Easy drills you can master that will protect your feet and improve your run.
by Christopher Johnson and Bruce Wilk
I learned the importance of foot mechanics from a very early age thanks to skateboarding. When pumping on a skateboard it becomes readily apparent that the most desirable position for the pumping foot is straight. If your foot is toed-in or toed-out you won’t get as much pumping power. Believe or not, the same rules apply to running.
Experts continue to debate the ideal foot strike pattern for running. For this article, though, we’ll accept that we must progress our foot stride through the toes—especially the big, or great toe. Ensuring the right motion as we land, and then push off from this toe, is critical for optimal foot function.
Big Toe Power
While I was in physical therapy school, I learned about the Windlass Mechanism. A “windlass” is a term used to describe the tightening of a rope or cable. The Windlass mechanism takes effect in your foot as it strikes the ground. As you work through each foot strike, there is a shortening/tightening of the plantar fascia, which allows the foot to act as a rigid lever at push-off. Not only does the Windlass mechanism stiffen the tissues along the medial arch, it also improves propulsion and efficiency:
One of the most important items I teach triathletes is how to identify and take care of stiffness in their tissues. Learning to perform “self mobilizations” of your soft tissue is critical to staying injury free. This is particularly important in your feet because we put them through lots of stress during our daily lives and training. While several techniques and variations can be used, I’ll share one of my favorites. All you need is a firm, round object such as a golf ball, large super ball, or soft lacrosse ball. While doing this you need to work through a rolling motion and move your great toe. Pressure should be applied in a firm, progressive manner and may cause discomfort, but you shouldn’t do this to the point of pain or bruising. I generally suggest doing three 30-second bouts of this exercise two to three times per day.
There are a few drills you can do to reinforce progressing through the great toe. Before doing these exercises it’s important that you can balance on each leg without wobbling while keeping the foot straight. Remember to keep your toes relaxed and avoid gripping.
The first drill involves hurdle stepping while assuming a balanced, upright posture. Care should taken to ensure that the opposite arm and leg are synchronized. Focus on landing softly. Practice five-minute bouts until you feel like you have symmetrical balance and control on each side, while keeping the foot of the balancing leg straight:
The next drill, (see photo below) is deceptively challenging. It involves a marching movement while rising on to the forefoot. This ensures that you can adequately load and balance through the great toe and lesser four toes. Try to use a mirror for feedback to safeguard against gripping with the toes. You need to build into this drill slowly as it subjects the foot, ankle and leg to considerable load. I typically have triathletes perform five to 10 repetitions per side while alternating between the left and right leg for two to three minutes.
The last drill is a progression of the former drill, but this time you’ll use a platform. Remember to start with the foot of the balancing leg straight. Again, practice sets of five to 10 repetitions and alternate between sides for two to three minutes.
A common denominator among great runners in the sport of triathlon is sound foot mechanics, particularly through the great toe. To get the most out of your stride, you need to progress forward through the great toe, which will engage the “Windlass mechanism” mentioned earlier. While the debate about the ideal strike pattern will no-doubt continue, I’m confident that we can all agree that we must advance through the toes. Through learning some simple self-maintenance activities and drills for great toe function, I know you can improve your running and ultimately enhance your triathlon performance. See you at the transition zone.
Chris Johnson is a leading New York City physical therapist who specializes in the care of endurance athletes. In addition to being the owner and director of Chris Johnson PT, located in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, he is also a co-founder of Formula Triathlon Club, and an all-American triathlete. Chris also shares tips and advice for multisport athletes on his blog, Critter’s Corner, at chrisjohnsonpt.com