Feet First! Building Intrinsic Foot Strength
By Susan Haines, MFA, NKT, FMT, IASTM
Dancers worldwide have pivoted, literally and figuratively during the COVID-19 pandemic to find ways to keep up their practice. For most of us, this means dancing on floors and surfaces that do not provide the same support as a sprung studio floor. Building strength through the intrinsic (deep) muscles of the foot and ankle region can help dancers who are taking class on less than ideal surfaces, have instability through the feet and ankles, or are dealing with overuse injuries of the lower leg. The feet absorb force with each step and landing, and we need to build up appropriate strength and mobility to handle the needs of dancing at home or to prepare for a return to the studio. Building intrinsic foot strength can offer dancers support from the inside out—and dancing in your Apolla Shocks can offer you support from the outside in, as the compression through the arches and ankles creates greater efficiency for the body and brain!
Dancing at Home:
I hear from dancers that they have increased soreness around the knee joints, and tightness in the calves and quadriceps from dancing at home. Many are feeling tightness or soreness in the low back, as the impact is felt all the way through the body. These regions are being called upon to handle the added stress from hard floors. The body knows that if it is not getting enough control or strength from one area, it will generate power from a different area—creating a new neurological compensation patterning that is used every time you perform that movement. This is what your teacher calls “a bad habit”!
I prefer to think of these compensation patterns as “your body is doing the best it can” to shift the idea that your body did something wrong. Your body did something right! It knew you needed more control or strength, so it found a way to get you that control! This is a lot like my daughter cleaning her room by throwing everything in the closet. Sure, the room looks clean, but it created a bigger mess that she’ll have to deal with later! That’s what happens with these compensation patterns, we see them result in overuse injuries after months or years of repetition.
We can help our bodies find the most efficient way of moving and prevent injuries by ensuring we have appropriate strength and awareness WHERE we need it. Training the Central Nervous System (the brain) to respond WHEN we need it is also a big part! Dancers need to train the neurological reaction timing for optimum power and stability. Strengthening the feet and ankles can help dancers build more efficient use of the body overall, foster proper transmission of force from feet to pelvis, and foster the neurological timing required for the multi-directional, multi-planar demands of dancing. This is especially important when we are taking class at home on less than ideal surfaces and preparing for a return to the studio.
There are a lot of training practices out there for dancers and athletes, but we need to ensure that we are building functional strength that is applicable to dance! One example of this is jumping in sneakers to soften the force of hard floors or for dancing outside. Jumping in sneakers can provide aerobic and plyometric conditioning but unless your dance style utilizes sneakers, we are not building the same neurological “wiring” or activation of the intrinsic foot muscles. This is because the cushy sneakers do not require the same level of muscle activation that we would use in bare feet, minimal shoes/slippers or Shocks in a jump landing. Finding a way to jump safely during quarantine is a good thing! But dancers need to have proper activation of the feet and a connected core to make sure they are building appropriate and functional strength. Even dance styles that use sneakers or shoes will benefit from intrinsic foot strength for improved power and stability.
Foot Appreciation 101:
The Foot is a masterpiece of design! The 28 bones of the foot work as shock absorbers with every step we take. We can understand this better by imagining a solid block of ice in a bag that is dropped to the floor. What happens to the ice? It breaks up into a lot of small pieces. What happens if we drop the bag again? The pieces bounce but don’t break into smaller fragments. This is because the small pieces and the spaces between them can absorb and distribute the force more efficiently. This is why we have so many bones in the foot! The foot with all its bones, ligaments, and muscles acts like a spring for our body in movement. If the foot gets compressed and loses mobility, then its ability to absorb the shock of landings is compromised. Dancing on hard surfaces can cause the foot to stiffen up and compress and lose its springiness. We can restore this by developing appropriate mobility and strength from the muscles of the foot and balancing the fascial glide through the foot and lower leg.
Balancing the Foot:
Many dancers rely too much on the toe flexors for stability instead of engaging the full chain of muscles from foot through pelvis and trunk, they simply grip the floor and “grab” with the toes and ignore the deeper muscular support system of foot, ankle and lower leg and how to connect it through to the pelvis. If you are a “toe gripper” don’t despair! This is your body trying to do its best to get you stability! This usually means the body needs more intrinsic foot and ankle support and could need more intrinsic core strength. Dancers (and all humans!) need to find the connection from the foot through the legs and pelvis, all the way to the trunk. This provides stability for the spine which allows for more power to be generated from the core—instead of the body creating a new compensation pattern (like gripping through the toes). Working with the body as a connected structure can help prevent overuse injuries. Dancers also need awareness of how to work with acceleration and deceleration and help the body to “slow down” against gravity more efficiently and control the distribution of force in a more manageable way.
Watch this video for exercises to build intrinsic foot strength and train neurological timing and coordination for improved control on hard floors.
Bio: Susan Haines is a Dance Kinesiologist based in Bellingham, WA bridging the latest research in fascia, biomechanics, and neuroscience into dance training. Susan is a Level III Neurokinetic Therapy practitioner; a sophisticated treatment modality that addresses the causes of dysfunctional movement in the motor control center. This work led her to create Dance Conditioning Technique, a unique training system for dancers that focuses on foundational strength. She has worked with dancers from American Ballet Theatre, American Repertory Ballet, Ballet Austin and the school of Oregon Ballet Theatre to create conditioning programs for greater ease in turnout, pointe work and partnering. She has an MFA in Dance from UNC-Greensboro where she studied with leaders in the fields of Somatics, and Kinesiology; Dr. Jill Green and B.J. Sullivan. She is a certified Pilates Instructor who studied under Carolyn Watson, MS, LaC, scoliosis and sacroiliac joint workshops with Karen Clippinger, M.S.P.E, and Franklin Method with Eric Franklin and Tom McCook. She is trained in functional movement patterning and taping with Dr. Perry Nickelston and is a certified FMT Mobility Specialist. She is on faculty at Western Washington University teaching contemporary, ballet, jazz, and kinesiology in her Apolla Shocks. She has presented her dance conditioning research at conferences nationwide.
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