Despite what seems like more general awareness of the importance of healthy feet, there’s still a lot of talk of how shoes and shoe-related products are the way to keep our feet happy instead of the brilliantly functional and adaptive structures of our feet. The “experts” tell us about the latest and greatest in shoe advancements, using terms like “bounceback,” “reinforced vamp,” “meta-flex technology,” and (my favorite) “Rope-Tec burn-protecting reinforcements.” I’m not a shoe expert, but these terms are most likely made-up by some marketing company hired by the shoe makers to make their newest product development sound innovative. They’re using terms and phrases that mimic what the foot, in all of it’s beautiful glory, actually does – bounceback, flex, etc….but, honestly, a healthy foot does these things much better than any of the shoe technologies will ever do.
One of these structures is the Spring Ligament. This is a thick, highly elastic ligament deep in the arch of the foot that not only helps provide shock absorption and rebound (“spring”) with each step, but also helps protect other structures in the middle and inner foot from being overloaded, or even ruptured, during heavy or hard loading (e.g. running or jumping).
The Spring Ligament, like the other dozen plus ligaments in the foot, is made up of dense collagen tissue and is strong and resilient – when it’s healthy and working properly. But (there’s always a “but”) ligaments like this one can get overloaded, and thus injured, when other supporting structures of the foot either (a). DON’T do their job, or (b). CAN’T do their job.
When (a) happens: other supporting structures DON’T do their job. There are over 100 total muscles, tendons, & ligaments in the foot and ankle, and they’re all beautifully designed to help support one another. Several key muscles, like the Posterior Tibialis, provide active support to the arch of the foot. But like any other muscle, if you don’t use it you lose it! So often after an injury, a surgery, or just not enough regular walking / weight bearing exercise, this muscle can get weak & fatigues prematurely, making it unable to support the arch. Other structures, like the Spring Ligament, then get overloaded. Another scenario is when the calf / Achilles tendon loses flexibility, such as in the aging or sedentary body. It is then unable to lengthen adequately during normal walking, thus transferring large loads (and force) onto the mid-foot and arch with every step. Plantar Fasciitis is a common, and very painful, condition that can come about when the Plantar Ligament gets overloaded due to tightness in the calf / Achilles.
When (b) happens: other supporting structures CAN’T do their job: This can occur when we provide too much support, mainly in the arch, as is often the case with arch-supporting shoes or inserts. Like anything in the body, tendons & ligaments respond to the stresses we subject them to. So, if we give too much support, then we don’t give them a chance to be loaded properly and, thus, do their job. This can lead to loss of fiber density, flexibility / elasticity, and strength of the tissue. This subjects other tissues, like the Spring Ligament, to overload and injury.
The good news is there are simple things most of us can do to maintain strong muscle-tendon structures as well as healthy & elastic tendon tissues. Here are 3 simple strategies to help:
Posterior Tibialis strengthening, Level 1
To strengthen this very important arch-supporting muscle, use a standard resistance band anchored to something solid & wrapped around the ball (forefoot). Then slowly raise up towards ceiling and back down in a smooth motion, as many times as you can, several times daily.
For a more challenging Posterior Tib strengthener, do a standing heel raise, but roll to the outside (little) toes as you raise up. Then lower down, slow & controlled.
For an even greater challenge, try this standing on 1 leg only!
This is commonly called the “runner’s stretch.” For most people, this stretch should be done daily and held for at least 1 minute.