Saturday, 3 November 2012

Good Toes and Naughty Toes

I was looking back over this blog (and through my posts in draft) and I realised that I had started the 'Use It or Lose It' thread, then hadn't started adding exercises.
So, here is the first exercise, bringing back happy memories of early ballet classes, where it was called 'good toes and naughty toes'.  I remember much later doing this in contemporary class as well, although there it was called 'point and flex'. In ballet class, the 'good toes' were pointed with a beautiful arch to the foot, and the 'naughty toes' were flexed.  As you advance in ballet, you realise that the flexion has its place too and there's nothing 'naughty' about it.  I sometimes use point-and-flex in class as a warm up while standing, so that it has a balance challenge element to it. But for starters, let's do it sitting on the floor, so you can see what you're doing.

Remember the rules!
  • I'm not a medical professional.  You are responsible for yourself.  If you're not sure whether you should be doing this, for example because of injury, recent surgery or long-term health issues, ask your GP/doctor, consultant, physiotherapist or other healthcare professional for advice.
  • If it hurts, stop!  It's okay if the movement feels strange, or you can feel a slight pull, a bit of muscle ache or burn, but sharp pain in soft tissue or joints is not good.
  • Be patient and gentle with yourself. Start with the easy exercises and work up to the more difficult versions.
  • Remember that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and that you are unique.  Don't compare yourself to anyone else.
  • Work slowly, carefully and mindfully; concentrate on good form and don't rush the exercises. Quality, not quantity!
  • Work both sides of the body equally, even if it's more difficult on one side or perhaps only one side feels as though it needs it.
  • If you feel as though there's no challenge in the exercise, do it anyway, just to prove you still can.
So, sitting on the floor with your legs out in front of you.  No slouching, now!  Sit up straight, supporting your back against the edge of the sofa or an armchair if you prefer, or lean back, using your arms to support yourself.
How does it feel?  If you aren't used to sitting on the floor with your legs out, just doing this can be quite strenuous. You might want to sit on a cushion.  Are you warm enough? Floors can be chilly, so you might want a blanket, an extra jumper and keep your socks on. (I wonder what happened to my leg warmers?)  Easy?  Then sit up straight, using your core muscles to support you.  
In this position, you can see your legs.  Look at your knees and how they line up with your ankles and toes.  When you are relaxed, your feet may well flop inwards, and your legs may roll in so that the knees face each other.
Roll the legs out from the hips so that the knees face the ceiling, and then straighten the foot so that you could draw a line down from the knee to the centre toe.  This is 'parallel position'.
How does it feel?  Is it an effort to get everything lined up?

With your knees relaxed, flex (that is, bend) your ankles and bring your toes up to point at the ceiling. Try to keep the feet flat, as if they were pressed against a wall.
Now point the foot, first stretching the ankle, then down the front of the foot with the toes still flexed as if you were wearing high heels. Lastly, point your toes, stretching them away from you, without curling your toes under and keeping your middle toe aligned with the centre of your knee.
Work slowly, without sudden movements, and gently, stretching only to the point just beyond where you start to feel the pull.
How does it feel?  One of the things I noticed was that it felt as my skin was being stretched, it was so dry.  Slathering my feet with moisturiser really helped.
Notice how this movement also works the calf muscles.

The next stage is to repeat this with a straight knee. Pull the thigh muscles up and keep them tensed (contracted) while you repeat the point and flex.  You may find that your heels lift away from the floor as your calf muscles move. Practise one foot at a time and then both together in the same direction, and then with one foot flexing as the other points.

Ready for more? Flex (bend!) the knee as you flex the ankle and foot and straighten the knee as you point.  It's very important to keep the knee aligned with the centre of the foot, so watch as you bend the knee and the ankle that they are in line.  Bending the knee moves the foot towards the body.  Keep your heel in light contact with the floor.  Don't aim for a big bend in the knee. Again, start with alternate legs, one at a time, and then both at the same time in the same direction, then both in alternate directions.

Still easy?  Rotate the legs out from the hip joints and repeat the exercises in turn-out rather than parallel.
Then sit with the legs wide and repeat the exercises in parallel (knees and toes to ceiling) and turn-out.

Other variations:
You can do this sitting down and it is a very useful exercise if you have to sit for a long period of time, either at a desk or as a passenger during a long drive or flight, as the movement of the calf muscles aids circulation by helping to pump blood back up the legs (the 'venous return').
Standing up, on one leg.  If the balance challenge is too much, use a chair, wall or ballet barre as a support.  (Really, it's not cheating.  Wobbling all over the place and risking falling over defeats the purpose of the exercise!) 
Do it in the bath or the swimming pool (the flex and point is at the core of  the frog kick!)
Do it lying down with one or both legs raised, still paying attention to the alignment of knees and toes.

And do let me know what you think of the exercise and how you get on!

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