When exercise hurts: use movement

This post was inspired by an exchange I had on my facebook page.

I shared a post about foot problems being connected to hip issues and how something like an orthotic is not a good long term solution.

A reader responded regarding her feet, sharing that she wasn’t so sure about all that because she’s had a lifetime struggle with plantar fasciitis. We exchanged comments and her final comment really struck me.

She said, “some of my worst bouts with pf were in my most fit and lean days. Times when I was the most active….running marathons or doing triathalons, times when my muscles were the best conditioned…” She also shared that her best bet now is wearing birkenstocks because they provide support to her feet.

What this dear reader shared is something I suspect is true for SO many of us (me included).

Exercise can make you hurt.

When I was my “fittest”, I had the following issues (not all at once!): shin splints, tibia stress fracture, hip pointer, femoral patella syndrome, low back pain, neck pain, sacro-iliac pain, hot spots on the inside edges of my shoulder blades and a few other aches and pains.

I could run a 7 minute mile, finish a 10K, had a ‘strong core’ and do a handstand easy peasy in yoga.

But I hurt. Often. Constantly, in fact.

What I know now is my lifetime of growing in the shape of a chair, wearing shoes with a heel (yes, even those $150 running shoes that were fitted to me by a running specialist at the specialty running store), running as my preferred form of exercise – on pavement or a treadmill, and yoga that was done faster and less mindfully than it should have been were all contributing to those hurts.

By its nature, most exercise puts us in a repetitive joint movement pattern. In running, the leg comes forward (hip flexion) and the leg moves back (hip extension). We miss ad and ab-duction as well as rotation. When we are wearing shoes with any kind of a heel, we’ve got many misalignments, one of the biggest being the pelvis being ‘worn’ out in front of the ankles. This puts pressure on the mid-foot causing the fascia to separate front to back.  We repeat movements like this in swimming, on the elliptical or while biking.

None of this means running, biking, swimming etc are bad per se, but when you pay attention to variety in your movement patterns, they are probably pretty limited if you are simply exercising. When there’s a high frequency of repetitive joint patterning, that’s just a recipe for problems.

Add in coming to your exercise time having spent 8 hours sitting at a desk or in a classroom, you’re asking your joints aren’t to make major changes in shape that they aren’t so ready (and able) to make.

So, dear reader who had her worst bouts of plantar fasciitis when she was her most active and fit, I HEAR YOU, but I’m also not at all surprised.

The solution to our physical woes often isn’t to simply “get fitter”.

Though we do love a quick fix in our society and I’m all for spontaneous healing, most of us need to make shifts over a long period of time.

Identifying the problem may be simple (I’ve got plantar fasciitis), but the long term solution that restores your body to optimum function without the use of supportive aids, is rarely simple and quick (I need to assess: my habitual alignment pattern and how my leg bones move in my hip socket, how active are my medial glute muscles vs my hip flexors, then get the right parts moving well and THEN strengthen).

Those nagging aches and pains tell us what we are doing isn’t working. We need to find a new path. One that resolves the underlying mobility issues before addressing strength otherwise we are layering strength on top a mobility issue and that won’t make you feel better.

We all need to make a mental shift away from exercise and into that of movement. We need to begin to move more parts of our body and move them better – the tiny muscles in our feet and those bigger muscles in our pelvic region, change the shoes we wear and replace the idea of fit with the idea of function.

Can you still exercise? Absolutely. But, if it’s making you hurt, it’s time to stop and reassess, not stop and stick your body in a supportive chair, shoe or back brace and call it a day (or a lifetime).

Align Body and Voice: The Feet

One of the first things we learned in my movement teacher trainings was the feet are our foundation. When we have problems in our ankles, knees, hips, spine, shoulders or neck, look at the feet first. We were taught to have students stand in mountain pose and lift and spread their toes in as a way of stretching and strengthening the muscles of the feet.

But, there is so much more to know.

  • Of all the bones and muscles in our body, 25% of them live in our feet and the feet are meant to be very mobile.
  • It is estimated that 1 out of 4 people have problems with their feet – bunions, hammertoes, plantar fasciitis along with other aches and pains. I’ve been working on my left big toe joint for a while after it went wonky from wearing thong slip ons (before I knew better) and these stretches help a ton.
  • Problems with the foot often trickle up the body –  many, many people have problems with knees, hips, spine, shoulders and neck that originate in the feet.

Where do the problems come from? Footwear for one: We wear shoes with heels. By putting our feet in shoes with heels, from running shoes to stilettos, we throw the body out of alignment. Shoes with heels and stiff soles mean that the 26 bones, 100 muscles and 33 joints aren’t moving and footwear like flipflops that don’t attach to the foot force our toes to grip to keep them on. In addition, we sit too much, we stand wrong and we don’t walk enough. I wrote about overall alignment in this post, but let’s look at what you can do to start to make your feet happier!

If you have foot problems, a great place to start is just spend time walking barefoot in your house or out in your yard as I wrote about here. Here are some items to have on hand to help your foot health. There are things you can buy  though you can also use what you likely already have in your house just as effectively.


Pictured from left to right:

half foam roller/rolled up towel

yoga strap/belt

yoga therapy ball/tennis ball

my happy feet socks/foam pedicure inserts


Just standing with your feet aligned to a straight edge and lifting the toes is a great beginning (remember to keep your weight backed up over the hips so you aren’t leaning forward). Click on the link above to remind yourself of what aligned standing is so you can find that before you spread and lift your toes.


Toe Stretch:

We need to spread the toes because the toe boxes of shoes are often too narrow. If you look at your feet and see your big toe moving toward the little toe (a bunion is the extreme example of this) you need to get those tootsies spread out! To help your toes get used to spreading out, you can put spreaders between them – just ones from a drugstore to start, for a few minutes at a time. You could work up to wearing something like the my happy feet socks overnight to bed. They do make a big difference. I was surprised at how good my feet and hips felt after sleeping in them. Again, you work up to being able to sleep in them over night.


Calf Stretch:

Stepping the ball of your foot onto the foam roller or towel, let your heel drop to the floor. Again, keep your weight backed up over your hips so you are stacked vertically. Once you have done this for a while you can step your other foot forward – but only do that when it doesn’t make you hinge forward too. You can do this at a standing work station, while standing at the stove or while watching tv. Get creative about fitting it into your life!


On the ball:

Using your tennis ball (start there, the yoga therapy balls give more resistance), place it under the ball of your foot and bring your heel to the floor. You can apply as much pressure as you can withstand (no points for agony either). Work from the big toe side, out to the little toe side pressing the foot down against the ball. Then move the ball back to mid-foot. Go as far as you can until you need to lift your heel off the ground. I do this one while I dry my hair every morning.


Reclining big toe pose:

Be sure in this pose to keep the hamstring (back of the leg) of the leg that is on the ground, on the floor. Keep the strap around the ball of the foot and be sure to keep the leg in the air straight – which means it may be closer to the ground than your nose. This is one of my top 10 poses and you can read more about it in this post.


Stiletto Asana:

I don’t really know what the name of this pose is, or if it has a name, but we called it Stiletto Asana in my teacher training and it stuck with me. Basically you are turning your toes under and sitting back. It may be way too sensational to start with putting your full weight on your heels so keep your hands on the ground and ease back to find a place that feels ok.


Integrating these into your daily life along with getting your feet out of shoes will make a big difference!

My Feet Took a Walk in Heavenly Grass

If you’ve attended any of my workshops or taken lessons with me, you know I am a big fan of being barefoot and will expound on walking as one of the best forms of movement there is – our bodies are built to walk and walk and walk.

Our feet have 100 muscles, 33 joints and 26 bones in them! When you are wearing shoes and walking (or standing to perform), those elements are largely immobilized. When we don’t use parts of our body they don’t work as well as they can. Weak feet can send shockwaves up your body contributing to all kinds of issues up the chain.

But, most of us live in urban and suburban settings so walking barefoot is a nice concept, but walking barefoot on hard, even surfaces doesn’t feel good and doesn’t exactly challenge the feet well either.

So, what’s a singer to do?

Find a yard or a park, or a beach and  take your shoes off and walk!

Now that it is summer in the Northeast, my kids love to play outside after dinner. We head out for them to ride big wheels or play ball and I tend to kick my shoes off and spend time walking barefoot in our yard.


I took the above shot last night as I began my yard circuit. While I walked I felt my feet stretch and awaken from the day. Even my calves got a bit of work because I was barefoot. The surface of our yard is soft but uneven. There are bumps, uphills and downhills so all the bones, muscles and joints got to maneuver around.

If you are new to being barefoot you want to go slowly, adding in barefoot time in small increments while doing some work on your feet.

The beach is another great place to explore barefoot walking. We tend to go in February, when my feet are used to being in boots to stay warm and dry. I’m always so happy to be somewhere warm in the depths of winter that it is easy for me to overdo things the first day. Walking on sand means a very changeable surface for the feet (shells give you some added texture – which is great for all the sensory nerves in your feet). It isn’t uncommon for me to wake up the next day with sore feet and calves, but after a week of beach walks, my feet feel amazing and whole body is happier.

To read more about the feet, check out this post: Align Body and Voice: The Feet.

If you are ready to move your feet and the rest of your body more, check out the Take Ten Program, designed to introduce small amounts of movement into your day through 10 minute videos.

(Extra bonus points if you can name the composer of the song referenced in the blog post title!)