…OF WHIPS AND CHAINS (AND FEET)

Observations from my youth… in our neighbourhood there was a public pool that was elbow to elbow on hot summer days. I don’t know where the skill originated but many of us learned to expertly fold long beach towels into tapered whips that could be used to snap at others’ exposed parts. Anyone caught making such a weapon was expelled from the pool as these were obviously dangerous and could be injurious (something our young minds didn’t consider). The whips weren’t sophisticated enough to create a mini sonic boom, but pretty close. We also didn’t realise we were capitalising on some laws of momentum that turned a moving wave or loop from the hand-held end into a very fast moving tail end. I also spent some of my youth near water and handled chains to haul boat anchors and hold wooden docks in place. I was fascinated with the fact that a typical chain was all loose and floppy when there was no tension and yet lost all that looseness, save a bit of twisting,  when you applied tension; making it seem like a rigid piece of steel. The fixed length never changed (to my eye) and yet the whip-like ability to flex in the other two dimensions (width and depth) disappeared almost instantly as soon as there was a load pulling on each end.

These days I’m always watching athletes run and jump (a bit of throwing too) and those memories spring to mind.  When I look for imbalances in arm and leg actions our limbs are both whips and chains to me. Our bones and joints are akin to chain links that have the ability to loosen and tighten, maintaining a bit of twist. Our muscles and tissues that connect it all together are a bit like the whip mechanism that curls and uncurls our limbs to produce force against the ground. This is all coordinated by the nervous system so that we land, stabilise and progress in a smooth manner with each stride and launch.

A key point with all of this also comes from the whip and chain… I learned with the towel whip that a loosely rolled version was quite ineffective: it had to be tight and evenly tapered. Further, a longer whip had far more velocity at the end point than a short one, even if they started with the same wrist flick… When we run, as the ‘easy’ example, our joints and muscle sequences are meant to coordinate so that the whip effect allows for hip power to ripple through to the big toe. If there are any kinks in the chain or soft areas that absorb power then the result is a weak stride, or what biomechanists and podiatrists might term a ‘pathological gait’.

One huge area of concern for me is feet…training for the feet never leaves the programme because almost invariably we all need it. An amazing structure that has both suppleness and strength in its architecture many of us do so little in terms of localised fitness that our feet cause or result in pain and misery from toe-to-tip. In a way, we can also look at our feet as a mini whip-and-chain mechanism. All those bones, ligaments, fascia, tendons and muscles can go from being loose and flexible to close and rigid in an instant…IF WE TRAIN THEM. Look at a good sprinter or middle distance runner as a fast example: their footplant occurs in less than 0.15 seconds (snap of your finger) and in that time the hips (and body weight) travel from just behind the ankle to way out front at toe-off. The landing forces are usually in excess of 4X body mass. In that time the foot has received the whip action from the hips and is in a position to be its own whip! But it also has all these bones (26) linked forwards that need to first absorb weight, then find stability (chain fixed at ankle-toe), and then become the end of the whip that propels the hips towards the next landing!

Let’s be clear about this: if the foot isn’t able to do all of those things in the time required then the stress of landing and the inability to absorb shock will result in a weak takeoff. The body is great at compensating however, so you will see runners who have to run like cows (rigid lower leg), paw at the ground ahead, paddle their feet or just plain tighten up as the race/interval goes on. It doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate this pattern to other sports or events. Faulty patterns and imbalances are best seen towards the end of games or races when perceived fatigue and energy depletion conspire to introduce compensations. Injuries are more common in the latter half of games or sessions. We hit the ground harder, have more lateral sway, lose our sense of bounce and turn slower stability muscles into movement muscles.

There are research articles enough to fill several books with regards to how the foot doesn’t work properly with walking, elderly, runners, dancers…so if you need to get into it in detail get going! I want to work with how we learn to do sport movements and how we can train for foot strength that is able to accommodate the loads and the velocity of the whip and chain action that ripples down from the hips.

Whether we are looking at endurance running, basketball, tennis or the triple jump most of us can pick out the athletes who are the most efficient and seem to perform with an ease that that is beautiful to watch. And many of us will, in the next breath, exhort that we could never be like that because of genetics, magic shoes, or the fact that they started at age five and we didn’t. Actually, some genetics are involved at super-elite levels, just as swimming or gymnastics tends to favour a body type within a range. But there is also enough research out there that points out that most of the differences are due to training. Faulty training produces faulty patterns. Kenyan runners train to run with economy and speed, and high jumpers train for impulse at takeoff regardless of how tall they are.

FEET: THE WEAKEST LINK?

It’s not new news that we all sit too much. Our glutes evolved to run and jump and we tend to allow them to resemble a weak strap-like muscle that cannot deliver power (as the handle of the whip). Ah, but what about the feet: the tail end of the whip? Centuries of fashion that over-cushions, restricts or distorts our ground contact mechanism has left us without a sense of what strong resilient feet are really like.  Although we have lost our opposable big toe (the ability to touch the baby toe) we can still move the big toe through quite a range of motion; independently from the other toes I might add. Test: with your four littler toes relaxed on the ground can you do smooth circles with the big toe? Or do you get a little twitch and not much more? Or do your other toes want to move too, or scrunch up to assist? Perhaps you have to shift weight to the side of your foot to get any lift?

Everyone has (or has had) the ability to move the big toe around but most of us have lost the ability over the years. The feet operate as neuro-mechanical structures that need attention and training to function at their best. If you didn’t have the movement ability before strapping your trainers on its unlikely that you will develop supple feet later as you run, leap or walk. Quite simply, the whip and chain function that needs to happen with each stride will fail. Over time patterns become normalised as we shuffle, lurch, sway and paddle our way around. The stresses go up the body to the ankle, knee, hips and lower back as we compensate. The foot, normalised to passive function and passive shock absorption loses its elasticity and becomes a distorted version of its original beauty.

REFORMATTING THE WHIP AND CHAIN:

Learning to move with supple, strong feet doesn’t take long in the grand scheme of things because our bodies are quite plastic; they adapt to the challenges placed in front of them if the differences aren’t major.

In the case of feet that need to move the way they were meant to move, and be integrated into the whole action you first need to establish the ability to move. To start, here is a simple example... As you stand there, lift up your toes, keeping the sole of your foot balanced on the heel and forefoot (no leaning to the side). Now smoothly drop the big toe while keeping the others up. Then try to put the littler toes down while keeping the big toe up. Then try to put the big toe and little toe down, keeping the middle three up. These are little exercises used to develop intrinsic muscles of the foot and open up awareness of just how the structure can be moved around.

In the next phase you need to create a strength in the feet and lower leg that is part of whole-body actions. One example out of dozens is to do a simple heel raise on one foot. Stand on one foot, again balanced evenly between heel and forefoot.  Try to spread your toes out as you stand there. The widest part of the foot should be the toes not the balls of the feet, but years of tapered shoes have distorted that… Keep the other leg bent slightly with the foot behind you like a rudder. Smoothly raise your body up to a maximum point, keeping balance with your arms and rudder (if this is difficult place one hand lightly against a wall), and then smoothly return. Doing sets of 5-8 with each leg will give you more strength and also a movement pattern that includes full extension of the hip. After a week or so you will also notice that the Tibialis Anterior quiets down in its effort to stabilise the foot. [If this action is too difficult then try it with two feet for a while]

This is nice if you just need some grounded fitness and want to feel good while walking (about 1X body mass with each stride). If you are involved in sports that require 3+ times body mass with each landing then you need to train for it. Using the same ‘rudder’ idea you can turn this into a dynamic exercise. This works well without trainers on softer surfaces or sand. On harder surfaces and trainers you can perform Rudder Hops in a fashion that now emphasises a quicker ground contact ( about 0.5 seconds) with a full foot activation. If you learn to focus on a full hip extension you will find that the feet are coordinated with the whole action.  Over time you will be able to adapt these moves to greater overloads, no trainer situations and multi-directions.

This type of approach takes a movement pattern away from the actual sport movement, reformats it, and then re-inserts it back into the whole action. In this case your feet will thank you, and your movement patterns will have changed in a positive way forever!

J. Erik Little