Stand up paddling is a really effective way of strengthening your feet. Any time you are standing on your feet, your bare feet, in particular, you are strengthening the connective tissues in the feet. One of the beautiful things about stand up paddling is, as soon as you get on your board, your feet are working hard because you have to balance but also you are standing. While standing up (SUP) paddling isn’t for everyone, there are other ways to improve balance and foot strength.
A lot of us walk around in shoes all day long, we have orthotics, we got supportive shoes, we wear slippers at home or Birkenstocks that are supportive or sandals that are supportive. It is really important for healthy feet and particularly for balance to spend some time barefoot. The feet are part of the balance system because when we are touching the ground there are nerves in your tissues, the skin, your ligaments, tendons, muscles – they are all feeding you information about where you are in space.
In the previous article, we talked a bit about proprioception. Proprioception is your joint position sense. It’s helping you know where you are without your vision. When we’re in shoes all the time, our brain starts to see our foot as a block instead of separate toes and individual bones. There are muscles in between each bone of the foot. There are little muscles called lumbricals and you have interosseous muscles. The big tendons that come from your calf, support your foot and the plantar fascia. There are a lot of structures in the bottom of your feet that support your entire body. So whether you have a flat foot or a medium or high arch, everybody can get a stronger foot. We don't need to be constantly supported.
IF you have problems walking around in your bare feet, there are things you can do to start to get your feet accepting more touch, feel, and better range of motion of the overall foot.
#1 – If you're not used to be in bare feet, a really easy way is you can grab your foot then interlacing your fingers in between each toe and then gently moving your foot back and forth.
You can initiate this movement with your toes in your foot and then assist it with your hands. This feels really good. This is best to do at the end of the day where you spent a lot of time on your feet if you went on hiking or running. You are using your muscles to move your foot. This can be a gentle strengthener. If you are starting from a low level, just move your toes in a different way and you can also do circles. It's a really nice way of creating some confidence and movement for a foot that feels very stiff.
You can also try to spread your toes wide, try to squish your toes, move them back and forth. That's a really simple way of just starting to use your feet differently if you’re used to being in shoes all the time.
#2 – The next thing is super easy to do and is basically just sitting on a ball or chair and just lifting your heels up or lifting your toes up.
This seems to be very simple but for many people, this is really difficult because their feet are stiff. If you have an exercise ball, you can actually rock forward on your toes and then rock backward on your heels. You can change the angle so you can do it with your feet spread apart, which you feel more of a stretch and more of a load through your big toe. You can also do it with your feet turned in which you feel more of a stretch and more of a load to your little toe, or you can do to neutral or anywhere in between.
And this is where balance comes in. The more options you have for using the muscles of your feet and your calves, the more preventative actions and reactions you will have when you are out and about. For example, if you trip on something or you lose your balance or you're not sure where you're going, your brain feels confident to use different patterns in your feet and your ankles. You will also have more options to react to situations when you're walking around on surfaces that you're not used to. Rocking back and forth is a really nice thing to do. And if you want to make it more difficult you can hold the end position anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds then repeating the movement.
#3 – You can also use an exercise band. I use an exercise band a lot because they give you feedback about where you're going. Place the band around your toes and have one toe down and one toe up. Utilizing the exercise band is a way to start to add a little bit of resistance to this exercise.
Again, you can either hold the end position or you can do a simultaneous repeat of movement, you can go in and outs or you can also change your angles. It's really a nice way to start getting some movements loading through your feet in a way that’s really quite simple and is super safe. Try sitting down and even if you feel stiff, this is a very safe thing to do for your feet because you're not putting anywhere near the load that you would if you are standing on your feet.
#4 – Standing up. This is one thing we get our patients to do, which is really simple and you can do this with the support of a chair or you can this on water. Just go up on your toes and hold the position.
As soon as you stand on your feet, you are already making your feet work. Particularly standing in your bare feet, it is good for your toes, for the arch of your foot, and for all the little muscles that make your toes move. Standing bare feet work to support your feet and they are a big part of your reflex balance system. Here's where you can get tricky if you go up on your heels and spread your toes wide. Now you’re all ready working the top of your foot.
Another option is, you can also go up on your heels, you can march it out, and repeat the movement. If you do a good 20 to 30 repetitions for this movement, you will feel a nice burning your toes and in your calves.
You can also make the exercise more challenging by holding onto weight or carrying a backpack with a little bit of weight on. These are some simple progressions that are really nice and safe if you have a stiff foot and you want to start to work on better strength and tolerance.
What we also often get our patients to do is to try these with their eyes closed. Doing this with your eyes closed really makes sure that the brain listens more with all those little joint sensor nerves and it also sharpens your balance system.
#5 – This is one of our favorites to get the arch of your footwork. If you stand on one foot right away, you're already making your footwork harder. If you're standing on your foot, keeping your knee soft and you start to move your other leg either forward and back or side to side, what do you notice? What you'll notice is that your foot is reacting to how your body is moving over top. Immediately your calf and your foot are working to keep you upright as you move your body around your foot.
You could make it more challenging by tapping your foot to the outside, pretending that you got clock numbers around. This is really a good exercise for your foot and ankle.
“My husband has plantar fasciitis, which just erupted. Are there any good stretches he could do to improve going forward?” – Dallas Shiemke
When people say they have plantar fasciitis, we like to dig a little deeper and ask where exactly the pain is coming from. It depends on a lot of things as to how people labeled Plantar Fasciitis, either heel pain or arch pain because basically, Plantar Fasciitis goes across the whole foot. To keep it general, there are a few things that we really like to focus on if there’s pain on the bottom of their foot or in their heel. First, you can refer to Exercise #3. If you pull back with your toes with a piece of resistant tubing and hold it and really spread your toes up, that’s going to be a nice active stretch that’s also gentle. That's where you can start is to do just hold it there. You can also do repeats. The pulling up movement really helped to work the top of the foot which helps to ease the bottom of the foot.
Another one that’s more aggressive is getting on your toes and kneeling or go in a 4-point position on your toes. With this exercise, you can really feel the stretch through the bottom of your foot. If you want to make it more intense you actually sit on your toes. Now don't try this if you got really tender toes or foot as this is a lot of stretches.
“Just a follow-up and to be more specific, my husband has plantar fasciitis and it’s more on the ball of the foot rather than the heel.” – Dallas Shiemke
If it’s the ball of the foot, your husband can do the pulling back exercise with the resistant tubing instead. It really makes it a pretty high tension because the foot is quite strong to do that. This is where we would start and then see if he feels a little less tender when he's walking around.
Also, here are some bonus materials that we strongly suggest to do. Get out and move around in ways that you love to do, whether it's walking, hiking, riding your bike, going to the park, stand up paddleboarding, or go to the beach and walk in the sand. Walking in the sand is such a lovely flexibility and strength movement for your feet because the sand is supporting your foot at every level. Do what you love to do and your feet will welcome the movement whether it’s standing, walking, biking, yoga, or tai-chi. When you are moving your feet and working your feet particularly on bare feet, your feet will thank you. As always, make sure that you gradually enter something you haven't done in a while and if you're not sure about something to ask questions of your healthcare professionals.