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Getting specific: foam rolling and the foot

This is an excerpt from Complete Guide to Foam Rolling by Kyle Stull.

Foam rolling the foot can provide significant relief to tired and achy feet. In addition, foam rolling may also help the entire body move better. In fact, researcher Rob Grieve and colleagues (2015) found that self-myofascial release in the form of foam rolling on the foot could increase flexibility in the hamstrings and low back. This indicates that the foot indeed has major influence over the rest of the body. To better understand how to use the foam roller on the foot, you must first gain an understanding of the foot itself.


Basic Anatomy of the Foot

The foot is composed of a complex set of bones and joints that bear the weight of the entire body while performing movements such as walking, running, jumping, and most other movements. There are 26 bones, approximately 33 joints, and 20 small muscles essentially isolated to the foot, and more than 100 muscles and ligaments that have some sort of influence on the movement of the foot. While all of the moving parts of the foot are important, this book will target the section in the midfoot (see figure 5.1). This is where many of the muscles attach to help support the arch and where foam rolling will likely have the best influence.


Figure 5.1 Muscles of the midfoot.
Figure 5.1 Muscles of the midfoot.


Given that the body has approximately 600 muscles and 1/6 of those muscles have either direct or indirect involvement with the foot, it is easy to see the importance of this area. In addition, the foot has thick layers of connective tissue (plantar fascia), blood vessels, and between 100,000 and 200,000 nerves, as estimated by some researchers. All of these structures make the foot susceptible to injury; they also increase the chances that a foot problem will lead to a knee problem, possibly low back pain, and in some cases even neck and shoulder tightness.


Function of the Foot

The foot is strategically designed to be not only flexible enough for impact but also strong enough to stiffen, thereby becoming a lever to help push off while walking or running. Professor Donald Neumann (2010) suggests that a healthy foot also provides protection and feedback to all the muscles of the lower body. The foot has built-in support, which uses the natural curvature and structure of the foot to absorb impact, all while stabilizing the rest of the body. The foot is capable of an almost incalculable number of different motions. If this incalculable number alone was not large enough, we also have to consider that joints can move in different planes of motion, allowing us to walk up and down hills with varying inclines, run, land from a jump, and help the rest of the body respond to different movements effectively. As biomechanist Katy Bowman (2011) says, "To the foot, the world is flat." In order for the body to feel healthy and move well, the foot must function optimally.


Pros and Cons of Rolling the Foot

There are many reasons to roll the foot as well as several reasons why you should not roll the foot. If you are managing a medical condition, speak with a health care provider before beginning a foam rolling program.


Generally speaking, the foot is a great area to roll when there is general discomfort after a long day or if the foot has been crammed into a high-heeled shoe with a pointy toe. Many shoes force the foot to conform to one particular position without allowing it to move or be stimulated by the ground (yes, your feet actually love the feeling of grass and dirt). That does not mean everyone needs to run barefoot (and most humans shouldn't run entirely barefoot), but rolling the foot before and after cramming it into a shoe may be a lifesaver.


On the other end of the spectrum are the conditions where foam rolling may not be beneficial. Number one on the list is plantar fasciitis. Plantar fasciitis is a debilitating condition causing sharp heel pain and accounts for more than one million doctor visits per year. Like most injuries, plantar fasciitis is classified as an overuse injury - that is, for some reason the connective tissue in the bottom of the foot (plantar fascia) has been repetitively stressed to the point of becoming irritated and painful. This condition can be caused by everything from simply having tight muscles around the ankle to issues rooted in the muscles near the hips. In medicine, "-itis" implies diseases characterized by inflammation. So, the question becomes this: Should you roll your foot when it is already irritated and inflamed? There is no clear answer, but it likely depends on what you are going to roll it with. If you have a medical diagnosis of plantar fasciitis, I would say you should not roll the foot with a golf ball, lacrosse ball, or anything small and hard. If the foot is already irritated, why would you want to jam something into it? That is just going to make it hurt worse.


However, if your approach is to foam roll with something more forgiving, such as a larger or softer roller, then I say go ahead. A softer or larger roller will help to increase fluid flow and possibly help to manage the pain. One of the reasons plantar fasciitis is painful when you first wake up is that fluid has accumulated overnight. Therefore, some light rolling, maybe before even getting out of bed, can be beneficial.


Foam Rolling Techniques for the Foot

To begin, slowly roll the area about 1 inch, or 2.5 centimeters, per second to identify any tender spots. A tender spot is something you identify as being painful or uncomfortable. As a general rule of thumb, on a scale of 1 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain imaginable), search for a spot that feels somewhere between a 5 and an 8. Less than a 5 may not be enough discomfort to encourage change, and any spots with pain greater than an 8 may involve too much pain to allow change. These tender spots may indicate that some type of adhesion, knot, or trigger point is present.


Once a spot is identified, relax the muscle that is being rolled and simply breathe into it. This should generally last for 30 to 60 seconds or until you feel a reduction in tenderness. Then, move on to some small additional motions. While each of these additional motions will be different depending on the body part being rolled, most will follow the same pattern of trying to "pin and stretch" the muscle. You can pin and stretch by holding pressure and moving a joint close to the roller. Never roll up and down as quickly as possible.

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