The Feet Never Leave the Programme


As we move around on our feet our base of support is a small malleable pad of soft and hard tissues. If we stand on two feet the base of support is wider than on one; being distributed between the two. There are ongoing messages of sensation and adjustment between the feet and brain that are trained and mapped over time. If you look at a baby first learning to stand and walk you gain an appreciation for the complexity of this task: with a large head and round tummy there is a great deal of wobbling and checking, and of course falling. It doesn’t take long for the youngster to master balance, and soon they are up and over the fence exploring…

The same type of process goes on as an athlete. Our upper body is still 60% plus of our mass and with every new move we are challenged with a learning curve that goes from unstable to stable to precise. And like the child learning to walk the athlete learning to run, jump and throw (kick, catch, strike, lean, roll…) learns to lurch and stagger with crude muscle moves before they quiet down into automatic smoothness.

The feet are, in many sports and dance, the interface between the ground (or equipment) and the chains of joints and tissues above. In the MOVERS approach to excellence the feet require regular attention; perhaps daily attention. Why? Simply so that the architecture of the feet can continue to develop and function in its complex ways without us having to consciously think about or notice them. The subscript to this is that without attention the feet become increasingly vulnerable to injury. The message sent to our brain is one of pain rather than support.

Our arms and legs have evolved to move our bodies around, or by extension throw our bodies into launching a projectile. In addition to the power required for movement we also need precision so that our legs carry us in the direction we desire and also so that we can direct projectiles accurately. Our limbs are a bit like whips where the initial wave movement at the body connection becomes a snapping forceful ground or implement contact. So our most powerful actions start at the hip and chest and finish at the toes and fingers. It’s no accident that our patterns of power are similar at feet and hands: many sport actions have foot and hand speeds that require completion in less than 0.20 seconds… a finger snap of time.  A quick look at the sprinter coming off their big toe shows this whip dynamic of several times body mass being managed in about 0.10 seconds from touch to toeoff and then recovering quickly to prepare for the next stride. Good sprinters cycle this action about 4.5-5 times per second. Without dynamic feet they are going nowhere fast…

When looking at the feet the types of loads we need to handle at speed are no trifling matter. Athletics, dance and gymnastics (as examples) all have landings of ten times body mass up through one leg in short times. If the ankle and foot can’t handle the workload they collapse and the stresses travel upwards towards the next joint in the chain: the knees. That little child learning to walk also learns to anticipate landings and cushion them so that there is both absorption and the ability to keep moving if needed. That little child also learns to compensate if there are imbalances between right-left, front-back and high-low. These imbalances become normalised over time to the extent that efforts to correct movements feel incorrect and are resistant to change. Athletes also learn to anticipate landings if they are trained to do so… Sports that have multi-directional stop-starts and cuts also have much higher knee injury rates, due in part to faulty landing management skills.

Luckily, most of our physical and neurological systems are somewhat plastic in that they will respond to changes and adopt new patterns. I find, for example that most of the athletes I work with start out with relatively weak feet and lower legs. They may blame family genetics, shoes, injury, and the previous coach. The reality is that their foot collapses with every landing and cannot recover because they haven’t been trained to be active. Within a few months they have regained the ability to bounce and many enjoy a reduction in shoe size over the following season.

MOVERS* is a programme of dynamic movements that involves whole body systems. Within that framework it is possible to focus on the feet (or knees, or hips…) so that the area receives attention. MOVERS is not a substitute for practice but a preparation for practice; it is training. If it is the feet that need attention then train the feet so that they can respond to both training and practice.

How? Well, there are two ways: by taking the hips and knees out, and by keeping the triple extension but elevating the centre of mass. When you remove the influence of the knees and hips by holding them in a somewhat fixed position then you can only use the lower legs to move. You see this within sports that utilise a ready position shuffle that emphasises foot action. If you raise the hips up towards a near-straight leg the triple extension is still there but the lower legs do more work more quickly. The result is what I like to term ‘ping’ in that it happens in a short time frame and still moves the body around. In both cases the body is able to move from A to B with velocity. The intermediate option of moving the feet quickly but not moving the body quickly may have use in some sports and dance but not many because the overload factor has been removed.

A good example of an adapted exercise that shifts the emphasis to the lower legs is what I call Kangaroos… (you may have your own descriptor) Essentially it is a bilateral leap where ground contact is minimal and the body remains tall throughout. Knee and hip involvement is minimised so that both horizontal and vertical movement is accomplished primarily by the lower legs. If you can visualise a stick of bamboo bouncing along with a rebounding flex then you’ve got it. Sure there is a great deal of postural and hip involvement as well but that athlete is focused on the lower legs and that’s what they feel.

Can we adapt this? Sure. Try them in a slalom pattern or over low agility hurdles. Fix the arms with a position or medball. Use multi-direction variations. Alternate hi-long. Stagger or straddle the feet and eventually move to unilateral moves. Dozens of adaptations are at your fingertips.

Where are foot specialties used? I stand by my ‘everday’ assertion. Part of warm-up, activation or a core element. Homework (you do use homework don’t you?).

How Long? Well, the good-bad news is: forever. The litany of foot and ankle problems that emerge in later life due to inactivity, inattention or faulty footwear fills books, journals and medical offices. The good-good news is that regular attention to your feet will not only enhance performance now, it will enhance performance for your whole life so that the chances of distortion and compensation are minimised.

Yeah, but how long until I see results? Actually pretty quickly. Movement patterns start to change within 10-14 days in my experience and then you build on them. It does take longer for tendons to adapt but the muscle, ligament and bone aspects will noticeably change within weeks and months. I’ve seen athletes reduce shoe size by developing a stronger arch in about three months; a pretty good indication of change!

The programming key to healthy and resilient feet is in paying attention to the tendons and ligaments that keep us connected. Most of the tendons are relatively long and connect to short muscles. They respond well to multiple landings that use a bit less overload. By doing lighter moves you are also developing and thickening the ligaments, making them more tendon-like in their composition.

The MOVERS approach to developing the feet for sport has, at its core, OVR (Overload-Velocity-Reactivity). Each Exercise Script outlined by Takeoff Coaching has a subjective OVR Rating of 1-4 depending on the degree of overload, the time on the ground and the tendon reflexes being used. Most of the lower leg specialties have a 1 or 2 rating in order to bring the feet along slowly into more dynamic moves. As we walk around we use about 1X body mass on each foot for more than .50 seconds. Somehow we need to train the feet to accept 5-8X body mass (or sometimes more) in less than 0.20 seconds. This is accomplished over time with small increases in overload as the feet become more and more reactive. Exercise selections move from being exclusively bilateral (leaps, split stance) to unilateral (hops, bounds) in order to integrate foot strength into the whole actions of the legs.

The OVR core of MOVERS is where the dynamics occur, but there is more to it. The ‘MES’ aspects (Mobility-Endurance-Stability) also need to be actively programmed for sport. In their natural state feet are quite supple and resilient. Feet that are constrained or corseted for years in tight, ill-fitting shoes will have lost their ability to move. Our feet ache, become weak and distort their shape to such an extent that the 26 bones and their connections cannot function without support.  A football (soccer) player may run 8km during a game… that’s about 5600 landings to support and use. If the feet fail the player loses the ability to move reactively and must compensate using other parts of the triple extension-flexion.

Sprinters want to sprint, bball players want to dunk a ball, and tennis players need to get to the ball quickly. In all of these cases the feet play a crucial role in accomplishing the task. There are three choices for getting them involved: let injury provide the wake-up call, hope for the best, or actively work with your feet to ensure performance. Which will you choose?

J. Erik Little

[*MOVERS is an approach to designing landing and takeoff programmes and is the property of janerik productions; used with permission by TAKEOFF COACHING, ©2014]