Rock Mats to Revitalize Your Sole
One of the simplest things you can do during the day that has a huge impact of the quality of your movement and your life is to spend time barefoot. Your feet along with your hands happen to be four of the most important sensory organs you have, although typically our feet spend the day in shoes and socks, completely cut off from the environment not sensing at all. The ability to sense and explore the environment is directly linked to quality of your movement and reaction to stress both physical and emotional. The better prepared you are to know what is going on currently and what lies in front of you, the easier time your body has adjusting to it.
We explore our environment via input from our sensory organs. This input comes from sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Touch can be broken down into the different sensations of pressure, temperature, and changing of position of the joints and muscles of the body. When you are in shoes and socks it is more challenging for your feet to actually feel these things, and like many things in life when you don’t use it you lose it! Imagine trying to buckle a belt or tie your shoe or text on your phone or computer with big bulky inflexible mittens on! Pretty frustrating and almost impossible for you to not start to tense up in the head neck and shoulders. That is exactly what happens to you with shoes and socks on throughout the day. Everything up the chain in the body starts to tighten up and move less intelligently. This is because the body cannot appropriately sense and therefore anticipate the needs of the movement system. This may be why there is such a high incidence of low back pain despite a wealth of knowledge about the role trunk stability and moving well. The sensory nerves that in the soles of the feet are branches of the same nerves that innervate the muscles of the low back and pelvic floor. Improved sensory information from the foot improves the quality of the stability, reaction time, and strength of the related muscles.
Now that you understand how important it is to retune your sensory organs it is time to give your feet a life again and allow them to sense your world! This is when it is important to remember that going from 0-100 can create some problems, so we want to transition in a way that allows for improved sensory organ function but does not create pain, discomfort or injury. If your feet have been stuck in shoes and socks for a long time it is likely that it the foot and ankle are lacking some mobility and are fairly sensitive to pressure and textures. It is important that you take the time and effort to create an environment for your feet to sense that is safe and comfortable. If the body feels pain or discomfort, the movement response can still be restrictive and create tension further bring our body out of tune. In order to improve mobility and intelligent movement it is imperative that it be a positive experience.
Here are some guidelines:
Baby steps- If you never spend time barefoot even at home, start here. Get in the habit of spending time in your house with shoes and socks on. If the idea of being barefoot totally freaks you out, you may want to start with just socks, however socks and be dangerous and slippery on some surfaces so you may want to get some socks with toes, and with non-skid surfaces. Having socks with toes improves surface area contact and dexterity, think of wearing mittens vs. gloves.
If you already spend time at home barefoot, add in some interesting surfaces. Carpet, tile, hardwood, laminate, linoleum can be pretty boring especially if you have been walking on it for years. An easy way to make things more interesting to your feet is too make a rock mat or tray for your house. Place it in areas you already stand or walk frequently, such as in the shower, in front of the bathroom sink, kitchen sink, or oven. I would encourage using real rocks vs. plastic or decorative rocks as you get the added benefits of grounding (also called earthing) as well as a greater variety of surface and texture.
Go outside and explore your surroundings-
Depending on where you live, you may have to strategically pick your location to be safe from things that can puncture the skin. The more your start feeling different surfaces with your feet, the thicker/tougher the skin will become, which will allow for exploration on more “dangerous” environments.
Ensure that you are creating sensations that are interesting NOT painful. If stepping on rocks elicits a response to quickly pick your feet up or verbally elicit a response it is likely to intense. Change surfaces, add a towel under the mat or over the rocks, place on a pad etc. Also know that you may have a time limit where things go from interesting to uncomfortable. For example I took a barefoot walk along the north coast of Aruba this summer and after about 35min it went from being fun and interesting to my feet to painful. The type of surface did not really change, it was loose rocks, shale, dirt and plants, it was just my foot and body found its limit on the sensory information and movement response. At that moment, I put my shoes back on to finish the walk. In hindsight, the positive was I was smart enough to realize keeping shoes around was a good idea, the negative was I should have not waited until it was uncomfortable, knowing I had another 30-45min to walk, because even in shoes once my feet were not as comfortable and fatigued.
Here is my synopsis of the different rock mats for purchase and the pros and cons. Keep in mind that everyones feet are different, so what feels good to me may not for you. Also, as you spend time on the interesting surfaces that are not natural your body will get used to them and not find them as interesting anymore. So I suggest changing your surface up every 3-6months.
It is recommended by Phillip Beach, DO to spend minimum 20-30min/day on a rock mat. In my opinion up towards 60-90min total for the day seems to be what my body prefers. When you place the mats in areas you are already standing, it is easy to maximize this time.
Here is a video how to make your own!