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How Walking Barefoot Across Rocky Surfaces Improves Joint Stability

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 26 April 2017
Hits: 8650

I have seen some amazing results in my 15 years as a rehab specialist and the past few years have been the most dramatic, as I have worked with many clients trying to learn how to walk again which has really tested my skills and knowledge. Exercises I would often use successfully to improve stability and strength with other injuries like knee pain or hip pain, had very little effect on changing a person's ability to walk. After months of applying these strength and stability methods and getting nowhere I noticed there was one thing that all these people with severe walking impairments had in common, and that was a very stiff and rigid foot. This rigidity in the foot made it impossible for any other muscle in the leg to function correctly. Working on the foot separately provided some small gains in mobility and strength, but really had no effect as to the way they used the foot when they walked. Sometimes the best ideas come by accident or experimentation and this was one of those times. While I was helping one of our clients walk across a path I noticed how her gait changed whenever she stood on small stones. As her feet were so rigid her foot felt every little stone or bump and instantly reacted to move away from the pain. Her entire gait changed due to the pain in her foot. It was at this point I discovered the benefit of walking across uneven rocky surfaces could play a vital role in restoring motor function. The best part about this is it works almost instantly! This article I will explain how this works and how you can use it in your own training. 

Foot Stability is Everything to Movement Efficiency

In a recent study conducted by the Oregon Research Institute (ORI), textured surface for the feet exercise has demonstrated an improvement in physical function and reduction in blood pressure to a greater extent than conventional walking in older adults. This was mainly due to the effect the mat has on what are known as mechanoreceptors in the sole of the feet in the skin. These mechanoreceptors have a large impact on balance and postural control. As we age, we experience DECREASED information from foot sole skin input. One solution is to augment skin information with the intent of improving balance.

Mechanoreceptors are structures in the body that enable people to experience physical sensations. They feed tactile information to the brain so the brain can process it, providing information about objects in the environment people interact with, as well as vibrations in the air and other sources of physical sensation. There are a number of types of mechanoreceptors, designed to sense different kinds of tactile information, and these structures function in different ways. In disorders involving sensory sensitivity, people may have problems with their mechanoreceptors or the nerves that carry information from these structures to the brain.

Now while I made an accidental discovery with this client, I decided to research this in more detail to find out exactly what was going on. I found this concept had been explored already in great detail with people suffering brain injuries trying to re-learn how to walk in the book "Motor Learning & Performance" by Richard Schmidt. They were getting people to walk across many different surfaces like grass, smooth concrete, rocks to stimulate the mechanoreceptors under their feet. Just like me they noticed how their body's reflexes changed their gait instantly when stimulated by rocky surfaces.

I decided to try and create the same thing. At first I began taking my clients up to the path in a local park and getting them to walk across the stones. While it seemed to work it had several problems and was far from an ideal concept ongoing. I needed a new plan so after a bit more research I came across exactly what I was looking for - the Sensa Mat.

How You Can Use The Sensa Mat to Stimulate Brain & Improve Walking

This is really a small mat you stand on that has 100 small rubber spikes in it that simulates the rocks in the park. This allowed me to do exercises within the gym environment that made it much easier for me to assist the person with the movements we needed to use. Below is a quick video demonstrating several exercises using the Sensa mat.

After only a few weeks after I began using this equipment it changed everything! (There are many internet sites around the world that sell similar mats you can use. If you cannot find one you can do what I did originally and use mother nature. Find some or stones to walk across and you will get the same feeling.

At first I only used this with people who had walking impairments from car accidents, spinal cord injury or diseases like a stroke and MS, but over the coming months I began experimenting with the Sensa mat on myself, and much to my amazement it changed my body significantly in terms of stability and strength! I am first to admit I completely underestimated the power of some of these exercises we were using, and how activating small muscles within the feet can make such a big effect up the kinetic chain. 

Below is a picture of the lady I mentioned earlier, Rita Ioannou who I first discovered this concept and is seen walking on the longer sensa mat.

We met Rita back in 2015 and she had endured 2 serious car accidents, one at age 6, and the other at age 20. Both times she was a passenger, and both times, was lucky to be still be alive. Her injuries were so severe, doctors claimed she would not be able to walk again which she manged to prove them wrong. However, her injuries left her with a severe walking impairment and over the past 25 years she had let it slowly deteriorate. She had tried to get help via physiotherapy and various other methods for many years with little success.

As I briefly mentioned earlier we also had little success with everything we tried. It was only when we introduced the sensa mat that everything changed. You can read Rita's full story by clicking here.

How Does This Benefit All Of Us In Our Training?

So far we have seen how this can have a dramatic effect on people with injury or a disease but what about if you have nothing wrong with you? Or maybe a few aches and pains but you can walk okay, is using this still of benefit? Absolutely. This is where the basis for Barefoot training exploded in recent years.

This is not a new thing, over the past 10 years the Fitness industry has been going crazy with all different fads, new shoes that embrace this training, and all types of people endorsing barefoot. But like most new things, people rush to it without fully understanding what it does, how to do it right and appreciating they need to slowly build up to a point where their body can handle it. Hence there has been many injuries from rushing to barefoot training, or even using minimalist shoes as a result, and conclusions have been mistakenly been drawn that now it is bad for you, when earlier it was great for you. There must be a transition and gradual progress to training this way, you cannot go cold turkey and think nothing will go wrong.

If you're unable to perform strength training, walking, jogging, sprinting, agility drills, and even simple jumping drill in either barefoot or the most minimalist shoes, your feet and ankles just aren't functioning optimally. The feet have become lazy and weak and the ankles will in turn become stiff instead of mobile. And like any other body part if it is weak, it must be trained, and the feet are no different.

Make sure you read our articles with tons of information about foot stability in the links below.

With over 100 various muscles, the feet and ankles encompass 15-20% of all the muscles in the body!

Our feet and ankles are meant to withstand incredibly high forces and should provide more in terms of shock absorption than perhaps any other body part. Unfortunately, we begin to gradually lose this ability once we start wearing shoes. Over time, the feet, ankles, and toes become inhibited. And as we expose our feet to some trendy shoes with all types of padding and support, this only make matters worse and exacerbates the lazy and weak feet muscles..

Besides minimizing the ability to withstand intense ground reactive forces, the body gradually begins sending fewer and fewer signals to the feet, leading to distortions in pro-prioception and loss of innervation all the way up the kinetic chain. This is where injuries are born!

Ultimately, this produces foot and ankle dysfunction that leads to dysfunctional movement patterns throughout the entire body, head to toe, or in this case, toe to head. This where injuries like achilles tendonosis, plantar fasciitis, ACL tear for the knee, patella tracking, piriformis syndrome and basically any leg injury could originate with the feet! You will know the feet are a problem if you are an excessive pronator (Flat feet). Your feet flexor muscles are weak and inhibited. Even if they were not the original problem, they now play a big part in keeping it active. The feet don't need orthotics, they need to be strengthened.

See picture below of the potential chain reaction of problems from developing tight ankles and weak feet.

If you think foot and ankle dysfunction is an isolated issue only affecting your body from the shins down, think again. We have discussed the impact of tight ankles contributing to faulty movements with squatting and bending, which indirectly affects the position of the spine. Poor spinal alignment is often associated with low back pain, neck impingement, shoulder injuries, and inhibition or weakness in your upper body. Below is a description of what happens in the body when a joint becomes dysfunctional.

  1. Feet - The feet have a tendency to being lazy, and easily losing strength and motor control. From poor footwear, to sitting too much, and even the lack of barefoot walking, the feet need exercises to make them stronger and more stable.
  2. Ankle - The ankle tends to develop stiffness very easily and needs more focus on mobility and flexibility.
  3. Knee - The knee like the feet becomes weak and sloppy easily, (VMO for instance completely shuts down with as little as 10ml of fluid present). This in turn creates severe knee injuries and if left untreated eventually chronic stiffness in an attempt to stabilize it. Stability and strength work is needed for this joint.
  4. Hip - This joint is often the cause of many problems. The hips have a tendency towards stiffness and as a result benefit from flexibility and mobility work.
  5. Lumbar Spine - The lumbar spine needs stability to prevent unwanted flexion or extension.

Now apart from all of the dangers of increasing your risk for injuries, you've also minimized the amount of force and power your body can generate as you now have what is called an energy leak. In simple terms you are not getting the best out of your training.

The Feet Are Everything

For any movement you do standing up, neural signalling begins at the feet as they are the first part of the body to feel the ground and tell the system what to do. They tell the brain where you are, if you are balanced enough to move yet and basically instigate movement before it even begins. The better the feet and ankles are functioning, the better the signal all they way up the kinetic chain. Unfortunately, a majority of people have foot and ankle dysfunction to varying degrees. No matter how strong, powerful, mobile, agile, fast, or explosive an athlete is, correcting these foot and ankle deficiencies will only improve upon their overall strength and ability to move as well as reduce their risk for injuries.

Addressing foot and ankle deficiencies will do wonders for muscle function, joint health, and movement mechanics than most forms of corrective exercise. This will allow you to develop serious strength and power by eliminating any energy leaks and in particular with the squat. If you can improve the squat you will also improve your jumping ability as jumping is created from squat movement pattern. If you play sports this is something you would definitely want to do.

There are many exercises you can use with the Sensa Mat from basic walking on the long mat to lunges, deadlifts and squats. But without a doubt the most effective exercises are all single leg exercises like Single Leg Squats

My favourite is The Toe Touch Drill! Watch the video below of how to do it.

These are just some exercises you can use, but feel free to try out all of the single leg variety and see what works for you.

Conclusion

Now we know the brain is in our skull, but as you have seen in this article the feet are equally as important for they are first to know what is going on. Our ignorance to the importance of this, and our abuse of our feet via comfortable shoes that do nothing to preserve our feet stability means we must designate specific exercises and methods to restore what we had before. We have seen how big an impact this can have on the brain with severe injury and disability, the same effect is true for all of us. The potential for injury is huge by neglecting this, and using the Sensa mat within your training on a consistent basis is well worth the effort.

If you currently suffer with any of the injuries mentioned in this article you will find our Functional Training FREE Report shown below a great read. 

If you enjoyed this article and live in Melbourne you can request a Free Posture and Movement assessment by clicking the image below. If you live internationally you can request a Zoom call with me where I can set you up with a program. You can find out more about our online training program by clicking here.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Barefoot Strong - By Dr Emily Splichal
  • Whole Body Barefoot - By Katy Bowman
  • Born To Run - Chris McDougal
  • The Vital Glutes - By John Gibbons
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist