Runners are passionate people. Dedicated, committed, blindly exuberant beings who surrender their early morning sleep ins and sunrises to enjoy the cool cadence of clocking countless kilometres in kinetic, cruising cohesion. Many of my 'good runners' agree that running itself can quickly expose weaknesses in the lower chain of your body. A lot of the runners that I see, have issues with lower back, hips, knees and often I find that many of these issues can be traced back to the ankle and the foot in terms of alignment and how the foot strikes the ground when running. Working from foundations up, the foot and ankle joint are vital to ensuring that your connection to the ground is as true and sound as possible.
Runners and those who use their feet in good faith of developing fitness goals and pursuing life changing events are right to place so much value on footwear and to spend endless hours obsessing over their feet and form when they partake in the morning rituals. Our feet are our connection to our base - our essential foundation at the most fundamental level. They connect us and enable us to move, walk and be the bipeds that we are supposed to be. Obsessing over perfect points of contact and how well you 'strike' the ground is a most worthy undertaking and the value of such discussion can benefit all of us in one way or another. Now I am no runner, but I too very much value the articulation of the lower limb as a most vital and important factor in movement and our ability to be the graceful beings that we can be.
So what is the best way to ensure that you 'strike the ground' well. Most running blogs that I see favour a mid to forefoot strike. The debate over non-heeled running shoes goes on and has seen a massive increase in people being aware of how they use their foot when they run. The conclusive evidence favouring mid to forefoot strike is well documented. So with this in mind, we see how important it is to ensure that the ankle movements are sound and open. The big issue here from my perspective is ankle dorsiflexion (upward lifting of the toes). You can have the longest achilles tendons in the known world but without efficient ability to dorsiflex the foot and have the Talocrural space moving easily through this motion, you may as well be Achilles himself!
Each foot has 24 muscles, 26 bones and 33 joints, mostly in the vertical plane. It is one of the most complex and important parts of the body yet it is often neglected. A subtle motion on the foot has a significant impact on the rest of the body. Imagine a tower with a foundation that starts to shift and become unstable. Not only the whole tower becomes wobbly but weak spots start to appear at the upper levels. Unwarranted movement creates un-necessary strain on pieces further up the chain. In short, it creates instability.
Developing the ability to allow the ankle to move in this fashion is vital to ensuring that you have the ability to:-
a) absorb the impact generated when you land in your stride (impact force)
b) encourage good biomechanics for the activation of muscles when you push off from the foot.
c) encourage efficient transfer of weight and momentum through the action via the plantar foot (underside) and transverse arch (arch across the forefoot)
Many people are concerned with getting adequate flexibility through the achilles and the Gastrocnemius muscles. This is important and vital but it is also important to have the joint flexibility in the anterior talus bone where the tibia and fibula inserts into the dorsal (think dorsal fin on a dolphin) side of the foot. This is called the TALOCRURAL JOINT and is the articulation where the lower leg bones acutally connect with the foot. Actively being able to relax this part of the foot where many of the muscles involved in dorsal flexion (lifting the toes up) and eversion (foot pulling to lateral edge) is important in actions of the ankle, in walking, running and jumping.
For me the classic case is seeing people doing squats with plates under the heels in the gym. This ‘cheat’ is good for getting someone to introduce a deeper range of motion in the squat, but if you are needing plates to perform this exercise then really, you shouldn’t be doing it at all. Having the right flexibility in this articulation is pretty vital to having the necessary stability to ensure other muscles aren’t taxed or stressed outside of the necessary range.
This is where Range of Motion exercises are pretty vital. Getting movement through this particular area of the anatomy is not easy and requires some dexterity but it makes a huge difference to your ability to run, jump or squat. The sprinters starting position is a great way to encourage this range of motion with the foot next to bent knee and pushing your weight into the front foot. Actively relaxing the anterior space and opening up the front of the ankle.
The test for Achilles length often involves placing the foot away from a wall and trying to get the knee to touch the wall whilst the distance between toes and wall is measured. This position as well is great for opening up that anterior dorsal space. With this space comes a larger capacity to generate force as the Range of Motion is increased. The more depth you can get in this position means the heel is maintained on the ground and thus the more force can be generated through the arches of the foot and the full platform of the heel, the ball of the foot *(1st metatarsal) and the lateral edge *(5th metatarsal).
"The foot in motion needs to be rigid as well as mobile and is constantly under stress as it is jammed between the Ground Force (GRF) and Gravity. When we simply walk, our feet take up to twice our body weight. When we run, up to 4 times on each strike. When we jump, our feet need to lift up to 5 times our body weight and when we land it is required to absorb up to 8 times our body weight." G.Tual
There is a term called the ‘kinetic pulse’ which talks about “the shock from the impact of the foot on the ground is energy that gets stored by the muscles to spring back to the propulsion phase.” A good description of this is likened to the bones of the foot being like a bag of marbles in a sock. When the foot strikes the ground on the heel, the sock is loose and the marbles ‘rattle’. This is particularly high when the strike is on the back of the foot or heel. The muscles and fascia of the foot is responsible for taking this energy from impact and storing it so that it can release it later in the stride as a powerful force to generate us forward. Studies have proven that when we strike mid foot, this ‘rattling’ is minimised and the ‘kinetic pulse’ is smooth.
With all this talk of kinetic pulse and foot strike, there is one thing that I maintain is of benefit - KICK OFF YOUR SHOES. Zola Budd had it right in the 80's - go run barefoot. Julia Roberts got it in Pretty Woman - get barefoot. Its an advantage and a must. When we wear shoes we limit the articulation of our feet. Using our feet to run in sand, pick up sticks off the floor, these are all things to do to help maintain the flexibility and dexterity of our planter articulations.
It is vital that we understand how much the muscles and fascia of the foot need to be in good condition, flexible and strong to be able to facilitate this inherent and functional motion. If we don't look after our feet we can risk un-necessary strain on other parts of the body further 'up the chain' with whatever it is that we do. We stand on our feet. We spring from our feet. We walk on our feet. Give them the best chance possible to be stable in both standing and in motion.