3: Episode 3, The Feet (Lower Leg) role in speed development and strengthening

In this episode Aiden throws a curve ball and starts a discussion at the request fi clients on feet. So we discuss the role of feet or the lower limb on speed, their importance and what to look for as a coach that could be hindering your athletes during top speed and acceleration. We also provide some details on foot anatomy and strengthening.

 

In order to Review the elements as advised by Stew, we recommend you review the work by Ralph Mann  (book: The Mechanics of Sprints and Hurdling) and Ken Clarke – Two Mass Model

 

The importance of the Ground contact force at initial contact is a determining factor in sprinting speed

Some easy info about the feet.

foot exercises, foot strength, barefoot exercise, minimalism, weck method

 

Whole Body Influence

The big toe is often a forgotten and neglected component of the human body. Proper range of motion in the big toe is vital to creating stability as running speeds increase. Ideally, the big toe needs to dorsiflex (i.e. the toe bends toward the face) at least 45 degrees. However, as speeds increase from walking to running, 65 or more degrees of dorsiflexion is ideal. Lack of big toe range of motion can cause problems local to the foot such as plantar fasciitis,¹ and is even noted with over head athletes such as baseball pitchers and cricket bowlers.²

Running is a very linear sport. This means that in order to run efficiently, the joints of the body need to stay moving straight forward and backward. Any motion outside of this path costs extra energy, decreasing metabolic and mechanical efficiency, leading to potential injury. Now there are plenty of sports that require rotation, and yes, long distance running and sprinting will as well, but that will muddy the waters and lead to a very lengthy blog. So let us save it for another day and get back on track.

Importance of Big Toe Motion

The big toe needs to dorsiflex during the push-off phase of gait. As speeds increase, the importance of further dorsiflexion becomes apparent to clear adequate hip extension and achieve faster speeds. Without increased dorsiflexion of the big toe, the hip range of motion into extension will be limited in the sagittal plane (forward and backward). Hip extension is important in achieving higher speeds because it allows the body’s centre of mass to reach a point farther forward in relation to our back foot. This process creates a sensation of falling, which the brain will register as a threat. Law of self preservation requires the brain to keep you from falling over and hurting yourself. As a result, certain muscles pull your swing leg forward quickly in order to catch the body from falling forward. If the brain and body are not processing this information fast enough, the body will collapse. But in order to achieve faster speeds this falling-forward process has to occur.

Video Evidence

Here is a video of Asafa Powell. Pause the video at 36 seconds. The very last body part that leaves the ground are the toes; in particular, the big toe. It is the very last toe to leave the ground during faster speeds. In the video, you can see there needs to be adequate dorsiflexion to achieve these speeds efficiently. If the toe range of motion in limited, a runner will leave the ground early resulting in decreased power and performance.

Here is a video of Moses Mosop. Again, pause at 39 seconds into the video. You can see his form is very similar to that of Asafa Powell from the first video. Form will differ depending of the speed the runner is wanting to achieve. Look at the range of motion in his toes and the amount of hip extension he is achieving.

Summary

In ‘toe-tal’, there are many limiting factors that can have an effect on running performance and speed. The above two runners are trying to achieve different speeds, yet the concept of how to achieve those speeds is very similar. Adequate big toe dorsiflexion improves hip extension, which gets the center of mass of the body farther forward, requiring the swing leg to move quickly to catch the body from falling. This is how faster speed is achieved and big toe dorsiflexion could be the limiting factor preventing this for you.

 

References

1) Aranda, Y., & Munuera, P. V. (2014). Plantar Fasciitis and Its Relationship with Hallux Limitus. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, 104(3), 263-268. doi:10.7547/0003-0538-104.3.263

2) Dennis, R. J., Finch, C. F., Mcintosh, A. S., & Elliott, B. C. (2008). Use of field-based tests to identify risk factors for injury to fast bowlers in cricket. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 42(6), 477-482. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.046698

 

Simple Things You Can Do to Strengthen Your Feet

You may not be able to do these all the time, but you can certainly do some of them right away. Your feet didn’t become weak overnight, and it will take a consistent effort to build them up.

 

1. Ditch Your Shoes

One of the best things you can do to strengthen your feet is to simply get them out of shoes more often. Begin slowly at first so you don’t make your feet too sore. This can be as simple as taking your shoes off when you’re inside your home.

With your shoes off, raise up onto your toes and try standing and walking propped up on the balls of your feet. You’ll likely feel this creates a significant balance challenge. If this is the case, perform heel raises as repetitions – raising up and descending down – touching a wall or holding a door frame for balance, if necessary.

As you get stronger barefoot, you can up the duration and become more active (like running and jumping barefoot – but take it easy and don’t go too fast), which will continue to build strong stable feet.

 

2. Run in Sand

This may not be possible for those who don’t have access to a beach, but gently running in sand is a great way to increase the strength and flexibility in your feet. If you don’t have a sandy beach nearby, you can try walking and running barefoot on grass or any soft surface in the warmer weather. A surface like grass that is soft and yields to your weight will help improve the joint articulation within your feet, while increasing range of motion and strength in the process.

 

3. Walk on Rocks

This might sound kind of crazy, but walking or even just standing and shifting your weight on smooth rocks – the type of small smooth stones people use to landscape portions of their properties – will do wonders for your feet and your entire body.

The changing and shifting surface of these rocks will help activate all of the proprioceptive nerves that exist under your feet. There are lots of them and these nerves connect directly with the lower back. Unfortunately, these nerves endings are mostly dormant in many people. It is not just coincidence that more than 80% of people suffer significant back pain in their lives. When your feet are weak, you are practically guaranteeing you will experience significant back pain at some point.

 

4. Roll Out Your Three Arches

Most people think of only one arch in each foot, but there are actually three. The lateral (outside), transverse (center), and medial (inside) arches all work together to spring load your feet, which increases strength, balance, and power when functioning properly. It is important you roll your arches out properly – in the correct order – or you risk making your problems worse.

 

  1. Lateral (outside) arch – This ties directly into your calcaneus (your heel bone) and is your body’s first floor foundation.
  2. Transverse (center) arch – Located just behind the ball of your foot, this is the one you have to roll out second and approach most gently. Emphasize rolling from the ball of your foot to your heel (rather than heel to ball). This takes slack out of the fascia rather than increasing it. You can certainly roll it both ways, but make sure to emphasize the ball-to-heel direction with more pressure than the other direction.
  3. Medial (inside) arch – This does not directly connect to your heel and effectively rests atop your lateral arch. This one is the third for a reason. Releasing the medial arch without addressing the lateral arch first is like building your body’s structure from the second floor up, not on the first floor foundation.

 

You are likely to feel the most pain when rolling out the transverse arch. Pain is often felt most as you get closer to the heel, so be super careful not to press too hard in this tender area.

 

5. Boards, Bands, and Balance Trainers

Another great way to stretch, strengthen and coordinate your feet is to use bands, boards, and/or balance trainers.

Bands: Take a resistance band (flat bands work best), fasten it to a secure point, and place the other end of the band around the top of your foot right below your toes. From a seated position, with legs extended straight on the floor, create tension on the band and pull your foot to your shin. You can perform reps by flexing and extending your foot, or for more of a challenge, move your body back while maintaining a dorsiflexed position to create more tension.

 

foot exercises, foot strength, barefoot exercise, minimalism, weck method

 

Boards: Take a slant board, or if you don’t have one use a flat board placed on something to create an angle (a rolled towel or a yoga block can work well). Position the slant board near a wall or doorframe so you can lean slightly forward and place your feet on the board with your toes facing up. With a slight lean forward perform calf raises, holding the top position to create maximum extension of your toes and mindfully engage the bottoms of your feet.

 

Balance Trainer: Use a BOSU ball or a BOSU Elite, if you have one. The Elite has a very firm dome that loads the feet with increased resistance. Position your feet back on the dome of the BOSU ball so your toes are higher than your heels. From this position (dorsiflexion with inversion) perform squats, weight shifts, running in place, and jumps.

 

The effect of strengthening toe and finger muscle flexion forces at the metatarsophalangeal and metacarpophalangeal joints on performance in the vertical jump and shot put were investigated. Three categories of college students participated in the study: ballet dancers, track and field athletes, and students enrolled in weight lifting classes. Within each category, participants were randomly divided into treatment and control groups. A specially designed toe and finger exercise device adapted to a Cybex machine was used for progressive resistance exercise sessions and to test for strength increases. The treatment period was 12 weeks and involved three training sessions per week. Mean gains for the treatment subjects were 2.3 cm in the vertical jump, 20.3 cm in the modified shot put, 67.2 cm in the standing shot put, and 57.6 cm in the regular shot put. All of these gains were significantly greater (p<.05) than those experienced by the control groups. It was concluded that performance in the vertical jump and shot put can be improved by strengthening the toe and finger muscle flexors at the metatarsophalangeal and metacarpophalangeal joints