Ah, it’s almost summer time, and during the warmer months of the year we tend to go barefoot more often. That’s good news for the bones, muscles and tendons in our feet because, being shoeless, they’ll get the chance to spread and feel the ground beneath them!
In my last blog post I wrote about the flexor digitorum longus (FDL) and how it plays a major role in the gripping action of the toes. A thin muscle that begins at the tibia, it thickens as it extends down the length of the calf. The FDL then passes through the ankle and reaches the sole of the foot where it splits into four tendons, each connecting to one of the 2nd through 5th toes. If your toes have been constricted in tight fitting shoes, the muscles and tendons that support them need flexibility and strengthening exercises to awaken them so they are ready for barefoot walking. Likewise, it’s important to invest dedicated time in spreading the metatarsals of the feet as they are often also compressed in cramped toe boxes of shoes.
In preparation for putting your best barefoot forward, roll Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls on the bottom of the feet to revive the FDL and activate the other muscles surrounding it. Using a back-and-forth stripping action, roll the balls from the heel to the ball of the foot. This encourages widening of the metatarsals and much needed increase in blood flow to the plantar fascia area, which runs along the underside of the FDL.
Now primed for movement, practice the Yoga Tune Up® Toe Separation Exercise that Jill Miller demonstrates below to articulate the bones and joints in your metatarsals and phalanges. These are also terrific techniques for flip-flop feet as the gripping muscles of all five toes will be especially happy with this restorative attention.
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I really gotta work on my feet. Currently in the YTU training & hips day shined a big light on my weird curled little toes that just do not seem to be able to move. I think my feet need to move to top of my priority list…
Barefoot walking is my favorite exercise. I live close to a rocky beach and even though it can be challenging, I force myself to walk barefoot in between the rocks and little pebbles, all the plantar fascia get a wonderful massage that can be appreciated afterwards when I’m walking and standing in perfectly flat floors. Now with the YTU balls I can offer the same massage that the rocky beach offers me but at all times!
Love this exercise! Rolling the balls with my feet is one of my favourite YTU exercises,
Especially after wearing shoes all day!
I’m always searching for shoes with wider toe boxes! I have a square-ish shaped foot and let me tell you there are not a lot of options out there that don’t make my toes feel squished! I like to massage the bottom of my feet with the balls, but I also try to roll under my toes (which is hard because they are quite short!) to try to encourage each toe to move independently from its neighbours, as well as using the exercise in the video.
I love feet! I tell the students in my classes that feet are way underrated and that they are the foundation of the temple that is their body. I have successfully taught this toe-separation exercise and will continue to do so to keep the muscles in the feet “awake”.
I love that you are touting the barefoot message! We need to inspire a new normal when it comes to our footwear . We are lucky that an increasing # of shoe companies are offering more (and increasingly stylish, i.e. vivobarefoot) options for those moments when going barefoot isn’t tenable. I love that you brought up the tune up balls as a way to massage the fascia along the bottoms of our feet, but I’m so sick of seeing people take the time to do this work and then walk out of the gym or studio in flip flops! My husband is a prime example – I can get him into rolling when his plantar fasciitis starts screaming, but I can’t inspire him to do the work that will prevent it from flaring in the first place. I find this particularly frustrating since transitioning the feet for barefoot walking doesn’t add any time to your routine, it simply alters the outfit.
I find this a crucial preparatory movement for any practice I am about to engage in. It awakens sensation in my feet and supports my ability to not only feel supported by my ability to balance but to support myself balancing as well. I like to do this first thing in the morning, preferably before I stand/walk.
I love this toe separation exercise! As a former ballerina (who now wears flip flops even though she knows they’re not the optimal footwear for her feet), I do daily ball rolling on my feet. I’ll add this new exercise into the mix as well.
With my feet tucked snuggly in winter boots for six months of the year the YTU balls have been a Godsend! I kick those boots off at the end of the day and get to rolling. This makes my toes’ transition out of hibernation so much more comfortable.
As a climber I force myself into awkward shoes to do what I love. This is a nice reminder to treat my feet to some rolling and mobilization to offset some of the damage I do to them by choice. THANKS.
Thank you Laurie!
It is easy to ignore the feet until they remind you with pain to pay attention! Having had plantar fasciitis and sprained a toe, I know I need to attend to my feet more. I look forward to more Yoga Tune Up therapy ball time on my feet! Mahalo!
This blog and reading the posts/replies makes me wiggle my toes as I sit here! I have been trying to untie the knots in my own feet, it is a slow process! It is so easy to forget the feet!
I am a toe fanatic, I rarely wear shoes, and find its one of my favorite places to work. Jill Miller has provided so many amazing exercises through YTU to awaken the feet and get them working with you. As our foundation and front line to maintaining posture and joint stability it is pivotal to show them some appreciation.
Thanks Laurie! As someone with toes who have separation anxiety I find it difficult to attain any degree of toe articulation, and i end up staring at my feet hoping by some Jedi mind-trick I can get those toes to move. I have found using the balls helps bring awareness back to those areas and has made my toe exercise sessions less frustrating. I am also thinking that moving to a place where it is not winter 9 months a year might help!
I had the opportunity to teach a yoga class for seniors recently and did the Toe Separation Exercise. Though they found it quite challenging, the group had a blast trying to move their big toes independently of their other four toes! I love the feeling of this exercise and do it every day.
I used to think my feet were on good shape… not until I watched this video a couple of months ago. My toes could not do any of these moves at all, not even wiggle the big toe!! Our feet being the close chain for our knees and hip joint, are suppose to be receiving feedback constantly from the ground as we walk. However, if they are not healthy and awake they cannot fulfill this task at all. I’ve been rolling the YTU Therapy Balls and I can feel how the plantar fascia has gotten a lot of release, my toes have improve movement, I can even wiggle one big toe. This has made a great deal for my everyday posture as I feel more connected to the ground and be more aware of how I stand and walk. Also, has made an impact when I’m practicing yoga standing poses, especailly those poses that need balance such as Vrksasana and Garudasana.
YES! This is so helpful to counter the compressive forces of those frequently used toe flexor muscles. It leaves our feet splayed in the best way…rolled out like a beautiful pizza dough ready to absorb shacks of uneven surface without pain!
I did the ball rolling method to warm up and spread my mettatarsals in class today, rolling the ball heel to ball of feet really, really helps strengthen the muscles, on my feet. I also love the suggested wearing flip flop is not a good idea, this brings me back and justify why when babies first learn to walk it is highly suggestted for them to be barefooted, all the sensory nerves can help with their balance. All of us adults should read this article.
thanks for the help locating the FDL. I will use the rolling technique on my clients that shove their feet into tight shoes.
I was interested to learn more about stretching the metatarsals and massaging the soles of the feet and found both of these exercises very helpful. Rolling the ball on the bottoms of the feet is particularly therapeutic after a long day in either flats or heels.
Thanks for sharing. While I was trying the toes separation exercise, I get this cramping a lot. Especially, when I move my big toe forward but the other four stay neutral. I feel this cramp along the inner edge of my feet. It’s like the muscle that helps to pull the big toe cramping. I actually have done this exercise for a few months now and this cramping still occurs. I wonder what causes this?
Toes are like rebellious teenagers when you first work with them. The more stern you talk to them, the more they rebel. They usually relent after some coaxing and sugar coating, and sometimes they are not the sharpest tools in the shed, or they have just been so neglected that you have to give more attention before the dots are connected and they are able to move individually on their own. I sometimes wear my yogi toes (toe separators) around the house to help my toes abduct. Hooray to waking up the feet with rolling on the YTU balls and footwork.
This is a hard one for me! The first time I tried the toe separation exercise I could’nt separate my big toes from the rest of my toes.
Since adding the therapy ball work on my feet daily I am now starting to be able to slightly separate that big toe from the other toes.
Even though it’s just a little improvement I can see and feel the difference the daily rolling and exercising of the flexor digitorum longus makes.
It’s crazy that my big toe is so cooperative but my other four toes are not. I need to exercise my flexor digitorum longus so that I can manipulate the metatarsals and create more space. I broke my 5th metatarsal on the right side and my range of motions is so much greater on the left. Time heals with a little ball massage and some daily Rx exercises. I look forward to my progress over the next few months with this exercise.
In the CrossFit community, it is hard to get the client to understand the importance of training barefoot; however, both in my own practice as well as my coaching practice, I have yet to find another tweak as simple as one taking off one’s shoes to be more effective. What often appears to be a motor control issue, disappears as soon as the individual in question becomes barefoot. Similarly, I explain to my clients that I coach them in ways that encourage them to become most self-sufficient. Therefore, by being barefoot, one’s ability to self-coach improves considerably based on what they can ascertain from feeling as well as seeing (keeping the big toes down and avoiding the navicular drop).
Tension in the foot has an effect on the entire body. This is a great stretch for making sure there is ample room between your metatarsals.
I love these feet exercises with the therapy balls. I do them every morning before I put on my shoes, whether it’s sneakers, flip flops, or high heels. I taught this technique to my Aunt who is dealing with plantar fasciitis and it’s making a difference.
This is a great article. I haven’t considered myself one to have feet problems because I tend to wear flat shoes over high heels, but my flats still are restrictive and my toes compressed, and the feet support all my body weight, so they deserve attention too! I will begin rolling out my feet and focusing on the toes.
I am a little embarrassed to say being a yoga teacher that yesterday I learned I have no proprioception in my feet. During my embodied anatomy training, we were doing an exercise to lift only the hallucis of each foot. I couldn’t do it. I now have a new focus…the health of my feet! Thanks for the article and video with the exercises.
Going barefoot has always been a joy to me. Whether winter, spring, summer, or fall. In the house, the shoes are always off and outside when I can they stay off. Using the Yoga balls under my feet are a joy. I do think that the Yoga Tune Up balls are a little large for the foot, to really get in-between the toes I use a much smaller ball, a cat toy really, It separates them nicely. The larger Yoga ball is great for revive the FDL and activate the other muscles surrounding it. Using a back-and-forth stripping action, roll the balls from the heel to the ball of the foot. This encourages widening of the metatarsals and much needed increase in blood flow to the plantar fascia area, which runs along the underside the FDL. (This is directly from the above article) but I could not have said it better.
Thank you for your description of what goes on in the plantar of the foot. I remember when I gave the YTUBall to a friend to feel the work these balls could do and the sensation they give when you FIRST time apply them to the plant of your foot !!
Her Face illuminated and a smile truly as big as a banana from one ear to the other… it was amazing the happy sensation her system got within a few seconds of experiencing the rolling back and forth of the ball on the plantar of her foot !!!
I love the ease that Jill demonstrate in seperating the big toe to the other ones… I really want to get as good as her toes !!!
I love getting my feet ready for the summer and all year. I have been using balls and blocks to teach my students stretching movement for the feet. I will now spend more time focusing my attention on how it relates to and revives the FDL. This will be great for my yoga classes.
Great article! I have been rolling out my feet for sometime – but definitely neglecting my meta- tarsals and phlanges. Will definitely be adding this in to my foot care routine.
I have just begun to use the tune up balls. I had neglected my regular yoga practice for several months recently and began to have plantar fasciitis. Getting back to a regular yoga routine helped quite a bit. The tune up balls are making a remarkable difference as well. I am really able to get into the arch of my foot and fine tune the “medication” yoga provides.
When I roll out my feet I often focus on the plantar fascia, which is not really a problem for me. What your article reminds me of is that there can also be adhesions between the tarsals and metatarsals which need to be rubbed out! Thanks for this article, Ill be thinking about my intricate foot muscles and spreading my tarsals when I next roll out my feet.
When I was little, I was a total tomboy, (I still think I am), and I loved running shoes, even with the dresses my mom made me wear. She always told me that if I keep doing that, my feet won’t fit into heels! And she would squeeze my feet together every night in hopes of encouraging the toes to stick together. Well eventually I got girly and loved being in heels, and now I’m reverting back using toe separators to restore good position. I think Ball work will help to restore the arches, and exercises like this will help restore connection between brain and toes!
I certainly enjoy using the tune up balls under my feet and must invest in those toe stretchers to add to my feet routine
I have been using the yoga balls on the bottom of my feet to help my Morton’s Neuroma that bothered me when I was forced to wear heels in an old job. I enjoyed this video as it showed me another way to help stretch out the bottoms of my feet when if i’m in a place I cant use my balls easily!! Thanks for posting 🙂
I love using the tune-up balls in that very place. I find I need to step on the ball for a several minutes before its rolling time.
LOVE THIS!! I love to pay attention to the feet by rolling on the yoga tuneup ball . I will now spend more time focusing my attention on how it relates to and revives the FDL. The video demonstration of metatarsal and phalange bone & joint articulation is surprisingly challenging! I had to opt for the the manual version to better “individuate” (love that word!) my toes. I cannot wait to share this with my yoga students.
Hello again Laurie. I am really excited to read your blog again about how the feet need to be more flexible and stronger after living in tight shoes all winter. Thank you for attaching the video of Jill Miller teaching the Yoga Tune Up Toe Separation exercise. I’ve got my own pair of tune up balls that I carry now so I’m off to the races….well, after I get my feet back!
Great article! Feet get very stiff throughout the day if they are cramped in shoes and/or flip flops. Another way to ensure you have the STRENGTH you need in your feet to maintain a proper arch is to wear shoes with flat insoles, like Chuck Taylors. As long as you walk with your feet straight, this will help strengthen the arch of your foot and help to maintain the integrity of your base of support.
Great tips for making the switch from shoes to bare feet. It can often be a painful transition but the ball work helps immensely. I would love to see how the folks who are suing the barefoot shoe company vibram would benefit from the ball work. There is a lot of criticism right now about the barefoot movement, because people who have worn high support shoes are having some serious issues making the switch. If the ball work was done as people relearned how to run/walk barefoot they would probably see much better results.
Interesting.. I teach professional level dancers and I’ve noticed that the Contemporary dancers who train in bare feet have much more articulation through the metatarsals than the ballet dancers whose feet are jammed into possibly the most punishing form of footwear. Both groups adore rolling the feet though!
Another great technique you can use to manipulate the metatarsals and phalanges that I learned in ballet technique classes uses triangular shaped, foam make-up applicators. Place the applicators acute angle in-between each toe to encourage separation and stretch out the facia. Move the ankle joint through plantar flexion while flexing the toes, then dorsi flexion while extending the toes, keeping the movement as slow and controlled as possible, trying to isolate the movement in each joint. You can also place a rubber elastic around both big toes and pull it apart, abducting and adducting the ankle joint to improve ankle stability.