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Feet and Endurance Sports

Our feet must last a lifetime, yet we barely give them any thought while they take a lot of wear and tear daily or in short – Feet and Endurance Sports

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He’d actually been rather attached to his old cheap boots. He could read the street in them, the soles were so thin. It’d got so that he could tell where he was on a pitch-dark night just by the feel of the cobbles.

-Capt. Samuel Vimes, [amazon text=Feet of Clay&asin=0062275518]

Sixty tons, 15 elephants or 30 passenger cars. This is the amount of weight one foot has to bear by just walking a mile. Couple of million years ago we stood on two feet, rather than four, and started walking and have not stopped ever since. While our feet rarely receive any attention, they are probably the part of our bodies that has to take the most wear, tear and abuse than anything; A crucial part behind health and fitness, day after day we mostly neglect them. Therefore it begs the question what is so special about our own two feet and why should you take better care of them?

Our Own Two Feet

Two feet that:

  • Have 52 bones or ~25% of the total 206 bones in the body
  • Contain 33 joints (20 actively articulated) or ~10% of 360 total joints 
  • 100+muscles (and ligaments) from the 640 in the rest of you
  • Contain approximately 7800 nerves

Why the complexity?

From brute force to agility and speed to delicate movement and balance as well as endurance to cover huge distances, it all starts with the feet. A stable base that is at the same time both robust and delicate. The inbuilt intricacy is the cause of the fundamental features of being human – walk and run. It is no wonder that any disturbance (usually caused by muscle imbalance) of the  complex anatomy that is the foot can have effects that can be felt in other parts of the body such as the knee, spine and even shoulders. 

Top Down

I am going to take a small step back and ask you.

Did you feel your clothes on your body BEFORE I asked you about them?

Probably not and even as you are reading this unless you consciously start directing your thoughts towards them, you will largely not think about your shirt touching you skin?

Why is this important?

Accurate information from the proprioceptors is necessary to coordinate movement and protect joints (link) Proprioreceptors throughout joints, ligaments muscles etc.constantly convey information to the brain about our position against gravity, posture and movement. As you can imagine this is a LOT of data and even our amazing central nervous system (CNS) gets overloaded by a factor 1.5 million, yes million. Fortunately we have evolved a very practical prioritization system that allows of certain messages to immediately emerge from the background noise. The two category of stimulus that get prioritised are:

  1. Movement
  2. And/or change in the quality/intensity of the stimulus (ie. somebody pulling on your shirt)

This all occurs unconsciously, you don’t think about it.

Why all this brain talk when we are concerned about something quite literally at the exact opposite end of the human body?

Let me explain…

or in simpler words how form follows function.

Foot Structure and Function

The foot can be divided into three parts – fore-, mid-, and hind-foot. We bear most of our weight on the forefoot and we keep our balance thanks to the ‘ball of the foot’ behind the big toe. The midfoot contains the arches that serve as shock absorbers while the hind-foot makes the connection with the tibia and fibula and the muscles of the lower leg. You can think of it as a tripod.

The Foot 'Tripod'
The Foot ‘Tripod’

Muscles

The important point to realise that just like the rest of the body the muscles associated with the foot follow the same patterns of muscle imbalance described in my previous article. Any imbalance can ultimately affect the motor pattern/final movement that can lead to compensation and overuse injuries.

Tibialis Anterior and Tibialis Posterior

The tibialis anterior and posterior are key muscles for the stabilization of the lower leg. Tightness in the calf (gastrocnemius) and sometimes pain in the Achilles tendon might be as a result of the inhibition of the tibialis posterior. The tibialis anterior is responsible  for raising the foot (ankle dorsiflexion) and assists in turning the foot inward. In addition the tibialis anterior is the muscle often associated with ‘shin splints’

Peroneus Muscles

The Peroneus longus and brevis muscles stabilise the outside of the ankle and they move the outside of the foot up

The peroneus tertius muscle as well has a role in stabilizing the outside of the ankle and allows the ouside of the foot to turn turn upward with the ankle

Feet and endurance sports-peroneus muscles
Peroneus Muscles on the Side of the Ankle

The Calf (Gastrocnemius and Soleus) Muscles

The calf is the muscle that usually gets a lot of attention since it represents the bulk of the volume around the lower leg. The calf itself is composed of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles that form the Achilles tendon.

Feet and endurance sports-soleus muscles
Soleus Muscle (Gastrocnemius not shown)

Plantar muscles

The muscles of the actual foot form four separate layers, though the take away point is that they have ‘grabbing’ action that is important for walking, running, balance etc.

Most importantly the arches of the foot are supported by musculature. Remember the 60 tons that each foot bears when you walk a mile? That is where it is predominantly happening.

All of the above structure is responsible for the amazing freedom of movement that is present in the foot such as toe flexion, inversion and eversion, pronation and supination as well as balance. Coupled with the fact that we have a good amount of nerve endings at the bottoms of our feet it all acts in harmony with the nervous system, and you don’t have think about it.

One Thing Loud and Clear

Now we come back to the overloaded nervous system I described in the previous paragraphs. When walking barefoot or just standing, there is always something changing underneath your feet (arch tension as you slightly rock back and forth to find your balance, texture of the surface, ankle and toe position, etc.) Therefore, the brain is paying attention to the input – constantly coordinating movement and protecting the joints; it knows what the feet are doing at ALL times. Once you put over supportive shoes, orthotics, casts, athletic tape etc.,  the ‘loudness’ and quality of the signal diminishes. If the input is not ‘loud’ enough it would not get priority and as such it gets left on autopilot where unless something really drastic happens, it does not readily chage according to the current condition – a proprioreceptive black hole.

You don’t believe me? Stand (barefoot) on one leg. Easy? Sure. Now close your eyes. Not so easy this time, eh? Unless you avoid wearing shoes, your feet lack a degree of developed kinestehtic sense; there isn’t quality and reliable information from the feet, so you have learned to compensate with your vision in order to find your balance and control your movement and position.

While just an innocent example, the fact that since the age of  3 we have our feet shoved into (quite often uncomfortable) shoes, all of the many bones, joints and muscles gets put in a cast where they do not get used as we evolved to. In 1954 when researchers Basmajian and Bentzon measured the electrical activity in foot muscles using an electromyographic (EMG) device. This study showed that when shoes were placed on the feet, certain muscles lost significant function. At best, when you wear shoes the body tries to compensate by increasing muscle activity – increasing energy cost – not a good things for endurance events among other things – this is one the ares of improvement according to [amazon text=Dr. Phil Maffetone in his book about the sub 2-hour marathon&asin=1629148172]. Usually though a number of muscle imbalances start brewing underneath the surface eventually causing a plethora of problems, sometimes  in other parts of the body such as the knee, lower back, etc.

Unless you dropped something heavy on your foot, or in other words direct catastrophic damage (broken bones) had occurred, with some easy self help all of the accumulated imbalances are easily fixable. While just weaning off oversupported shoes by walking barefoot (with socks if you are cold) as much as possible (at home, work etc.) is enough to fix almost all problems, keep in mind that you have spent many years/miles into a suboptimal foot position, so you have to go at it slowly and some muscle discomfort is expected at the beginning. If you ever had a broken bone, you didn’t just remove the cast and go do an Ironman triathlon. Therefore if you go out and buy some of the Vibram five finger shoes slow and steady is the name of the game. 

Also I am aware that some of you might say that orthotics fixed your problem and you are happy about them. Orthotics just masked a symptom and did not address the cause. (ie Why did you have a complaint/knee pain in the first place if you didn’t crash your bike etc.?) We are hardwired for survival and as such movement blocks pain – mechanoreceptors can override the pain signal. For the same reason your injured shoulder hurts the most when you are lying in bed at the end of the day – you are not moving. Orthotics work in a similar way, ie they stimulate the mechanoreceptors by altering position, though in the long term you are causing muscle imbalance in the foundation of almost every movement that you do and potentially setting yourself up for injury.

While theory is nice it is always better with a visual example.

 A Real Life Example – Rigid Soles and Collapsed Arches

The person who inspired me to look more into why feet are important for athletic activity, is bike fitting guru – Steve Hogg and his series on Foot Correction for Cycling

I am a big fan of extreme examples since the contrast they provide perfectly illustrates a point. Cycling shoes are a special case since they have a very rigid sole for optimal power transfer and you are pushing against a solid platform (pedals) with the front part of the foot while the rear foot and ankle are left hanging (or the technical term – open kinetic chain). Therefore the foot tripod is missing one of it’s supports (the rear). The ankle/arch collapses (and loads the knee sideways) and as such the arch tension rarely changes, it just remains collapsed, the signals from the feet get treated as noise and you are left pedalling with poor mechanics (knees turned in, etc). You can consciously think about keeping everything in alighment, though once attention drifts (and it always will) you(r brain loses) sense of what your feet are doing. Therefore in the case of cycling arch support is necessary to give a (mechanical) stimulus the arches and make them flex with every push/pedal stroke and cause a loud and clear proprioreceptive input to the brain and not just background noise. In addition a wedge might be further needed to correct/align the foot for optimal proprioreceptive input. Therefore in an unnatural setting ie rigid sole shoes, heel not on the ground and bicycle pedals, some support is needed, HOWEVER, that correction mimics the foot’s natural way of moving/communicating with the brain and is not a true mechanical support, it is NOT a cast causing muscle imbalances.

I can say with certainty a that many months ago when read Steve’s article it got me thinking, in the case of cycling proper foot correction makes a huge difference; you can read more about my experience with Steve Hogg’s methods during my Visit at The Bike Whisperer

Conclusion

Our feet represent our structural foundation and in the words of [amazon text=Dr. Phil Maffetone&asin=1616080655] – Our feet must last a lifetime. The fascinating complexity is a result of long evolution that ultimately made us able to walk and run for long distances over varied terrain with amazing agility. I should come as no surprise that such feats are possible through the engineering marvel that is the human foot. A lot of the way we talk and move starts with the feedback we unconsciously receive from the feet and we are still trying to fully understand the full complexity. Unfortunately we mostly ignored that evolutionary fact and started looking for quick fix solutions – specialty over supportive shoes, orthotics, etc. We don’t need crazy gadgets, we need confidence that our feet are strong enough to do everything our bodies require of them. As a final note – our ancestors probably didn’t have broken glass and jagged metal objects where they walked, however, we should strive to look barefoot whenever possible or with only minimal support around our feet.

Walk on! and stay tuned for the remainder of the Functional series where I will be including some easy at home exercises for better foot health.

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Further Inspiration

Some of the Great Inspirations behind this article can be found here:

[amazon text=The Big Book if Endurance Training and Racing&asin=1616080655] – Dr. Phil Maffetone

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=1616080655]

[amazon text=Ready to Run&asin=1628600098] – Kelly Starrett and TJ Murphy

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=1628600098]

[amazon text=Born to Run&asin=0307279189] – Christopher McDougall

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=0307279189]

[amazon text=Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance &asin=0736074007] – Phil Page, Clare Clark, Robert Lardner

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=0736074007]

Steve Hogg’s Bike Fitting Blog

This article is for my personal use and educational purposes only, please always consult a licensed health professional. I cannot be held responsible for any damages caused by the information contained in this article.

 

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