One of the most over-looked pieces of the training puzzle by runners that compete over a range of distances up to ultra-marathons is the strengthening of the foot and lower leg, as well as strengthening and flexibility of the ankle.
The foot, lower leg and ankle areas contribute much more to a runner’s racing and training performance than many coaches and athletes realize. There is an incredible amount of power that can be developed there, in a relatively short period of time. For those who haven’t yet added work to address this area, should benefit by doing so.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: GETTING FIT
Runners often dedicate a majority of their overall training time to developing the aerobic system to its maximum, by training as many hours as possible that works for their lifestyle and physiological tolerances. This training is done at easy, medium and strong efforts, for weeks or months at a time. The purpose is to improve the ability to take in and utilize as much oxygen as possible. As the legendary Arthur Lydiard has said, “to become stacked with stamina and able to run in a near tireless state”.
But what about all this supposed abundance of power from the lower leg area, feet and ankles? What role do the feet play, that is not already leveraged through common training practices? You may ask.
Leonardo Da Vinci discovered that the foot is an incredible suspension bridge that any engineer would be proud of designing, he wrote, “the human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.”
The foot, despite popular training dogma, becomes stronger when it is not pampered in a cushioning or controlling shoe. Also, when no support is provided under the arch, over time the arch, arches more. The foot contributes to the stride frequency and stride length as it becomes stronger.
For 40 years many North American runners have pampered their feet. The first and very sensory-loaded touch point with the ground is the foot, yet runners will dedicate many hours each week to training and will build powerful quadriceps, calf, glutes and hamstring muscles and when they do this, they cause compromised and under-developed feet to be exposed to injury and left too weak to assist in propulsion. Time to finish off the training of the legs by training the ankles and feet!
There is some research that claims that barefoot running increases the strength of foot muscles. A study funded by Nike and conducted by the University of Cologne looked at foot muscle strength in runners that used the Nike Free, model of shoe – a shoe that is marketed as a minimalist-type shoe. The study found that over a five-month period the strength of toe and foot muscles increased by 4-5%. Stronger feet assist in controlling motion in the foot.
The first step, literally, is to gradually add in running time with a less structured shoe, like a racing flat or a lightweight trainer. The shoe should have little to no drop from heel to toe and be lower to the ground.
Move towards eventually being able to run strides on a soccer pitch barefoot or in a racing flat. But don’t start until ready, graduate gradually. Hire a coach who is familiar with this type of exercise or talk to a physiotherapist who works with runners, for the best exercises to include into the program. Careful! Too much, too soon often leads to injury, which is what we are trying to avoid in the first place!
By running strides on a weekly basis and increasing the frequency over time to two, three and perhaps more times-per-week, the athlete will not only develop coordination to run fast efficiently, he or she will also fire fast twitch muscle fibers while maintaining an aerobic effort, which is important when building mileage into the program. Most importantly (at least in the context of this article), the runner will begin the process of building stronger muscles, tendons and connective tissue in the feet, ankle and lower leg.
Ballerinas demonstrate the incredible power of well-developed ankle and feet. When they perform a Fouetté jeté (a whipped leap) she lands on her forefoot not on her heels. Her feet are so powerful, so well-developed, she appears to be very gracefull, but make no mistake, she possesses power in those feet.
Joe Vigil, one of the great minds in U.S. distance coaching, values the need for strong feet and ankles, “an excellent runner has very strong ankles, like a ballet dancer.” says Vigil. Vigil has his athletes run explosive hill repeats with bounding exercises to develop power in the feet.
One of Vigil’s heroes is the great Emil Zatopek, who was a multiple gold medalist in the Olympic games. Zatopek achieved similar results by running on the spot in the bathtub full of laundry, hours at a time. Zatopek became a master at efficiency below the hips, as it is well documented that his form in his upper body was stressed, he ran with a style that was regarded as very painful to watch, yet Zatopek would run 20, 40 or 60, 400m repeats in a single workout and yet successfully avoid injury.
Percy Cerruty, the brilliant and slightly eccentric Australian coach was well known for having his runners train barefoot in the sand hills of Portsea, Victoria. Whether running in a tub of laundry or through the sand barefoot, the ankle’s flexibility and power is developed here.
This should be done with the help of a coach or fellow runner who is experienced with hill bounding.
Pick a fairly steep hill and bound up. Have a high knee lift and exaggerated form. Before landing on the forefoot, leave the back foot planted so to get good back leg extension, before bounding (like a deer) forward. The arms should move like pistons, assisting in the movement and balance.
This is very tiring work and forward progress up the hill will be slow. Don’t think of this as a distance-based run or even a time-based run. Consider what you are setting out to achieve and complete the workout by feel, with the basic guideline that if the runner is new to this type of training, to try three hill repeats the first time. An athlete knows when the muscles have had enough! Stop at that time. Let the muscles recover for as long as it takes before taking on another workout of hill bounding. Recovery at first may take a few days. Four to six weeks of this type of training done two to three times per week is all one needs to develop powerful feet and lower legs.
THE BEST TIME TO START HILL BOUNDING:
First get very fit!
Sandwich this phase of training between running long, steady miles (aerobic season) and before moving into doing anaerobic type intervals. What many people refer to as “speed work.”
Prepare for the demands of hill bounding by gradually adding hillier routes into regular runs. Run hill repeats in preparation, as well as sand hills if you access to them.
STRIDES AND COMPLEMENTARY EXERCISES
The athlete can complement this type of training by focusing on good form when running strides, bring the knee up higher than usual, chin straight, arms like pistons (not across the body) and lower, by the hips. Alactic strides should be incorporated all-year-round. Keep them under ten seconds each, with good recovery. Alactic strides are not full-out sprints, but smooth and fast, relaxed near sprints.
Substituting a weight workout with squats will work in a similar fashion however, the sport-specific nature of bounding (being a running activity) is the most effective way to accomplish this task. Should there be a lack of hills, look for a tall building and use the stairs. A combination of cycling in the low gears, stairs and squats will provide similar benefits in lieu of having hills available.
Cross-country and trail running over a broad range of different surfaces is an important ingredient toward becoming a more well-rounded athlete looking to explore their potential. The uneven surfaces with loose footing and obstacles bring muscles and connective tissue into play in a way that smooth and flat fields, track and road running cannot.
If an effort to improve the strength of the feet and ankles is not undertaken, the runner risks injury and may not be completing the training properly. Becoming a complete runner includes unearthing that explosive power that resides within the feet and ankles.