Thursday, March 29, 2012

Flex that Foot!

"They love me. They love me not. They love me. They love me not." That's the relationship many runners have with their feet and ankles. If you're a runner and if you're a runner getting in lots of miles, you're probably thinking you're a pretty healthy individual. You're probably right. Aerobically, you're fit as a fiddle. Muscular, tendon, ligament, and joint-wise "healthy" might be questionable, particularly in the feet and ankles.

Running is great. Been doing it for over 25 years. Swimming is great too. So is Cycling. The only thing with these three sports is their linear nature. You're moving forward. Constantly. Mile after mile.

That forward movement is in the sagittal plane of movement. That's what a runner, swimmer, and cyclist needs, right? Yes, you definitely need your quads, hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors in the lower body to help with the forward movement, no question. The problem is what happens when you step out of the plane of motion.

Ever jump over a pot hole? Step off of a curb? Dart out of the way of a ball, kid, or dog unexpectedly crossing your path while on your run?  When trail running, ever dodge trees, roots, fallen debris, rocks, washouts?  Ever roll your foot when making these movements?

When you step to the side laterally, then you've suddenly moved from the sagittal plane of forward movement to the frontal plan (lateral or side-to-side movement). If you've rotated your foot, leg, or torso, internally or externally, you've then moved your body into the transverse plane of motion.

The other day while running with my Intermediate Running Group at Volvo Trucks North America, the toe of my shoe snagged a divot in the pavement. I tripped, stumbled, then veered off the sidewalk which dropped down into about an inch or so of leaves, twigs and other tree debris. In a split second, I went from the sagittal plan to the frontal plan and into the transverse plane all at once. Amazingly, I was able to regain my balance, steer my feet back out of the debris and onto the sidewalk. There were some older ladies walking nearby that actually clapped when I successfully made my way back to the sidewalk without falling.

How did I do that? Well, a couple of reasons. God was probably with me. In addition to the spirits watching over me, I've become much more in-tune with my body. So, instead of my brain going, "OMG! I'm going to fall! Crap, this is going to hurt!" it said, "Okay, I'm falling, come on muscles pull me out of this."

The mind-muscle connection or lack there of plays a big part in the prevention of a fall or the severity of a fall. If the stabilizer muscles in the lower leg and feet (the little muscles that aid with balance, rotational movement, and lateral movement) are accustomed to being used, then, when you find yourself in a sticky situation (such as tripping and/or falling) they'll be more apt to come to your rescue instead of saying, "Huh? You want me to do what?" Even if you do ultimately fall, the recruitment of your stabilizer muscles will help the fall be less severe.

So how do you wake up these muscles? Use them! In your weekly workouts, take some time to focus on a few ankle exercises. These can be very simple and use just body weight or simple exercise equipment like resistance bands or tubes. One really easy exercise is standing on one leg. Yep, that's it. When you stand on one leg, you recruit a multitude of stabilizer muscles to help maintain your balance. So, next time you're waiting in line at the post office, grocery store or movie theater, pull up one leg and balance on the other. Just be sure not to always stand on the same leg. Give both legs equal attention.

Writing the ABCs with your toes is another easy exercise. Sit in a chair. Lift one leg and use the lifted foot to write each letter of the alphabet with your toes. When doing so, you'll be moving your foot up, down, left, right, front and back hitting all planes of motion and recruiting the stabilizer muscles in the lower part of the leg and around the ankle and in the foot. Stand to make the exercise more difficult. You'll recruit stabilizer muscles in the standing leg to help maintain your balance while you're working the muscles around the ankle and in the foot of the foot that's writing the ABCs. Check out the video below for more simple ankle exercises.

I've also discovered a cool new product, the AFX Ankle Foot Maximizer, that's great for working the muscles in the lower leg, around the ankle, and in the foot. Did you know you have more than 20 muscle in your foot! AFX is a strengthening system that enables you to strengthen all of those muscles and the ankle complex.

The thing I like the most about AFX is that it's one piece of equipment. No need to gather the towel, bands, or tubes. It also provides a wide range of resistance to meet everyone's needs. The odd looking contraption looks like it would be hard to use, but it's not. In just a couple of minutes out of the box, I was using it with ease.

With the AFX you're able to do plantar flexion, toe flexion, dorsiflexion, foot/ankle eversion, foot/ankle inversion as well as stretches.

Check out the AFX video below to learn more about it. 

1 comment:

Carrie said...

Great post! I had foot surgery last year and had a cast on for awhile. When it finally came off I had to do SO many ankle exercises to regain strength/flexibility. This post reminds me that it's something I should continue to work on.