This may sound like a hokey way of thanking your feet for keeping you upright and moving for an average of 5,000 steps per day. But, if we multiply that number by 365 days in a year, that means our feet take us an average of 1,825,000 of steps per year. And that number does not include steps for sports related activities or targeted exercise. So, I guess thanking your feet is not such a bad idea, but my point is a little different.
One can imagine that taking an average of 5000 steps per day can create foot pain that makes it hard to walk and even harder to keep up with your tennis game! This has happened to me as well as my teammates on our United States Tennis Association (USTA) Women’s Tennis League. People may be familiar with the term “plantar fasciitis” or, more simply stated, pain on the bottom of your foot that makes it hard to walk without limping, especially first thing in the morning or after any period of rest, like sitting at your desk for an hour or more. Your plantar fascia is dense connective tissue that runs from your heal to your toes, and because it is on the bottom of your foot, planar surface, it is called plantar fascia. When this fascia gets inflamed it is called fasciitis.
There can be many reasons for this inflammation, and for us tennis players it is usually too much tennis, specially on a hard court, without proper footwear and post-exercise stretching. By proper footwear, I really mean changing out our tennis sneakers at least every six months. A good way to see if your sneakers are ready to be tossed is to look at the tread on the sole, especially around the ball of the foot. Because we spend so much time on the balls of our feet ready to spring off and get to the next shot, the forward sole of the sneaker wears the most. Also, if you can easily push your thumbs into the ball of the sneaker, it is time for a new pair.
Now, let’s talk about shaking hands with your feet or post-exercise stretching for the hard working muscles inside of your foot.
Muscles like to be stretched after they have been used during an athletic activity, so to get to the small but powerful muscles of the foot do the following:
- To stretch the left foot, bring the left foot up onto your right thigh and, with your socks off, put the fingers of your right hand in between your toes. When you first start it may be painful and difficult to get your fingers in between the toes but that just lets you know how tight you little muscles are! Once to get your fingers in there move the foot and toes up and down and side to side trying to loosen the foot up. Then repeat with the other foot and other hand.
- Now, lets target the big toe. Stand in front of a step and place the bottom of your big toe up against the riser of the stair and bend your knee until you feel a pull on the bottom of the toe and foot as well as into your calf. Stretching like this should never be painful but should feel tight and I recommend holding the stretch till the tightness starts to ease a little. In the lower leg that can be a minute or longer.
- Most people are familiar with stretching the calf or the back of your lower leg by standing with your hands against a wall and stepping back with one leg, keeping the knee straight and leaning forward, or standing on a step and letting your heels drop off the step with your knees straight. Both of those are good stretches, but my favorite is standing on a slant board (see picture). You can make your own slant board by getting a piece of 2 by 4 and a flat piece of wood big enough for your two feet to fit on or go on Amazon and search for “OPTP Slant.” Just stand both feet on the slant so your toes are on the high side. Again, I like to hold that position until the stretch feeling starts to subside a little. And the higher up the slant you stand, the stronger the stretch, so you can start with your heels on the ground and steadily walk up the slant as you progress.
I was able to catch my plantar fasciitis early by doing the above stretches after tennis, as well as after my boxing class (another sport that keeps you on your toes), and I did not miss any time on the courts! Remember listen to your body, have the right equipment and start all new exercise routines slowly and gently to see how your body responds. And! Visit your neighborhood physical therapists if you have trouble recovering from injuries, because that is what we help people do.
~ Brigitte Cook, PT