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Foot Function, Ankle Dorsiflexion, and Minimalism – Oh My!–Guest Post by Greg Strosaker

Posted on February 23 2013

I’ve known Greg Strosaker for several years, originally through, and now as a fellow running blogger over at Predawn Runner. Greg and I have discussed footwear frequently in the past, and about three years ago he wrote a post here on Runblogger about his move into neutral footwear. Greg has since broken the 3:00 barrier in the marathon, and he contacted me a few weeks back about writing a post on his further migration into more minimal shoes and his experience dealing with some issues that have impacted his running form. Here Greg shares a bit of his story, and some information on exercises he found useful in his attempt to gain control of his big toe and improve mobility of his ankle. Enjoy!

Foot Function, Ankle Dorsiflexion, and Minimalism – Oh My!

By Greg Strosaker

Having missed several months of each of the last two years with injury, I’ve been seeking a way to become more injury resistant and therefore consistent in my training. While being able to PR each year in the marathon (down to a 2:52 in 2012), it feels like a constant game of catch-up when you have to start back from many weeks on the bench.

Driven also by a desire to get into more minimalist shoes, if only for their lighter weight, I’ve invested significantly in strength training and mobility work. But it seems I was never able to make a serious effort to get stronger and better where I needed to be, focusing instead on general core or hip work. Granted, this is a helpful part of the process, but maybe it’s best categorized as necessary but not sufficient.

So the past several months I’ve taken a more serious look at how to get more injury resistant through form improvements – moving to a softer/lighter/quicker landing, with my foot underneath the body instead of out ahead of it, resulting in less heel striking – and ultimately supported by appropriate footwear.

While some things came easily, specifically the gross motor gains (like a more stable core and stronger calves) and some form improvements (such as a faster stride rate) – all of which I discuss in a post on moving to a midfoot strike on Predawn Runner, longtime readers of Runblogger will be familiar with some of the fine motor and neuromuscular requirements that can ease a transition into more minimalist running. These include:

  • A good sense of balance
  • An ability to dorsiflex your ankle by at least 25 degrees (i.e., toes towards your knee)
  • The ability to control your big toe (particularly as a way of reacting to being off-balance)

If you rush your path to minimalism and can’t meet these requirements, you are, per Physical Therapist Jay Dicharry’s thoughts and experience, more prone to injury. And maybe I was a bit guilty of that ahead of my second injury, Achilles tendinitis, which I suffered by moving to a lower heel-to-toe drop shoe too quickly.

I’m going to ignore the first point on balance and focus on the other two, largely because a timely diagnosis from my chiropractor and massage therapist pointed out the challenges I had in these areas. First, I was most definitely unable to isolate the flexor hallucis brevis – my big toe could not move independently of the others. This was true of the abductor hallucis as well – I couldn’t spread my big toe away from the others.

Second, I had limited mobility (for both dorsiflexion and plantarflexion) in my right ankle. This was probably the residual effect of playing a season of soccer my senior year on a sprain and never really focusing on getting it back to full strength, compounded the past season by trying to protect my Achilles tendon when running and not allowing my ankle to flex naturally.

While continuing to perform active isolated stretching (AIS) on a regular basis, with a particular focus on the ankle, I developed and refined routines targeting toe control and ankle mobility. Runners who also face these challenges may benefit as well from the routines laid out below.

Toe Mobility

The toe sequence laid out below draws on some exercises specified by my chiropractor (an Olympic-Trials Qualifier in the marathon) and a few other sources, and it takes around 5-10 minutes to execute, making it ideal for daily practice.

Child’s Pose – as opposed to the traditional child’s pose in yoga of where the foot is extended, this version involves tucking the feet under (note – it is also referred to as the toe squat). There is no need to bend forward as in the yoga form of child’s pose. Stay “squatting” for 2 minutes at first, and then work your way up to 5 minutes. This increases the flexibility of your big toe.

Toe Yoga – in a standing position (note – some recommend to sit but my opinion is that these exercises are best done standing, as I’m not aware of anyone who runs sitting down), alternately raise your big toe while pressing down your four other toes and hold for five seconds, and then reverse (press down with your big toe for five seconds while raising the four other toes). Repeat this seven times per foot (photo at left via Jay Dicharry).

photo (1)Small (or Short) Foot – this exercise teaches you to independently address your abductor hallucis. While standing and using only this muscle (under the inner arch of your foot), spread your big toe away from the others (as seen in the photo to the right), while not flexing it up or down (this is the abduction motion). Hold for two seconds and then relax, and repeat 20 times on each foot.

Towel Scrunch – this exercise is widely prescribed when dealing with plantar fasciitis, but is also useful for improving foot strength and mobility. Stand with your foot on a towel lying flat on a hardwood or tile floor, and curl your toes to bunch the towel, then release. Repeat 15 times with each foot. Frankly, I find the towel optional for this exercise, you can get nearly the same effect by just flexing (curling) your toes as hard as you can.

Ankle Dorsiflexion

The entire Achilles routine from the Runners Connect Strength Training package incorporates a range of exercises to strengthen the muscles of your lower legs. However, there are a few exercises that specifically help with ankle dorsiflexion:

Knee and Toe Pointers – done with both legs simultaneously or one leg at a time, knee and toe pointers really work on your lower leg strength while dorsiflexing the ankle. While a good summary of the exercises can be found here, the basic steps are:

  • Stand with your toes 2 inches from the wall
  • Slowly (over a period of 5 seconds) bend your knees toward the wall while keeping your heels firmly planted.
  • Gently contact the wall with your knees and hold for 2 seconds, then slowly raise to a standing position.
  • Repeat this while angling the knees to the right (keeping your feet and upper body straight) and then to the left, for a total of seven reps in each direction (21 reps total).

As with most exercises, the single leg version is more challenging but therefore more beneficial, and it is done in the same manner (plus, it is a great exercise to work on balance). The toe pointers are similar except that you stand further from the wall and extend your foot forward, seeking to touch the wall with your toe as you bend your knee.

Shin Resistance Band Exercises – while shin strength is often overlooked (and easily developed through running – that’s why shin splints tend to go away with experience), it does play a role in ankle dorsiflexion as your tibialis anterior (among other anterior muscles) is involved in the movement. Using a resistance band, perform 15 reps of pulling it with your foot while flexing your ankle inward, outward, and up (dorsiflexion).

Squats – while not normally associated with lower leg strength, properly executed squats (keeping your heel on the ground) dorsiflex the ankle and thus improve its strength and mobility.

Form Thoughts

While these mobility gains may make improved running form possible, there is still the need to put it together on the run. The right thought for doing so comes from Caleb Masland, who simplifies it to “toe up, toe off”. While it’s a bit counterintuitive to think of dorsiflexing your ankle as you raise your foot (as it would seem to lead to a tendency to heel crash), the effect, in addition to shortening the moment arm of your lower leg and thus accelerating – if only slightly – your swing through, is to coil the foot for a maximum elastic rebound after foot strike. This then leads to a strong toe off and greater efficiency, no matter how exactly your foot strikes the ground.

On practicing this, I did find that it seemed to help promote a midfoot landing; the foot instinctively swung down to meet the ground. While it seems a harder strike than I’d like at this point, the reality is that the combination of the above efforts has completely mitigated the chronic calf pain I’d been experiencing (thus far), and this has led me to be able to integrate some more challenging workouts on a consistent basis. And this is the year I’m looking forward to the next step in a journey that has gone from “traditional” (12mm heel-to-toe drop) stability shoes to, at this point, cushioned low-drop transitional shoes.

For more on my story, read my post post on moving to a midfoot strike on Predawn Runner.

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