If you have read my last few posts you know what pronation is and you know that everybody is actually supposed to do it – but some people do too much of it. You also know that one fast and easy solution to overpronation is to wear better shoes. Today I have to fill you in on how to reduce pronation the hard way. Exercise.
Before you groan too loudly, hear me out. We can support your feet artificially from the outside in with highly structured shoes or even orthotics (I will talk about those next time), but what happens when your shoes wear out? Or if your dog chews up your insoles (they like to do that). You have become totally dependent on this external support and you can’t live without it. Wouldn’t it be better if we could actually change the structural system of your feet?
This may be a bit of a stretch of the imagination, but try to imagine that your lower leg is a hot air balloon and your foot is the basket underneath.
Those ropes that keep the basket attached are somewhat like the muscles that surround your foot and ankle complex. You will notice that there are four ropes, one for each corner of the basket. Conveniently enough for this analogy, your foot stabilizing muscles can be divided into four groups just like the four ropes of the balloon basket. It is obvious that all four ropes need to bear equal pressure so that the basket (or your foot) can remain balanced. If you are an overpronator, it means that the “ropes” of your feet are not pulling evenly.
This is a picture of what happens when the two ropes on the medial side (the medial side is the part closest to your big toe) are too long. The basket tips, the foot pronates. So how do we fix this?
Something you should know about muscles is that they get shorter as they work. The opposite is also true – a weak muscle, one that is not working much, seems longer than other muscles. In order to fix this imbalance we have to try to lengthen the short overactive muscles and shorten the weak underactive muscles. We can lengthen the lateral muscles by using stretching techniques, and shorten the medial muscles by making them stronger.
I mentioned earlier that the muscles of the legs can be divided into four categories:
- Muscles that rotate the foot Up and Out
- Muscles that rotate the foot Down and Out
- Muscles that rotate the foot Up and In
- Muscles that rotate the foot Down and In
To make things simpler I color coded the muscles and “Ropes” of the diagram so that you can see which muscles are overactive and which ones are not working enough.
People who pronate need to stretch the red and orange muscles, while strengthening the green and blue muscles. This will help “Balance the basket” and can actually change the support structure of your feet.
Let’s start with 2 stretches and 2 exercises:
#1: Stair stretch
Stand on a step with only the ball of your foot. Allow your heel to slowly drop down below the level of the stair while keeping your knee straight. Go until you feel a good stretch in the back of your calf, but stop before it is painful. Hold for at least 30 sec. Repeat with your knee slightly bent. Experiment with the angle of your foot; turning your foot so that your toes point in or out changes the area being stretched. Concentrate on whatever area feels the tightest. Don’t forget to stretch both legs.
#2: Towel stretch
While sitting down with your legs out in front of you, use a towel to make a “U” around the ball of your foot. (Sort of like reins on a horse) Hold one end of the towel with each hand. Gently pull back on the towel, bringing your toes closer to you. Just when you are starting to feel a stretch in the back of your calf, pull harder with the hand on the medial side (big toe side) of your foot. This should make your foot invert (turn to the inside) slightly. You should now feel the stretch on the outside of your lower leg. Hold for at least 30 sec.
#3: Towel resistance
This is two exercises in one. Stay in the same position as the towel stretch, except cross the ends of the towel so that your opposite hand is holding the opposite “rein” and the towel forms an “X” above your ankle. This time the hand on the lateral side (pinky toe side) of your foot is going to be doing all the pulling. Use your foot to fight against the pull of the towel, inverting your foot and pointing your big toe alternately up and down at the end of the action. You will soon feel the muscles in medial side of your lower leg working. Repeat 20X on each side.
Another way to exercise these muscles is to place a pillow between both feet and push the borders of your feet together against the resistance of the pillow. This exercise is not quite as effective as the towel resistance exercise, but it is easier to learn for beginners.
#4: Towel Scrunch
This is a bonus exercise that I just couldn’t resist adding to the routine. In the analogy of the balloon basket; this exercise doesn’t help to shorten any of the ropes. Instead, this exercise is like adding reinforcement to the bottom of the basket. Just as a balloon basket can be incredibly steady and still be unsafe because of a rotten floor, it is possible for your feet to be properly aligned and still be weak. These towel scrunches help strengthen the muscles under the arch of your foot.
Lay your towel flat on a slippery floor. Place your heel at one end of the towel and use your toes to scrunch the rest of the towel towards you. If this is too easy, place small weights on the far end of the towel. (Cans of tuna work great). Repeat 5X/ foot.
After doing your exercises, repeat stretches #1 and #2 again.
The muscles of the foot and ankle are complex. Many of them are small and have multiple interrelated motions. These exercises and stretches are just a few ways to change the function of your feet. Try them out. It is worth the work to have a firm foundation (or a steady basket, depending on what analogy we are using).