Strength from the Ground Up
As the company athletic therapist for the National Ballet of Canada, Paul Papoutsakis knows all too well the importance these dancers place on the strength of their feet and ankles. “These athletes jump and turn, often en pointe where balance, foot and ankle strength are key to their mobility and, most importantly, to the reduction and risk of ankle and foot injuries.”
So what does this have to do with running? Appreciating what a dancer does with their feet can only help runners understand the importance of the ankle and foot. Those small muscles crossing the ankle joints are required to reach optimal performance in both disciplines. For some runners, training focuses on a top-down approach. One theory suggests that increasing the muscular strength around the hip and core should help reduce external movement at the knee and ankle level.
However, Dr. Benno M. Nigg, professor emeritus of biomechanics at the University of Calgary, has recently submitted his findings to the Journal of Sport Science that challenges this theory with the suggestion that a bottom-up approach, focusing on increasing the strength of the small muscles crossing the ankle joint, should reduce movement and loading at the ankle, knee and hip joints.
“In running you basically move in one plane, the sagittal plane, that plays a major role in running forward,” says Nigg. “You don’t really do any side shuff ling – so you’re not really training a lot of the muscles that you have.”
Moving away from the top-down to a bottom-up approach in the prevention of injuries represents a paradigm shift. Everything starts with the base. “We think that ankle strength is a major contributor to the reduction of injuries,” says Nigg. “If you have weak ankle joints, you’re unstable at the base. If you’re unstable at the base, that has an effect up the body, and we have some evidence that this contributes to injuries.”
The ankle has two major muscles, the calf muscle, or the tricep surae, and the tibialis anterior in the front. In addition to those, it has nine other smaller muscles. If the small muscles can do the stabilizing work, then the big muscles don’t need to, and the loading of the structures in the human leg is much lower.
Nigg thinks runners should start thinking laterally. “Train the foot and ankle joints in all directions. Consider you’re building a skyscraper and you need to reinforce its stability. Where do you start? The bottom.”
“As much as you can, try to spend time walking barefoot, on your toes and heels and include balance training so you can target and build strength in the intrinsic foot muscles. These tiny muscles are underworked when you wear shoes. A program to maintain balance and strength is important at all ages,” says Papoutsakis. As for the athletes at the National Ballet of Canada, “they’re activating their foot and lower leg musculature continuously in order to prepare for the rigors of their daily workout.”