Lower leg injuries - how to stay trouble-free
Dick Travisano Ph.D. explains how to avoid lower leg injuries.
All impact sports play havoc with the shins, calves, and ankles. For instance, over 40% of all running injuries occur there, and the list of possible disorders is like a menu of pain from which athletes make frequent selections. Tendinitis and muscle soreness are the starters, while the heavy-hitting main courses that can keep you on the sidelines for weeks and months are compartment syndromes, shin splints, and stress fractures. But it does not have to be like that! Research shows exactly how the muscles in the ankle and lower part of the leg function during running and provides clues about how to keep the areas between your knees and your feet injury-free.
We'll show you what to do
In an investigation carried out at the Centinela Hospital Biomechanics Laboratory in Inglewood, California, 15 competitive and recreational runners ran at different speeds. At the same time, their lower leg muscles were hooked up to a device that measured muscle activity. Five important muscles were studied, including three calf muscles (the gastroenemius, soleus, and tibialis posterior), one shin muscle (the tibialis anterior), and a unique muscle --- the peroneus brevis-which runs down the lateral side of the lower leg to the outside of the foot.
Three crucial facts emerged from the Centinela study:
So how do you add steel to your calves, strengthen your tibialis anterior muscles and prop up each peroneus brevis? It's easy, with the following drills, which should be carried out on a track, basketball court, aerobics floor, or grassy surface, but not on concrete. Before you start the drills, walk or jog for ten minutes to warm up. Then begin jumping in place, keeping your weight on the balls of your feet, and avoiding actual contact between your heels and the ground. Complete about 30 "hops" not too fast and not too slow. Pretend you are jumping on a warm stove and get off the floor before your feet have a chance to warm up too much.
After a moment's rest, pretend the stove is now red hot and jump quickly, making contact between your feet and the ground as brief as possible. Complete about 40 super fast jumps in about 8 to 12 seconds, just barely getting your feet off the ground and avoiding heel contact. After 30 seconds of rest, complete this "hop and lightning hop" routine once more, and further strengthen your calves by walking quickly forward on your toes for 20 metres. Then point your feet outward at about a 45-degree angle ("duck walking") and stride along on your toes for 20 more metres. Finally, angle your toes inward ("pigeon-toed" walking) and walk on your toes for a further 20 metres. For these manoeuvres, always make sure your hips are rotated outward or inward, so your knees are lined up with the spaces between the big and second toes.
Walk, skip and jog
After these three types of fast walks, skip on your toes using all three techniques. Twenty metres with feet straight ahead, 20 metres with toes out, and 20 metres with toes slanted in. Finally, jog on your toes at a moderate pace using the three methods, for about the same distance. After a minute's rest, complete this walk-skip-jog protocol one more time. For several weeks, gradually increase the amount of hopping, walking, skipping, and jogging that you do. Begin by doing the exercises twice a week, advancing progressively to four or five times a week. After several weeks, try doing the warm and hot stove hops on only one leg at a time, and cut the repetitions in half. Instead of carrying out 40 super-fast jumps using both feet, for example, hop 20 times on your right foot and 20 times on your left.
Backs to the wall
But what about your inferior tibialis anterior muscles, the ones that work hardest during running? Strengthen them by carrying out the following five exercises:
Overall, these five exercises have helped many athletes afflicted with shin splints. Another strategy, designed to strengthen all five calf and shin muscles simultaneously, is to run barefoot on a somewhat uneven but soft grassy surface, such as a well-maintained athletic field or a golf fairway. Start cautiously, though, with no more than a half-mile on your first barefoot effort, adding an extra quarter-mile during each subsequent run. The ultimate aim of these exercises is to fortify your feet, ankles, shins, and calves so that injuries are unlikely. However, injury prevention won't be the only outcome. As you progress, your ankles become as powerful as rocket boosters and your feet will act as mini-trampolines. When you run, each foot strike will involve an explosion of propulsive force, not a sad collapse of your foot against the ground.
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About the Author
Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.