This week my Nordic walking technique focus has been on the lower body. In particular the feet. Nordic walking is one of the few activities requiring us to think how we use our feet. Its focus on actively articulating the foot, rolling from the heel through to the toes, is a great way to keep the joints and muscles in and around your feet healthy. I cover the NW technique in more detail below but first a question: when was the last time you gave your feet an MOT?
Besides the obvious fact that they take our whole weight when we’re standing or walking, feet have to put up with a lot – idiosyncratic walking styles, wrongly fitting shoes, sweaty socks and high heels to name a few. As we age foot care becomes even more important. The skin thins, joints begin to stiffen and flexibility suffers. But how do we give these workhorses of ours the love and attention they deserve?
I know from conversations I’ve been having on our walks that a few of you are ‘foot enlightened’ and a couple of you have been telling me how impressed you’ve been with one of our local podiatrists, Naomi Green of Footworks. Feeling guilty that I’ve never once in my life visited a podiatrist, I booked myself a 30 minute slot and fired a load of questions at Naomi as she gave my feet a thorough going over. Here are six things I learned, both from Naomi and from subsequent research:
- We have 52 bones in our feet and each foot has a whopping 33 joints. How we walk and look after our feet hugely influences their health.
- Hard patches on your feet especially around the heel and on the side of the big toe indicate places where your skin has hardened to protect itself. In the case of the big toe it is an indicator that the toe joint has lost flexibility. Believe it or not there are specific toe exercises that you can do to maintain or increase their flexibility (see below).
- It isn’t surprising that a Nordic walker would have hard skin around their heels as Nordic walking requires an active heel strike which would encourage the skin around that area the thicken. To avoid cracks developing, use a foot file regularly (it works better on dry skin apparently) and moisturise your heels at least three times a week.
- Poorly fitting shoes which are too tight on the toes can result in the thickening of your toe nails.
- It is worth doing regular exercises (in addition to Nordic walking) to help the strength, flexibility and condition of your feet and their collective 66 joints. Good ones include lifting a pencil with your toes; spreading your toes wide (which we try to do when Nordic walking anyway); walking on tiptoe and on your heels; and using a tennis ball to mobilise the soles of your feet. There is even a plantar fascia stretch.
- The right socks are almost as important as the right shoes. We have 250,000 sweat glands in our feet which can produce up to half a pint of perspiration daily. (There’s some useful advice about buying socks on the Institute of Chiropodists and Podiatrists website.)
I have come away better informed as well as with better looking feet. It has also given me a new workshop idea for when the weather gets warmer…
Nordic walking foot roll technique
As I’ve already said, our feet are an active and integral part of how we walk and Nordic walk. Getting the Nordic walking technique right can make a big difference to your circulation, speed, lower body strength and all over foot health. Here’s a reminder of what we should be doing:
Your foot is meant to roll through from the heel, over the foot arch to the ball of your foot and ultimately your toes. At Bristol Nordic Walking we often use the image of squeezing a lemon under your foot at each stride – or of peeling Velcro from the base of your foot off the floor. The action should be fluid: focus on keeping your foot as soft and pliable as possible. In particular, don’t slam your foot down on the point of your heel and force the motion through to push off with your toes. Keep it soft and subtle. Other points to consider include:
- Distribute your weight evenly over both feet. It’s easy and habitual to limp slightly or favour one side, especially if you’ve got a sore hip or knee. Remember that you can take the pressure off your lower body by planting firmly with your poles and using your upper body.
- Spread your toes wide and push off evenly with them. Pushing off with your toes helps to open your ankle joint (see below) and improve your walking gait and efficiency. For those of you who are interested in increasing your speed, pushing off with your toes helps access the powerful gluteal muscles in your bottom.
- Your ankle joint is very important and often neglected. Make sure you do ankle circles in the winter months to warm this important joint up and think about opening at the ankle when you push off with your toes – it helps open the hip joint too.
- Use your shin muscle (tibialis anterior) to lift your toe. Too few people do this (Nordic walkers excepted) and it leads to a weakened shin muscle and a shuffling walking pattern in older age.
The right footwear
The final piece in the foot jigsaw is your footwear. The best type of boot and shoe for Nordic walking is a frequently discussed topic amongst us walkers. If you haven’t yet settled on a particular shoe or boot you might find my blog Best foot forward – what shoes to wear for Nordic walking helpful.
Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports footwear buyer and fitness expert, Jeremy Stevens, has also contributed these tips on finding the right pair of shoes for your feet:
- “Think about the terrain you are going to be walking on and choose appropriately. If you plan to stick to light trails you’ll find a shoe adequate. However, if you’re heading onto trickier terrain, you might benefit from a boot so that your ankles are supported and protected.
- If it’s slipper-like comfort you’re after, consider a footbed. They dramatically improve fit and performance by supporting the structure of your own foot. This in turn helps muscles to relax and stops them tiring as quickly.
- Fit problems often stem from the foot itself rather than the boot. Try different brands to find the one that fits your foot shape best.”
Ellis Brigham and other outdoor sports shops often offer a ‘Surefit’ service. This involves looking at your boot history, foot shape and biomechanics to help you find the right footwear. Certainly worth thinking about.