Healthy Feet: Heel Mobility for Better Balance
Part One – A Simple Ankle Exercise and Foot Fitness Test
for Alignment, Balance Body Control
This article is Part 1 in a 3-part series on Healthy Feet: Heel Mobility for Better Balance and Body Control.
A really important task that our feet provide for us is balance. Our toes individually grab and release the ground for stability, the ankle allows us to shift our weight without toppling over, and the foot (between the ankle and the toes) can be strong and rigid or pliable to adapt to different terrain.
The foot is almost shaped like a triangle, wider for more support across the forefoot and the toes and supported in the back at the heel. Instead of thinking about the heel as a single point, (like one leg on a three-legged stool) the ankle and heel allow for mobility of the foot which means you can be centered on the heel, stand more towards the outer heel or bear more weight towards the inner heel. This medial / lateral heel mobility is critical for balance and keeps us from straining or spraining an ankle when walking or running on uneven ground.
The key concept here is medial / lateral heel mobility. If you tend to stand, walk or run on only the inside or outside of the foot, there’s a good chance that you have acquired a few muscle imbalance patterns in your feet and ankles. These imbalances affect how your feet help (or hinder) you balance which can potentially affect knee alignment and leg swing from the hips for gait.
Over time, you might increase your risk of injury or chronic aches and pains in your feet, knees, hips or back all because your heels are “stuck” or don’t have the appropriate amount of dorsi / plantar flexion or medial / lateral mobility for balance and mobility.
Hopefully you are already familiar with your tendency to roll inward or outward on your feet. If you are not sure what your gait pattern is, take off your favorite shoes and look at the soles. You should be able to identify your wear patterns. If you still need help identifying your foot strike or standing foot posture habits, head to your local running store and shop for a new pair of shoes. The experts at the running store can help fit you with the right shoes to help get your ankles lined up and feet in better balance. And of course I’m a fan of having the eagle-eye of a great Pilates teacher help evaluate your posture and body alignment too to help get the right exercises in your workout program to strengthen your hips, legs, and feet!
Are you read to spot-check your ankle movement? Let’s use the “Agitator” exercise (below) to test your heel mobility and increase your body awareness for what your feet and ankles are doing when you move.
The Agitator ( Heel & Ankle Mobility “Test” Exercise)
- Stand tall with your legs in a parallel position, toes pointed straight ahead. Legs can be hip-width apart or close together.
- Begin rotating the body like the agitator in an old-fashioned washing machine.
- Allow the arms to swing and wrap around the waist as you twist from the right to the left.
- Let the arms wrapping and unwrapping help initiate the spiral motion.
- Breathe naturally.
- Once you have a steady spiraling motion going from the bottom to the top of your body, continue to twisting right and left and shift your focus to your feet.
- Notice where the weight is on both your right and left foot when you are turned to the right.
- Notice where the weight is on both your right and left foot when you are turned to the left.
Does the weight stay the same on both feet regardless of your direction? Is it all on the outside of your feet? (Little toe and outer heel) Or is it all on the inside? (Big toe and inner heel) Or is it different on the right and left foot?
Ideally if the ankle is mobile and heel is not “stuck,” you should feel the weight shift to the outside of the right foot, and inside of the left foot when you turn to the right. And it’s the exact opposite when you turn to the left (outside of the left foot, inside of the right. And this transfer of weight is not just across the forefoot from the big to little toe, but there should also be a noticeable transfer of weight from the inner to outer heel.
If you buddy up with a friend, or are a Pilates teacher watching your clients, you can observe the weight shift. Look from the front to notice the transfer of weight from the Big to little toe. Look from the back to see the shift from the inner to outer heel. One ankle rolls in a little while the other rolls out, then you pass through a good lifted center point and they shift the other way.
The heel can be stuck centered with no movement, but in my experience I see more people with a tendency to be on the outer heel, and can be difficult to transfer weight to the inside of the heel if your normal walking or standing pattern is to hold your muscles and bones in mis-alignment. But even though I tend to see more people with short inner heels, you may also have clients who are bear all their weight on the inside of the heel, and are challenged to get the weight shift to the outer heel.
This is why doing and feeling the Agitator exercise is so important, and why having a partner to observe and confirm what you’re feeling can be helpful.
If the weight is transferring appropriately as you spiral from side to side, everything is free with the ankle and heel to moving well. If not, the other exercises I have to share with you can help free the heel and ankle up, the go back and re-test your “Agitator” to see if you can notice the improvements.
The Agitator exercise is an easy one you can do anywhere, anytime. Chances are no one will even realize that you’re doing a valuable foot care exercise, much less double checking that your heels and ankles are working well. Spot-check and reinforce the medial / lateral mobility of your feet and ankles with 10-20 reps of a free and easy swinging “Agitator” exercise.
Good shoes that help you maintain good support and knowing how to free up your ankles and heels is a great start to improving your balance and body control. Having the right amount of strength and mobility with your own muscles is even better! We can’t just rely on shoes to hold our feet and ankles in good alignment – ideally we need our muscles to work well. This can only be achieved by consciously, and actively doing specific foot fitness exercises for your ankles arches and toes.
My preference is always to start with toe training, because typically the toes are jammed into the foot, and the foot is jammed into the ankle which ultimately restricts heel mobility.
We need joint space to improve medial / lateral heel movement. By freeing up the toes and starting to strengthen the arches, getting more mobility for the heel and ankle will happen more easily.
Give yourself the gift of better balance and improved body awareness by practicing the “Agitator” exercise to start feeling the weight shift for improved heel and ankle mobility.
You’ll find the Terrific Toe series exercises I like to start clients with in my book Fantastic Feet! Exercises to Strengthen the Ankles, Arches, and Toes.
If you haven’t done any of the Fantastic Feet toe training exercises I recommend you start with them then add the heel exercises that will follow in part two and three of this Healthy Feet: Heel Mobility for Better Balance & Body Control Series.
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