I learned about the importance of feet the hard way – by breaking my left foot more than 10 times, as well as all the metatarsals and arches in both feet. I know that if your feet are hurt, you're done; without them, you're immobile. And now I appreciate them and treat them with the respect they deserve.
Functional Fitness Starts With Your Feet
There isn't a sport in the world – including swimming – that doesn't involve the foot, so when we train the whole body, we have to include the complex system of muscles, tendons, and joints around the ankle and foot. All our athletic abilities stem from proprioception, our sense of position in space, and this all comes from the feet. We have more than 7,000 nerve endings on the bottom of each foot, and more than a quarter of the bones in our body are below the ankle. These all coordinate together to help us stay upright and avoid twisting an ankle when we run.
Warm Them Up
The easiest way to activate the feet is to simply rub them to wake up the nerves and to create a little awareness. But you should really give them a more involved stretch. Try this: Sit on your knees on the floor with your toes pointing back, feet flat, and soles in the air. Using your hands for support, lift your knees up and roll back onto your feet, then take it all the way back on your toes – totally bending them down.
Walking in softer substances like sand and grass forces the feet to work to stabilize the body and really strengthens them. That's why I do a lot of stuff on the beach, digging, running, and jumping in the sand to articulate each foot and bend the arches. I am also always standing on objects that work my arches and roll out my feet – like a small plastic pipe or a rolling pin, a metal bar, or a cold roller that is kept in the freezer, like the one made by Trigger Point. Standing on golf or lacrosse balls and rolling them through the arches is a painful but seriously effective way to warm up and strengthen the feet.
Ditch the Shoes
I have the luxury of going barefoot most of the time. Thick shoes can cause all sorts of issues – plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, twisted ankles, tears in the knee, and even hip and lower-back problems. I think everyone should get a minimal foot covering like the Vibram FiveFingers, which provides a thin layer of just-enough protection, to wear in the gym or at any workout. A lot of these shoe companies have really screwed people up with all that padding, making the arches weaker, which can lead to problems with the knees and the hips. Support creates weakness, so the more of it you get – in other words, the thicker the soles – the weaker you're making yourself.