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How well are we equipped to run? - 2. Lower legs and feet. April 12 2016, 0 Comments

From our previous discussion, our upper legs are designed to help us with locomotion on the ground, and I'd like to now build the case that we are actually designed to run.

Casting our attention south to the lower legs and feet, and again comparing with the apes, we can see that we have a very chunky calf muscle and a considerably bigger achilles tendon.

Tendons connect bones to muscles and are elastic, often being placed to absorb and store energy for later use. For walking, where we normally plant the heel and then roll forward on the foot to pushing off into the next step, there doesn't seem to be much need for a large, impact-absorbing tendon. For running, on the other hand, especially if we accept the case for a front-foot landing, the absorption of energy as the heel is lowered warrants a very much larger tendon, such as we have. The elastic energy stored can then be used for the push-off into the next stride.

The case becomes stronger when considered with the structure of the foot. One of our feet has 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles. Many of these are located in the arch, which acts as a bridge between the ball and heel of the foot. When we land on the front foot in running, the muscles in the arch and the achilles tendon together tense and absorb the impact of the step so that the heel lands much more lightly. This prevents a jarring impact at the heel being transferred upwards to the ankle and knee and the lower back. One of the best illustrations of this are the videos taken by Dr Daniel Lieberman's group at the skeletal lab at Harvard University. Follow the link for a heel strike. You can see that the total impact of landing is about two and a half times the body weight, when the heel lands about one and a half times the body weight occurs in the first, jarring impact by the heel, shown by a vertical line on the impact/time trace at the bottom.

With a front-foot landing, the impact trace has a much more gradual slope, showing a steady transfer of weight, rather than a sudden one. Furthermore, adding a big wad of padding to the sole of your foot doesn't significantly reduce the sudden impact of a heel strike.

So our calves, achilles tendons and feet are admirably suited to provide us with a cushioned ride during running. And we have other equipment that helps us to run, as we shall discuss in the next blog. In the mean time you might like to check out our  ZEMgear shoes, which protect your feet, but allow them and your legs to run as nature intended.

 


Strengthening feet and calves October 28 2015, 0 Comments

We have said a few times now that starting barefoot-style running should be taken slowly to allow the muscles in the feet and calves to build up. Your feet, ankles and calves will not only because you need them to run, but also because without a layer of padding on your sole to spread the impact, you will need to correct continuously for small variations in the way that your feet land on different surfaces.  After a while, your feet and calves will look (and be) tougher.  Running does this, but some additional exercises can help to accelerate development and the transition to enjoyment. These should normally be done on rest days between runs.

Calf workoutBuilding strength as a general rule requires higher loads on the muscles and a smaller number of S-L-O-W repeats. If any of these exercises feel like too much, start with a smaller number of repeats and build up gradually, say by one repeat a week. Always exercise both feet equally.

Toes

Stop bending down to pick things up - use your feet to get them off the floor. Towels and clothing can be picked up by flexing the toes downwards to hold a fold of the material between the toes and the ball of the foot. Use both feet alternately, and if you don't pick up that many things during the day, exercise by picking up a towel ten times with each foot. Shoes can be picked up by grasping them between the big and second toes. For exercise, this can be done with progressively bigger items such as marbles or golf balls - if you are able to pick up tennis balls, you have reached champion status.

Toe spread and press can be done by putting some corks between your toes - the happy part of this is that you will need to drink eight bottles of wine... Alternate firstly squeezing the corks between the toes, and secondly trying to spread the toes wide enough apart to release them - ten seconds for the squeeze, two second break, and then ten seconds for the stretch. Repeat five times with each foot.

Feet and calves

Stand in front of a table or other such surface so that you can rest your hands lightly on it for balance. Stand on one foot (I tuck the other behind the calf of standing leg). Raise yourself to the maximum height to a slow count of ten, hold for two seconds, and then lower slowly to another count of ten. Repeat five times and then do the other foot. If you want to get additional benefit from this, do it with the ball of your foot on a stair so that the heel can travel downwards from the horizontal as well as up, which will help to develop the muscle through its full range of movement.

Sit and point your leg straight out horizontally with your foot pointing as a continuation of the leg, toes pointed. Lift your toes up to a ten-count until they form a right-angle to the foot, hold for two and then straighten out to a ten-count. Repeat five times with each foot. Martial arts folks achieve a good right-angle doing this so that when they kick somebody they hit them with the ball of the foot and don't hurt their toes.

Sit with your leg pointed out in front of you, foot relaxed. Flex the big toe upwards and the others downwards and then twist the foot inwards as far as it will go. Reverse the direction of the toes (big - down, others - up) and twist the foot in the other direction as far as it will go. Again, do this to a 10-2-10 count.

Ankles

Sit with your leg pointed out in front of you. Flex the foot upwards as far as you can, and then rotate it slowly, still as far as you can, to the outside, down, inwards and then back to the start. Hold for two seconds and reverse direction, with each direction taking ten seconds to complete. Repeat five times with each foot.

Beach running

If you are anywhere near a sandy area, try running on that, either barefoot, or with ZEM shoes as they are excellent at protecting the soles and still keeping the sand out. Your feet and calves work harder on a giving surface.

After a strength-building session, take some time to stretch the muscles out again. You will normally notice within a couple of weeks that running becomes easier.


The sock conundrum January 22 2015, 0 Comments

Despite a gradual improvement in fitness from running, by the end of last year I was having a nagging recurrence of slight inflammation in my Achilles tendons - not enough to stop running, but enough to make them uncomfortable for a couple of days.  I run with a group, and we stand around and socialise after the run, and I felt that the cold around my ankles aggravated the inflammation.

A two-week break at Christmas gave them time to recover, and I took a couple of other measures.  To quiet down my immune system and inflammatory response, I changed my diet to increase my intake of antioxidants and omega-3 oils with more fruit, vegetables and fish.  This was less an issue when I wore Heroes, because they reach higher up the ankles, but more so when I wore Apexes as there was a gap between them and my running pants.

I browsed toe-socks to address this, but then Claudia pointed out that we had a solution in our own inventory in the form of the HG ankle supports, and this proved to be very successful.  They are elasticated, offering some support, and more importantly in this case, keeping the ankles and tendons warm.  They work really well with the ZEMgear shoes, as they are effectively toeless socks.

It worked.  The achilles tendons are now quiet, and I am running freely and enjoyably through the winter chill.