Take a look at the sole of your foot. What do you see?
Perhaps a network of lines, some peaks and valleys, varied skin tones, and varied textures, too. But what you can’t see are the thousands of mechanoreceptors that respond to touch, texture, pressure and stretch, and that communicate vital information to your nervous system.
These receptors play an important role in your balance, gait, posture, and overall movement control. When these sensory nerves are stimulated, the tiny muscles of your feet are activated and a whole cascade of events occur throughout your body.
“I like to think of the foot as our body’s foundation–mechanically and posturally,” says Dr Emily Splichal. Dr Emily is a Podiatrist, human movement specialist, and founder of Naboso, a company that produces textured, sensory products that are designed to improve foot awareness, strength, posture and movement.
Two crucial components of optimized foot function are strengthening your feet mechanically, and increasing sensory stimulation. That sensory stimulation can come from engaging with different surfaces, through pressure, temperature, or vibration.
“On the sensory side, the nerves in the bottom of the foot are constantly reading the environment. That information is communicated with the rest of the nervous system in order to activate your muscles. This happens when you are standing in quiet stance or static posture, and also when you move dynamically, in order to navigate the ground and transfer your energy.”
Certified Instructor, Daria Lepinskikh, from Russia, stimulates her sensory system by taking her Animal Flow practice outside.
For Dr Emily, her interest in the foot is about more than just the foot itself; it’s about the role it plays in movement perception.
“This awareness of movement is about us being able to perceive ourselves, as it relates to the way we move. Being barefoot or having your hands on the ground allows you to bring in sensory stimulation, which connects you to the awareness of your movement. This translates to accuracy, confidence in movement, and subtlety in movement, which allows you to feel if something isn’t right. This is really important if you’re learning a new skill because it helps your efficiency and can also reduce the risk of injury.”
It’s not only your foot talking to your brain; your brain talks back to your foot, too. This two-way information flow follows pathways that group together in your cerebral cortex, which is the outermost layer of your brain. Different regions of the cortex are responsible for different things: motor tasks (movements), sensory information, and making associations or handling more complex cognitive tasks.
The neurons that relate to different areas of your body are grouped together in your brain, creating a distorted map of your body which is known as a ‘homunculus’. The sensory homunculus (which means ‘little man’ in Latin) maps out the brain areas that are responsible for processing sensory information for various parts of your body.
While small in size compared to other body parts, your hands, mouth and feet cover the largest surface area of this brain map. This means that, when you stimulate those areas, you’re also activating more of the related area of your brain.
One of the most powerful pathways to optimize your central nervous system function is through tactile stimulation. Yet, when it comes to sensory stimulation, not all surfaces are created equal.
“For Animal Flow, you want to look for harder surfaces that have some flex to them,” says Dr Emily, “like a group exercise or yoga studio floor, or an indoor track.”
“Indoor tracks are designed very specifically to optimize foot activation, and the perception and frequency of vibration coming in. That’s an element of surface design that isn’t often considered when you’re going to workout at the gym.”
Softer surfaces (such as carpet or soft foam mats) aren’t as ideal as they dampen the stimulation of your feet, which also means a reduction in brain stimulation. Shoes also dampen this important stimulation as well as impact other elements of function.
“Traditional shoes can take away the natural range of the motion of the different joints from the toes to the mid-foot, to the ankle. That’s going to force you to use a less optimal, less natural, less efficient style of movement. From a sensory perspective, the shoe takes all the information that should be going direct to your foot.”
Can’t go barefoot for some reason? Look for a minimal shoe that has plenty of movement, flexibility and space in the toe box.
If you’re looking for a simple way to add some more awareness and circulation to your feet, try Dr Emily’s 5 Minute Foot Release. If you don’t have a Neuro Ball, you can try using a lacrosse ball or other soft tissue tool.
When it comes to maximizing sensory stimulation as a way to create better awareness and connectedness, Dr Emily makes these recommendations.
1. Tactile stimulation
Go barefoot where possible and explore different surfaces with varied sensory stimulation. “From a hardwood floor to a yoga mat to a wrestling mat, they’ll also force a different level of information to the nervous system.”
Try adding some focused breathwork into your day. “Whether it’s diaphragmatic breathing or focused breathing, I like to bring awareness to the breath.”
“I’m big on compression apparel because it’s like a hug to yourself that forces you to connect to your body. There’s great science around the benefits of weighted blankets and eye masks allowing you to tune into yourself, and compression garments are similar.”
“Freedom of movement, of natural movement, actually feeds sensory stimulation. It’s more than just having your bare foot on the floor. Every movement you do that stimulates fascia [such as Animal Flow] is stimulating sensory nerves. The more you can get freedom of motion and get your fascia stimulated, you’ll also further activate your brain.”
For more preparation for your hands and feet, follow along with Animal Flow creator, Mike Fitch, as he guides you through some pre-Flow mobilizations. You can also check out Dr Emily’s work and the full range of Naboso mats, insoles, socks and accessories at Naboso.com