Walk Before You Run

Most of us take walking for granted and do not see it as much of an exercise compared to say a plyometric session with 150 intense landings. Almost all of us have forgotten that as toddlers we had to go through an impressive sequence of developmental learning to get from bumming around to crawling to walking (to bolting out the door). In the development of walking, we go through stages modified by our relatively larger heads, shorter legs and longer bodies. Although we may have the ability to run/stagger from table leg to sofa we spend most of our early time tentatively swaying from one foot to the next, trying not to teeter over. This is not very energy efficient but is a necessary stage because we learn to stabilise and use all the nerve-muscle connections that serve us with moves that are more complex. In addition, we learn to use our feet.

If you look at a youngster just learning to stand and take small steps, and look specifically at their feet, one of the first things they learn to do is anchor the big toe. There is usually a space between the big and second toe as the foot fans out. This provides the stable base that senses the ground state and allows the stability mechanisms to operate. This toe-anchoring dynamic couples with the development of a strong arch and lower leg.  Fast forwards a few years to adolescents and adults; this ability has disappeared in a high percentage of people. The big toe does not engage, the toes are curling off the ground and the big toe is now touching the second toe and angling in.

A recent look at some ancient footprints in rock that was once mud concluded that the group was definitely hominin due to the anchoring of the big toe and the weighting-unweighting pattern that signifies an ability to walk longer distances. While our ape cousins have the capacity to stand and walk on two legs their inability to anchor the big toe, propel from the forefoot and use the arch as part of propulsion means that they can only walk short distances. An additional comment in the research noted that this is also what happens to otherwise healthy humans when they neglect their fundamental movement patterns. So, while we evolved to walk and run longer distances it must be trained and refined over time or we lose the ability. The neglect of sound mechanics in the feet results in a list of problems that easily fill a book.

The next sequence of cartoons has been adapted from a workshop on landing management skills where the participants looked at the role of the big toe as part of landing-takeoff effectiveness. There is a before, after and superimposed version. The illustration is a compiled representation of the group, made up of coaches and athletes. Essentially, the group walked for ten strides at a relaxed or preferred tempo and then again with a single focus. The differences in stride totals were noted and general observations made.

Clearly, if you look at the before and after illustrations, you can see a difference. Everyone admitted to being self-conscious, and so there were some halting strides and stiffer arm actions. The initial comments in regards to the adapted stride were that it felt ‘weird’. As is typical for a group involved in sport performance there needed to be a tangible difference in order to keep attention and it came from the total stride lengths. On average, the adapted set of strides generated a positive difference of 30-60cm, and I called it 50cm, or 5cm per stride. These were power-speed coaches and athletes so I translated the differences for 100m. Essentially, if you could translate that slight 5cm into a sprint of 50 strides you would reach the line 2.5metres sooner (or run 102.5m in the same time).

This is not scientific, and a difference in walking stride may not translate directly to running. From my perspective, the differences are worth pursuing for both prevention and performance benefits for all our movement skills. The adapted stride resulted in a slightly longer push-off phase that allowed the hips to engage more. The cartoon figure appears slightly taller and there is less forward tilt in body posture. The illustration is from the side and so does not show that there was less lurching or unweighting and foot placements were less splayed.

The adapted stride, as mentioned, used the single focus of anchoring the big toe with each landing. This simple move created a cascade of movement pattern influences up the body. How? With an anchored big toe, the person does not have to tilt (fall) forwards as much in order to move forwards. As the hip rides over the toes there is a stretch tension created that uses more elastic tendon energy rather than muscular push-push styles. From a preventive view, the anchoring of the big toe is part of a ‘pulse’ locking mechanism for the foot that also helps prevent a twisting of the tibia and valgus shift at the knee. With the hips more engaged, the glutes can do what they have evolved to do: both stabilise the body and generate power for movement. This means that there is less work for areas such as the lower back and knees and they will suffer fewer chronic or degenerative conditions.

The ‘trick’ of course, is to find ways of developing the walking pattern and other skills like running and jumping so that the big toe automatically engages and anchors whenever there is ground contact. I like to think that our bodies and movement systems are quite plastic in that (within certain tolerances) they distort and adapt to the conditions imposed on them. Rather than waiting for distortions that require intensive remedial work or sighing in resignation because you believe you have inherited bunions, you could pursue the movement behaviours you need. From a physical literacy perspective, this is not about finding new patterns as much as restoring old patterns that have been ignored or were assumed.

Walking is a great place to start. While many of us do not walk enough, most of us do some walking. A shift in focus to anchoring the big toe with every foot contact will start the process of engaging the rest of the body in a smoother, more efficient style. At first it may be that the feet will ache a bit because of the new work. This should not be surprising, as muscles and connective tissues that have been passive for years are now suddenly recruited for some active work. Luckily our feet adapt well to repetitive load-unload cycles and both the ache and the need to concentrate will fade. Once the movement skill is established and does not feel ‘weird’ it can be applied to skills that demand more load acceptance at faster speeds, such as running or jumping.

The limitation to walking and the use of the big toe is reflected in faster moves. Again, go back to the toddler and our ancient history. We evolved to both run distances and sprint, as evidenced by the shape of our pelvis and the glute muscles. Coupled with the resilient foot mechanism a system that used primarily tendon energy evolved as well. This needs to learned and refined however, as the landing-takeoff sequence involves more forceful landings within a short time frame. The stability mechanisms that operated with walking no longer apply when moving quickly and we need to create new motor pattern maps in the brain. Typically, we acquired these motor patterns when we are children, starting with short sprints and jumps.

If the foot mechanism does not keep developing in parallel with our ability to run and jump, or erodes over time, we run or jump with compromises. Our flattened, passive feet create imbalanced demands further up the chains, which limit performance and result in pain. So yes, re-learning to walk is good, but to go further you may also need to re-learn how to run and jump.

An intermediate step that encourages more load acceptance at speed is to use split stance leaps. These will give the sensation of ‘bounce’ that signifies a full leg and hip engagement in moving. An example is a scissor leap where a high posture and split stance are maintained with each landing. With a focus on the big toe and keeping the scissor stance, the rear leg is learning to accept load and use a stiffer tendon chain that stretches from the arch back around to the hip. The front leg is learning to stop momentum and rebound with a light ‘ping’ sensation. This is motor patterning or re-patterning so sets of 10 with each leg is a preferred mechanism. Going on for twenty minutes would defeat the purpose and reinforce compromised movements.

A little bit of restorative work will go a long ways to enhancing performance and preventing injury. How long does it take? Well, you could see an immediate change in one session with the toe-anchoring move. Permanent change begins after about 10 days and is reinforced after that. These are simple moves being applied so that your body becomes re-acquainted with movement patterns of long ago; movement patterns we are innately capable of because of the way we were shaped and evolved over the millennia.

J. ERIK LITTLE