  Remembering to tie laces with appropriate tension will also help; I often see people running in the most amazing trainers, but they have omitted to tie their laces in a way that supports the soft tissues of the foot and foot movement.  The converse is also true, avoid rigid and tight shoes. Replace worn-out shoes and trainers.
  • You can seek the services of a podiatrist and have orthotics fitted to your shoes; they will correct your movement, but because these are a passive form of support for your arches, I prefer to use targeted exercises to actively change your gait over time.
  • Invest time in developing correct form and posture through your spine. A few sessions with an instructor can transform your stance and reteach you to distribute your weight in a healthier way to sustain proper form.

Exercises – take your shoes off for these exercises

  • Redistribute your weight – If you over pronate, stand with your feet hip distance apart. keeping your toes on the floor, distribute your weight to the outer edges of your feet, raising the arch. Hold this position for a slow count of 5 then return to your starting position. Try to incorporate this posture into your everyday activities.
  • Calf Stretch – Stand arms’ length away from a wall and place your hands against the wall. Move one leg back, slightly less than a stride length away from your front foot. Bend your front knee, keeping your back leg straight to stretch your calf muscles. Try to keep your heel on the ground. Hold this position for 30 seconds before repeating for the other side. Repeat 3 times for eat leg.
  • Plantar Fascia Stretch – Sit in a chair and cross your right ankle above the knee of your left leg. Holding your toes with your right hand gently stretch them towards the front of your ankle. Use the knuckles of your left hand to massage in long strokes from the heel to the arch of your foot. Maintain the stretch for 10 seconds; Repeat daily up to 10 times for each foot.
  • Knee Stretch – Stand and cross your right leg behind your left. Keeping your hips level, side bento the left side. Maintain your alignment, and avoid bending forward or backward. You should feel a stretch to the outer right knee and thigh. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat 3 times on each leg.

Top Tips for Functional Feet

  1. Shoes restrict full foot function; set your feet free this summer and walk barefoot whenever possible – ditching your slippers at home is a great way to start. Walk barefoot outdoors especially on uneven surfaces to really feel your feet – in grass, on sand and even shingle. Avoid hard surfaces like concrete and tarmac.
  2. Warm up calves and ankles before exercising.
  3. Use a foam roller to release hamstrings, adductors, quads and the front/back of your calves.
  4. Stretch tight muscles daily.
  5. Roll a spiky ball under the soles of your feet, applying mild pressure. Don’t forget the aches.
  6. Soak feet in MP Face/Body Salt to reduce fluid retention in feet and ankles.
  7. Correct poor posture and walking/running technique – try to land softly on your feet, aiming to make contact with the ground close to your mid foot rather than the heel. Shorten your stride if necessary to enable you to roll through your feet.
  8. Join my outdoor class to understand and improve your gait and load transfer.
  9. Improve the range of movement in your joints, particularly spine, hips, knees and ankles.
  10. Strengthen your  core, inner thighs and pelvic floor.

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