Your feet and ankles are one of the most important parts of your body. They contain almost a quarter of all your bones. These tiny yet mighty bones are bound together with a complicated but elegant system of fascia, ligaments, and muscles. Feet act like shock absorbers, handling one and a half times your body weight as you walk. If you run vigorously on hard surfaces, that can increase to up to a whopping seven times your body weight.
However, you can only achieve these amazing feats (pun intended) if your feet are in good condition. Inflexibility can lead to pain, injury, and long-term health problems.
What Causes Inflexibility of the Feet?
There are a few common causes of foot inflexibility. In some cases, you injured yourself and took it easy while the foot and ankle healed. However, once the healing process was finished, you continued to favor that foot. Because the muscles weren’t being challenged as much as your other, healthy foot, they stayed weaker and stiffer.
Another common cause is a breakdown in the balance between your bones, muscles, and connective tissue. Weakened foot muscles mean that your tendons and fascia have to tighten up, taking more of a load of walking. Tighter tendons mean that the bones of the feet and toes can’t flex and distribute weight properly. This can lead to injuries, which further weaken the muscles as the injury heals, and so the cycle continues.
Finally, consider medical conditions like arthritis and cerebral palsy. These make it difficult or painful to flex the feet. Although the conditions can’t be cured, you can fight back and retain some flexibility and mobility. A generally sedentary lifestyle also contributes to the problem.
What Can Inflexible Feet Lead To?
Foot and ankle inflexibility, along with weakened muscles in the area, can lead to a number of unpleasant and lingering problems including:
- Pain and swelling.
- Ankle instability and poor balance.
- Increased chance of soft tissue injuries like twisted ankles.
- Increased chance of falls.
- Inflammation such as plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis.
- Increased risk of stress fractures to the bones in the feet.
- Runner’s knee and shin splints.
- Tightness and pain of the ankle, calf, knee, and IT band.
How Flexible Can Feet Get?
People who were born without arms, or those who lost them in an accident, can develop incredibly flexible feet. They may be able to button and zip clothes, hold spoons, and even type with their toes. Ballerinas are also commonly known for their flexible yet powerful feet. They can go up on point, supporting their entire body weight on their tiptoes. Ballerinas also have the flexibility to maintain a clean vertical line from toes to arches to ankles and beyond.
The average Joe or Jane doesn’t need to go to these extremes. However, flexible yet strong feet and ankles will greatly increase your mobility, athletic capability, and health.
Is your foot and ankle flexibility up to par? One easy test that you can do at home is the knee to wall test.
- Measure four inches away from a clear stretch of wall. Mark this point on the ground with masking tape.
- Place your toes so that they’re touching the tape. Don’t cheat; have your feet pointed straight forward at the wall.
- Take a step back and get into a lunge position. Your forward leg should be at ninety degrees from the ground, your thigh should be parallel to the ground, and your torso should be standing straight and tall.
- Lean forward. See if you can touch the wall with your front bent knee.
- You pass the test if you can do it without your heel rolling off the ground. If the heel does come up, your flexibility has room for improvement.
Banish Rigidity; Increase Flexibility
You can increase your flexibility through a combination of stretching and strengthening techniques. However, before we get into it, let’s talk about an important subject: safety.
How to Increase Your Foot Flexibility Safely
Your foot is composed of many fine, relatively fragile bones that work in harmony. It also has fairly thin sheets of muscles and connective tissues. This is why bodybuilders may bulk up nearly everywhere else, but you won’t spot bulging muscles on their feet or hands. One of the quickest ways to hurt yourself and increase your inflexibility is to go too far, too fast. Start small and start slow. You can always build up the intensity.
Another route to injury is when you power through your body’s pain signals. Some stretches may feel uncomfortable. However, they shouldn’t cross the line between ‘ooh’ and ‘ouch!’ If you do feel a sharp ouch or throbbing pain, stop before you make things worse.
Finally, if you have persistent pain, an old injury that never healed right, or some underlying condition: talk to a medical professional. This article can give you a general overview of increasing flexibility. Meanwhile, your doctor or physical therapist can give you personalized advice. Their exercise and treatment plan will attack both your symptoms and the root cause.
Now that we’ve covered preventing injuries, how do you increase flexibility? The two main methods are stretching the connective tissues and performing exercises to strengthen the muscles.
Stretches focus on loosening knotted muscles and lengthening the connective tissue of your feet and ankles. Static stretches should be performed starting at about 20 seconds and building up to 60 seconds. Active stretches are detailed below. Note that you don’t have to do every stretch, but try to hit every part of the foot at least once.
Lie down, raise your legs, and draw circles in the air with your feet. This should increase ankle mobility. Aim for five circles each way. Build up to 10 circles each way.
Now point your toes as directed toward the ceiling as possible. Hold the pose. Then flex your feet, pointing your toes toward your head, and hold again.
Finally, spread your toes wide and curl them tightly inward. Start with 5 repetitions and build up to 20.
Sit on a chair. Cross one leg over your thigh and grab the foot. Pull on the ball of your foot to flex it and hold the stretch.
Next, pull on the top of your foot to stretch the arch in the other direction.
Dig your thumbs firmly into the bottom of the foot, applying firm pressure to the fascia. Start where it connects to your heel and walk your thumbs up toward the ball of the foot.
Repeat the above stretches on your other foot.
Curl your toes and rest the tops of both feet on the floor. Press down gently, coaxing your feet into a curve. Don’t press too aggressively as you stretch the top of the arch and front of the ankle.
Get into a lunge, just like you did in the mobility test. Lean your knee forward like you’re trying to touch the wall. Stop just at the point that your heel is about to come up and hold the position. This should build flexibility in the back of the ankle and along the fascia.
Foot strength and flexibility are two sides of the same coin. If you stretch your feet and don’t increase their strength, you’re flirting with future injuries.
How often should you do these exercises? Some people prefer a daily schedule, aiming for 5 to 10 repetitions of each one. For a thrice-weekly session, you can increase your volume of reps and build up from 5 to about 20.
Here’s a handy exercise to strengthen your toes and arches: Sit in a chair and place a towel on the floor in front of you. Put your feet flat on the towel. Curl up your toes and arches. Inch by inch, you should pull the far edge of the towel toward you. In this case, aiming for a set number of ‘repetitions’ doesn’t really make sense. Instead, continue until your foot tires out. Aim for endurance. To up the difficulty, repeat the exercise or switch to a longer towel.
A variation of the above involves dropping pencils or marbles on the floor in front of your chair. You can pick them up with your toes and put them in a nearby basket.
Resistance bands are a great way to strengthen your feet and ankles. Sit on the floor with your legs in front of you. Loop the band over the bottom of the foot, along with the ball. Tug on the band until you feel some tension in the elastic. Now, point your foot. You can increase the resistance by pulling harder on the band.
Strengthen the toes by putting a rubber band around them. Spread them out against the resistance.
To target the front of the ankle, top of the foot, and tibialis muscle: Stand up and rest a rolled-up yoga mat or foam roller atop your foot. Try to lift your toes off the ground. The more firmly you press, the more resistance you’re adding to this exercise.
Strengthen the back and sides of the ankle and your calves with calf raise. Stand flat on the floor near a wall for support. Raise yourself up onto the balls of your feet, then lower for one rep. Increase the difficulty by balancing on one foot. You can also go up and down with your heel hanging over the edge of a step. This increases the range of motion. Make sure you’ve got a handrail for the balance!
Handy Products and Gadgets
There are a number of products on the market designed to give you increased flexibility. Some of the ones that are easier to use and more widely available include:
Massage balls – You can get a special textured and vibrating ball, or stick with the classic tennis or lacrosse ball. This may be used to roll out the fascia at the bottom of the feet.
Foam rollers – Rollers can work the back and sides of the calves as well as hit the top and bottom of the foot. However, because of the wide curve, they won’t get as deeply into the fascia under your arches.
Braces – Foot braces may be used to stretch out the bottom of your foot and back of your ankle. Some are used overnight as you sleep, while others are used for set periods of time during the day. Your physical therapist or doctor can tell you more about how to properly and safely use these devices.
Incline Boards – These are foot-sized wedges at a thirty to forty-five-degree angle. When you stand on one, your heel will be lower than your toes. This stretches the back of your leg.
Products to Avoid
Avoid or use with extreme caution any products that use a clamp or series of straps to force your foot into a stretch. If your limb starts to lose sensitivity from the intensity of the stretch, you might not receive pain signals until the damage is done. These may also be difficult to remove in a hurry if you do end up hurting yourself.
Be careful with products that don’t let you easily adjust the amount of resistance that you’re applying. The infomercial may make it look easy, but your foot may not be strong enough for the task. This can lead to overuse injuries. You could also do the exercises with bad form and not actually strengthen your feet.
Completely avoid products that don’t fit the size and shape of your foot. This could include plantar fasciitis braces and arch stretchers. Your foot has grown into a set size and shape. The only way you can change that is by crushing it or fundamentally rearranging the bone structure. This is clearly a bad idea.
Finally, avoid any device on the ‘handy products’ list that has injured you before. These gadgets may bill themselves as one size fits all, but they’ve proved not to fit your needs.