Foot tension has a way of creeping in unconsciously. Even when you’re on your feet all day, chances are you start noticing an achy knee or a tense low back long before you think to yourself, “Hey, my feet feel tight, too!”
The thing is, while you may not have given the anatomy of your feet much thought, they’re a complicated structure of bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons, all working together to support your entire body weight with every single step you take.
You ask a lot of your feet every day, but you probably don’t think about stretching them the same way you think about stretching your quads or your chest after a tough workout. You should! You’re putting them through the ringer daily, so it’s essential to give them some regular TLC.
How foot health affects total health
When your feet are chronically tight, it’s not just your feet that end up suffering. You see, there’s this thing called the “kinetic chain.” Essentially, it’s the idea that “no muscle is an island.” No body part flexes, extends, rotates, or otherwise moves without affecting other muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments that are further along in the kinetic chain.
“Tension in your foot can lead to issues in your knee, hip, or back,” says Shannon Leggett, P.T., the owner of Shannon Leggett Physical Therapy in New York City. “Your foot is how you communicate with the ground. If there’s tension in the foot that doesn’t allow it to move like it should, the body will figure out a way to compensate to move you forward. This might be fine at first, but over time, this abnormal stress can lead to pain in the foot or elsewhere,” she elaborates, adding that she recently had a patient whose knee pain was from her foot mechanics. “Everything is connected.”
Why foot tension happens
You use your feet a lot. Every time you sit down or stand up, every time you take a step, every time you ride a bike or even use a machine rower at the gym, you’re counting on your feet to support you. But use is just one factor affecting foot tension. According to Leggett, other major culprits that can cause aching feet include footwear (especially heels or shoes with a narrow toe box that pushes the toes together and doesn’t allow proper push-off through the toes when walking or moving), lack of regular stretching, a sedentary lifestyle, and even weakness at the hips. “The hip helps control what happens at the foot. If the hip is weak, some of the foot muscles have to work harder, and this can cause tightness in the foot,” Leggett explains. And of course, if you’ve ever experienced a foot or ankle injury, you may have muscle imbalances or even scar tissue interfering with proper foot mechanics.
The good news: Foot tension is relatively easy to address and correct. A daily dose of stretching and massaging is really all you need. Consider the following program to help ease those aching feet.
Foot stretches to prevent injuries and ease aching Feet
When it comes to stretching your feet, you need to target the muscles that are most likely to directly affect tension in your feet. For instance, Leggett points out that foot tightness is also highly correlated with calf tightness. Sure, your calves aren’t directly part of your foot musculature, but remember the kinetic chain?
When the feet and ankles get tight, the calves tend to follow suit. And when there’s tightness in the calves, ankle movement can become affected. So, stretching your calves as part of your foot-stretching program is a way to ease tension in your feet and support proper range of motion at your ankles.
Naturally, in addition to stretching your calves, you’ll want to stretch and massage the muscles of your feet themselves. “The areas that get the most tight are the calf muscles, plantar fascia, and your big toe joint,” says Leggett. And it’s important not to overlook that big toe! “To me, it’s one of the most important joints in the body. It’s responsible for the majority of foot and ankle stability, so it needs to move well and be strong.”
Use these stretches daily to ease aching feet (you can even add them at the beginning and end of your day to start and finish the day off right). Each stretch should only last about one-to-two minutes, so you can be done with these three moves in under 10 minutes.
- Standing calf stretch: Stand tall, your feet about hip-distance apart, with good posture. Step your right foot back, planting your foot completely as you extend your right knee. Allow your left knee to bend, but maintain good posture. You should feel a stretch through the back of your right calf. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides. Repeat one time.
- Roll your arch on a ball: Using a tennis or lacrosse ball (or if you have one, a massage ball about the same size), sit on a chair with good posture, your feet planted on the floor. Place the ball under the arch of your foot. Slowly roll up and down your foot to help ease any tightness. Focus on the inside of your arch. If you find a knot, stop and apply slightly more pressure to help loosen it up. Aim for at least 30 seconds per foot. Repeat two to three times, depending on how you feel.
- Do a big toe extension: Still sitting in the chair with good posture, cross your right foot over your left thigh. Using your hands, stretch your big toe, extending it up, then pulling it down into flexion. Hold in each position for about five seconds, and alternate between flexion and extension for 30 seconds per foot. Repeat once. You can even do this one while reading or watching TV.
Here are two more exercises we recommend to round out Leggett’s routine:
Practice ankle circles: Stand tall with your feet hip-distance apart. Shift your weight slightly to the left. Lift your right heel from the ground, rising onto the ball of your right foot. Keeping your foot in contact with the ground (but allowing it to move as needed), start creating big circles with your ankles. Perform 10 ankle circles counterclockwise, then reverse the movement and perform them clockwise. Switch feet. Perform two sets total per foot.
Flex and extend your feet: Sit on the ground on a mat with your legs extended in front of you. Flex your feet, pulling them “toward” you as far as you can, and hold for a second. Then extend them, pointing your feet as far in front of you as you can, and hold for a second. Complete 10 total flexions and extensions. Perform two sets.
Your feet really are the foundation for your entire body. To prevent bigger problems from cropping up, it’s important to listen to them and take action. “I encourage people to do something for their foot/ankle every day,” says Leggett. “Rolling your foot out on a ball can loosen the hips, so it’s great for those who sit all day. The foot also has a ton of sensory receptors, which means it communicates lots of info to the brain. Doing some mindful foot work keeps a strong mind-body connection, which is great for balance and performance.”
Even a five to 10 minute stretch once a day can do wonders for easing aching feet. Can’t fit all the stretches in every morning? Try doing them at work while you’re at your desk, or as you read a book at night. Little changes to your habits can make a big difference in the long run.