Exercises to Prevent Shin Splints
So what should you actually do to lower your risk of MTSS? Well, simply utilize our shin-splint-preventing exercises, outlined below:
1. Wall Shin Raises.
Simply stand with your back to a wall, with your heels about the length of your feet away from the wall. Then, lean back until your buttocks and shoulders rest against the wall. Dorsiflex both ankles simultaneously, while your heels remain in contact with the ground. Bring your toes as far toward your shins as you can, and then lower your feet back toward the ground, but do not allow your forefeet to contact the ground before beginning the next repeat. Simply lower them until they are close to the ground, and then begin another repetition. Complete about 12 to 15 reps.
Once you have finished the reps, maintain your basic position with your back against the wall, dorsiflex your ankles to close to their fullest extent, and then quickly dorsiflex and plantar flex your ankles 15 times over a very small range of motion (smaller than the nearly full range you use for the basic reps; the emphasis here is on quickness). These short, quick ankle movements are called pulses.
As you gain strength over time, make the wall shin raises progressively more difficult by advancing from one set of 15 reps to two and then three sets of 15 (for the basic raises and the pulses). It's OK to walk around for 15 to 30 seconds between sets.
Now the single-leg raise
Once you can quite comfortably complete 3 x 15 of the double-leg raises (both basic and quick), progress to the single-leg wall shin raise. The basic position for this exercise is as before, except that you begin with only one foot in contact with the ground; the other foot rests lightly on the wall behind you. Now, full body weight is on one foot - as it is during running - as you carry out the overall routine, and the exercises are considerably more difficult. Begin with 12 to 15 reps per foot (both for the basic exercise and pulses), and progress to 3 x 15 (basic and pulse) on each foot as your strength increases. There's no need to rest between sets; simply carry out 15 reps on one foot plus the pulses, shift over to the other for 15 repetitions and pulses, return to the original foot, and so on until you have completed three sets with each foot.
2. Heel Step-Downs
These are simple but devastatingly effective exercises for preventing MTSS. Begin with a natural, erect body position, with your feet about shoulder-width apart, and then step forward with one foot. The length of the step should be moderate - as though you were walking in your normal manner. When your heel makes contact with the ground, stop the foot from fully plantar flexing, ie, use your shin muscles to keep the sole of the foot from making contact with the ground. After heel contact, the ball of your foot should descend no more than an inch toward the floor or ground; your foot is held in check by the eccentric contractions of your dorsiflexors (shin muscles). Return your foot to the starting position (back by the other foot), and repeat this basic stepping action a total of 15 times. Then, shift over to the other foot and complete 15 steps. As with the wall shin raises, progress to three sets of 15 reps over time.
Now with longer steps
Once you have mastered the basic heel step-downs, perform the same exercise - but with dramatically longer steps. Using lengthier steps will increase the accelerating forces placed on the dorsiflexors and force them to work more forcefully and quickly, as they must do during running. Start with one set of 15 reps of long steps per foot, and progress to 3 x 15 on each foot over time.
Finally, you will be ready to carry out the heel step-downs from a high step, which will increase the forces on your shin muscles to the greatest extent - and build the greatest amount of strength. Use a bench or exercise platform which is about four inches off the ground to carry out your stepping. Aside from beginning each step from a bench, your movements are the same as they are in the basic step-downs; the idea is to land on the heel of the forward foot and then to use the shin muscles to prevent the sole of the foot from making contact with the ground (again, don't let the ball of the foot move downward by more than an inch). The actual length of the step is moderate at first (you can progress to long steps later). As before, begin with 15 reps per foot, and progress to three sets of 15 reps as you gain strength and coordination.
Both the wall shin raises and heel step-downs can be carried out three to four times a week, along with your other strength-building exercises (you can complete them more often if you've had lots of problems with MTSS in the past; don't do them to the point of pain, however).
Warm up to stronger shins
The following portion of the shin-splints-preventing routine can be completed during the warm-ups preceding your regular workouts. The prescribed exercises develop shin strength and resiliency, as well as overall ankle coordination, and thus are great antidotes for your ankles' desires to begin hurting during strenuous training. It's also a good idea to include the exercises in your warm-ups; doing so transforms the warm-up from humdrum routine into an important strength and coordination session. Here's what to do:
1. Walk on your toes with your toes pointed straight ahead for about 20 metres, getting as high up on your toes as you possibly can. Your legs should be relatively straight as you do this, and you should - at least initially - take fairly small steps.
Then, cover 20 metres high up on your toes, but with your toes pointed outward. Your legs should rotate outward from the hips when you perform this movement; don't merely turn each foot at the ankle - the whole leg is involved.
Finally, walk 20 metres high on your toes, but with your toes pointed inward. As you do so, rotate the entire leg in from the hip, not just the ankle. Repeat each of these activities (toes pointed ahead, toes pointed out, toes pointed in) at least one more time before going on to the second exercise.
2. Walk on your heels with your toes pointed straight ahead for about 20 metres, getting as high up on your heels as you possibly can. Your legs should be relatively straight as you do this, and you should - at least initially - take fairly small steps.
Then, simply proceed as you did with the toe walks, walking 20 metres on your heels with toes pointed outward and then 20 metres on heels with toes pointed inward. Repeat each of the heel walks (toes straight ahead, toes pointed outward, toes in) at least one more time.
As the toe and heel walks become easy for you, graduate to doing the three variations of each exercise while jogging lightly, instead of walking! At least at first, you should make certain you are on a padded or grassy surface when you jog on toes and heels.
3. Skip for 20 metres, landing in the mid-foot area with each contact with the ground, and with toes pointed straight ahead. Then, do the same, but with toes pointed out for 20 metres, and then with toes pointed in for 20 metres. Repeat the sequence at least one more time.
4. Then, get well up on your toes and skip for 20 metres with toes straight ahead, pointed out, and pointed in.
Now skip on your heels
Once the skipping exercises are comfortable, try some light skipping on your heels. Gradually build up your ability to heel-skip with toes straight ahead, pointed out, and pointed in for 20 metres at a time. Heel skipping is a great way to build dorsiflexor strength, but carry it out only on a padded or grassy surface to avoid impact injury to your heels.
5. Once you've completed your walking, jogging, and skipping routines, it's time for rhythm bounding. This isn't the kind of bounding you're probably envisioning - we don't mean progressing forward with extra-long strides, at least not at first. Rather, you should jog along with very springy, short steps, landing on the mid-foot area with each contact and springing upward after impact. As you rhythm bound, your ankles should act like coiled springs, compressing slightly as you make your mid-foot landing and then recoiling quickly - causing you to bound upward and forward. Move along for 20 metres or so with these quick, little, spring-like strides, alternating right and left feet as you would during running. After 10 to 20 metres of regular jogging, rhythm bound for 20 more metres, alternating three consecutive spring-like contacts with the right foot with three with the left. After 10 to 20 more metres of regular jogging, close the set by bounding along for the full 20 metres on your right foot only, followed by 20 metres on the left (making certain that you land on the mid-foot area with each ground contact and that your ankle area, not your knee or hip, is doing most of the work). Make sure (at least at first) that all of this is done on a padded surface or soft grass. As you become stronger and more skilled, you can increase the length and amplitude (vertical height) of each bound and include additional sets of bounds (work your way up to four sets).
6. Complete some 'dorsiflexion bounces'. To do these, simply begin jumping vertically and repetitively at close to maximal height, landing in the mid-foot area with both feet and then springing upward quickly after each contact with the ground. The interesting part of this exercise is that you should dorsiflex your ankles - pulling the tops of your feet toward your shins - on each ascent, before plummeting back toward earth and plantar flexing your ankles just before making contact with the ground. Do 10 dorsiflexion bounces, rest for 10 seconds or so, and then repeat. Over time, you can add additional sets and increase the number of reps to 30. When you are really strong and skilled, perform this exercise on just one foot at a time, but only on a low-impact surface.
7. Finally, carry out rhythm bouncing. Rhythm bouncing is actually just jumping around, but what jumping! You should start with 10 jumps in place, moderately fast, with medium height, and with maximal motion at the ankles - but little flexion and extension at the knees and hips (over time, you can work up to 30 jumps). Then, after resting for a few seconds, change the amplitude (height) of your jumps to less than an inch, and complete 20 jumps as fast as you possibly can (pretend that your feet are hitting a hot stove - so that you must minimize your impact time with the ground). Again, almost all of the action should take place at your ankles, not at your knees and hips. As you become more skilled, work up to 40 quicksilver jumps.
After resting for a few seconds, complete five 'high-impact' jumps, increasing the amplitude (vertical height) of your jumping as much as possible. Over time, progress to 30 of these maxi-jumps.
So far, all of the rhythm bounces have been carried out in place, so make things interesting by jumping forward and then backward as quickly as possible. After you have made 20 'contacts' (each time your feet strike the ground is one contact), rest for a few seconds and then jump from side to side for 20 contacts. Rest again, and then jump in a direction which is about 45 degrees from straight ahead, alternating directions (first towards the right, then towards the left) for 20 contacts as you move ahead in a zig-zag manner. Remember to use your ankle muscles to propel you, not the big muscles at the knees and hips.
As you gain skill and strength, you can increase the number of sets of each type of rhythm bouncing from one to three, and then - the fun part - carry out each type of bouncing on one foot only. Moving in different directions as you bounce increases the ability of your shin muscles to handle all of the forces created during running - the side-to-side and rotational stresses, in addition to the less-overlooked front and back forces.
Of course, carrying out these exercises doesn't mean that your risk of MTSS is zero. If you suddenly change your weekly volume of running from 25 to 75 miles because you've been bitten by the marathon bug, for example, something will have to give, and it might well be your shin muscles and tendons. So, be certain to avoid dramatic changes in the frequency, volume, or intensity of your training; always gradually progress to more difficult levels of work.
Sports-medicine experts often recommend stretching the ankle area by slowly moving the ankle to 'each' end of its range of motion in the straight-back and straight-ahead plane, eg, to the fully dorsiflexed and then completely plantar-flexed positions, holding each position for anywhere from five to 60 seconds. The problem with that, of course, is that you are only stretching your muscles in one plane of motion and thus not adequately mimicking the stretching which takes place during running. At the very least, in addition to carrying out the plantar-flexed and dorsiflexed stretches, you should also stretch each ankle by fully rotating it outward and inward - and by plantar flexing and dorsiflexing the ankle while the foot is pointed both outward and inward to various degrees - not just straight ahead.
The experts also recommend strengthening the ankle area by adding resistance to the above stretching movements with the use of surgical tubing or elastic bands. That is indeed a way to increase general strength of the ankle, and it will certainly make you stronger when you carry out surgical-tubing exercises in the future. The problem, of course, is that you run with your feet on the ground - not poised in the air in the clutches of elastic bands. So, to fully prepare your ankles and shins for the rigours of running, you're better off focussing on the specific exercises we are recommending.
Does stretching actually help to prevent MTSS? No scientific evidence indicates that it does, but the idea that stretching might be protective is a logical one (overly taut muscles seem more likely to be damaged by pulling forces, compared to relaxed fibres). Don't stretch your ankle area until after your muscles are warm, however; a good time would be after a warm-up and/or at the end of your training session.
Other lower-leg injuries
Of course, all problems in the lower part of the leg are not necessarily examples of MTSS. In particular, two conditions - compartment syndromes and tibial stress fractures - can sometimes be confused with shin splints.
Compartment syndromes owe their name and origin to the fact that the leg muscles are not simply loose straps which run from bone to bone. In reality, the muscles are often grouped together into little sections of the leg which are enclosed by a tough wrapper of connective tissue. Such an arrangement of muscles tucked into a wrapper is called a 'compartment'.
During the act of running, excess fluid can build up within one of these compartments, putting pressure on muscle fibres, nerve cells, and blood vessels - and also causing a great deal of pain. Frequently, the pain will be so severe that a runner must curtail a workout or come to a standstill during a race. And the pain will usually be accompanied by the two telltale symptoms of a compartment syndrome - numbness and weakness.
Numbness occurs because the excess pressure within a compartment hampers the activity of sensory nerves carrying messages to the brain. As a result, the runner with compartment syndrome may lose feeling in the 'web' of the foot - between the first and second toes, or the insensitivity may extend up the foot toward the ankle. Weakness is experienced because motor nerves carrying impulses towards the muscles are also damaged by the high pressures within the compartment. If a compartment in the front of the leg is involved, a runner may have trouble dorsiflexing the ankle, and the foot may seem to flop loosely. In a posterior-compartment problem involving muscles in the back of the leg, there is often weakness when an individual tries to 'toe off'.
If you truly have a compartment syndrome, you will usually observe swelling in your lower leg which tends to subside when your leg is elevated. A doctor can tell for sure if you have this troubling problem by placing a catheter into one of your compartments and measuring pressure before, during, and after running (you will usually have to run long enough to produce pain during this test).
What about stress fractures?
Stress fractures are small breakdowns in bony tissue, and tibial stress fractures, which are sometimes confused with MTSS, are the most common of all stress fractures in athletes, accounting for about 50 per cent of the total. In addition to producing a lot of pain, stress fractures can actually progress into dislocation fractures, in which two parts of the bone actually separate. Stress fractures also may be 'warning signals' for an underlying nutritional or hormonal problem.
Unfortunately, traditional X-rays often fail to detect stress fractures, so a more costly procedure called a bone scan must frequently be performed to confirm the diagnosis. In a bone scan, radioactive material is actually injected into the blood. Bony tissue which is remodelling and rebuilding itself at the site of a stress fracture will accumulate more of this infused radioisotope, causing the affected bony area to show up as a dark splotch on a 'scintigram'. While it's often said that stress fractures take two to three months to heal, up to six months may be required to restore the bone to normal and remove most traces of pain, and a few athletes need more than a year to fully recover.
Sometimes called 'crescendo pain,' the agony associated with stress fractures tends to build up steadily during running, beginning as an annoying irritation and becoming a throbbing torment as an individual continues to run. There is usually little of the numbness, weakness, and swelling associated with compartment syndrome, and pain is usually not present when an athlete is at rest. Often, the bone will hurt when it is tapped near the damaged area, and occasionally a hard nodule will appear on the surface of the bone at the trouble site.
If you're diagnosed with a stress fracture, you should be sure to have a nutritional analysis carried out (your problem might be the result of inadequate calcium intake or poor calcium absorption). In addition, athletes who develop stress fractures should get their sex-hormone levels checked (adequate testosterone concen-trations in males and oestrogen levels in females are required for optimal bone maintenance).
How can you differentiate MTSS from stress fractures and compartment syndromes? The pain of MTSS is usually less localized, compared to stress-fracture pain (it tends to run up and down a region of the lower leg near the tibia), and usually can't be produced merely by tapping on the tibia. In addition, MTSS produces none of the numbness associated with compartment syndromes.
How long does MTSS last?
If you are unfortunate enough to come down with MTSS, your recovery period will usually last from one to six weeks, depending on how severely you are stricken. If you have a mild case of MTSS (your shin hurts moderately, and only after workouts), immediately cut your weekly mileage by about 30 per cent, and start doing our recommended exercises (we're assuming that your busy schedule prevented you from carrying out the routines faithfully, allowing MTSS to crop up). Start easily with the exercises, doing only one set of each, and stop if you feel any pain. Ice the affected area down thoroughly after activity, and of course keep the whole area as loose and flexible as possible. Within a week or two, you should be able to get back to your normal training, but be sure to carry out the shin-splints-preventing exercises steadfastly.
If you have a somewhat tougher case of MTSS (mild pain crops up during workouts but doesn't seem to slow you down much), trim weekly mileage by around 50 per cent, ice and stretch religiously, consider taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (but only if you are not prone to the gastrointestinal upsets which have been linked with these compounds), and become a devotee of our shin-strengthening exercises (start gradually with them, though, since they can further inflame tender shins if overdone). Use bicycling workouts to maintain fitness. In two to three weeks, you should be ready for regular training.
If your MTSS produces sharp pain while you are training, stop all running workouts, ice and stretch, take NSAIDS as directed by your doctor, and - when pain subsides - systematically begin utilizing our exercises, starting with a few two-legged wall shin raises at first and gradually progressing to the others. Use the exercise bike to maintain fitness, and return to normal training in four to six weeks.
Remember that if you carry out our shin splints treatment routine several times a week and refrain from making bizarre and sudden changes in your training, your encounters with MTSS should drop to a frequency rate of zero.
Owen Anderson and Walt Reynolds
Cases of plantar fasciitis can linger for months at a time, with pain increasing and decreasing in an unpredictable pattern. Often, plantar fasciitis discomfort may nearly disappear for several weeks, only to re-emerge full-blown after a single workout. About 10 per cent of individuals who see a doctor for plantar fasciitis have the problem for more than a year.
The plantar fascia is actually a thick, fibrous band of connective tissue which originates at the heel bone and runs along the bottom of the foot in a fan-like manner, attaching to the base of each of the toes. A rather tough, resilient structure, the plantar fascia takes on a number of critical functions during running and walking. It stabilizes the metatarsal joints (the joints associated with the long bones of the foot) during impact with the ground, acts as a shock absorber for the entire leg, and helps to lift the longi-tudinal arch of the foot to prepare it for the 'take-off' phase of the gait cycle.
Although the fascia is invested with countless sturdy 'cables' of connective tissue called collagen fibres, it is certainly not immune to injury. In fact, about 5 to 10 per cent of all running injuries are inflammations of the fascia, an incidence rate which in the United States would produce about a million cases of plantar fasciitis per year, just among runners and joggers. Basketball players, tennis players, volleyballers, step-aerobics participants, and dancers are also prone to plantar problems, as are non-athletic people who spend a lot of time on their feet or suddenly become active after a long period of lethargy. A recent study found that over 50 per cent of people who suffer from plantar fasciitis are on their feet nearly all day, and many cases of plantar fasciitis seem to occur in 'sofa spuds' shortly after they've made their first trip around their garden with a lawn mower in the spring.
The 'red zone of tautness'
Why does the fascia flare up? Although it is a fairly rugged structure, the plantar fascia is not very receptive to stretching, and yet stretching occurs in the fascia nearly every time the foot hits the ground. Studies indicate that the fascia can unkink itself to no more than 102 per cent of its normal length without suffering at least some tearing, but the force equal to almost three times body weight which passes through the foot with each step forces the fascia to come close to this 'red zone of tautness' 90 times per foot per minute during the act of running ('Anatomy and Biomechanics of the Hindfoot,' Clinical Orthopaedics, vol. 177, pp. 9-15, 1983). So, it's not surprising that plantar fasciitis occurs fairly frequently, nor is it a surprise that the damage - and pain - often tend to occur near the heel, where stress on the connective tissue fibres is greatest, and where the fascia itself is the thinnest (it tends to broaden out as it reaches toward the toes).
The heel locus for trouble is one reason why plantar fasciitis is often associated with 'heel spurs'. Those 'spurs' are simply wads of calcium deposited at the site where the fascia suffers most damage. The heel agitations also explain why the clinical manifestation of plantar fasciitis is usually strong discomfort at the bottom of the heel bone. More specifically, the person suffering from plantar fasciitis will often feel a pinpoint, knife-like pain at the 'medial tubercle' of the calcaneus (heel bone), which happens to be the exact location of the origin of the inside part of the plantar fascia. Swelling may occur just in front of the heel bone, and pain can radiate along the whole longitudinal arch of the foot.
Why are some people troubled by plantar fasciitis, while others remain relatively pf-free? Research suggests that pf is often associated with a change in activity (like a sudden increase in the volume or intensity of training or a simple expansion of the total time you spend on your feet). Using worn-out shoes, especially while running on pavement or hard ground, also seems to increase the risk Individuals with flat feet are said to be at higher risk for plantar fasciitis, and - somewhat paradoxically - so are people with high arches. A sudden increase in hill training may also spark a bout of pf, and pregnancy and pf go together like hand and glove.
Gaining weight or being obese is also a strong risk factor for plantar fasciitis. A recent study determined that 77 per cent of its sample of 411 plantar fasciitis (heel spurs) patients were overweight. Another study found that 23 per cent of overweight women had plantar fasciitis (heel spurs) compared to 8 per cent of the normal body-weight group. The additional body mass simply places increased stress on the plantar fascia.
If you have heel pain at the front and bottom of your heel, especially when you first wake up in the morning, it's quite likely that you have pf. If it is indeed pf, putting about an inch of folded paper under your heel or stretching out your calf muscles will usually help diminish the pain. However, other problems sometimes mimic pf discomfort; X-rays and a bone scan can help rule out the possibility of stress fracture, and a nerve study (using electrodes) can eliminate tarsal tunnel syndrome. A bit of arthritis in the heel may resemble pf, but blood tests can help make the diagnosis (there is no blood test for pf, but there is for arthritis). Your doctor may want to perform an MRI to confirm the presence of plantar fasciitis.
The traditional remedies for plantar fasciitis are - at best - quite weak. Stretching the calf muscles is often recommended, as are massage, decreasing one's training, losing weight, purchasing better-fitting shoes (with a raised heel and arch support), using special insoles, relying on thick heel pads, icing the sore heel, and gulping down prescription-type doses of ibuprofen.
The trouble with most of these nostrums (e. g., stretching the calf muscles, getting a massage, cutting back on training, hitting the non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, and icing) is that they don't really address what's going on. Stretching out the calf area is often a step in the right direction (tight calf muscles put extra strain on the plantar fascia), but there are many other strengthening and stretching routines which work more effectively (we'll describe them later). In addition, you can refrain from training, employ ice packs, and wash down dozens of ibuprofen caps over a period of many months, but when you get back into full-fledged training again, pf is very likely to recur with full fury. As is the case with any injury, you have to understand why plantar fasciitis cropped up before you can really rehab yourself and make the impairment a distant memory. You also need to increase the strength and resiliency of the plantar fascia and the other muscles and connective tissues of the foot - and stabilize and strengthen the entire leg - before you can expect to stay away from plantar fasciitis in the future. The exercises outlined below do just that.
Exercises to recover from and prevent plantar fasciitis
Our pf routines are divided into two types - those that emphasize stretching and those that stress strengthening:
I. Stretching Routines
A. The Rotational Hamstring Stretch
To carry out this stretch, stand with your weight on your left foot and place your right heel on a table or bench at or near waist height. Face straight forward with your upper body and keep both legs nearly straight. As you stand with your right heel on the table and your left foot on the ground, rotate your left foot outward (to the left) approximately 45 degrees, keeping your body weight on the full surface of your left foot (both heel and toes are in contact with the ground). You are now ready to begin the stretch.
Lean forward with your navel and shoulders until you feel a steady tension (stretch) in the hamstring of your right leg. Don't increase the stretch to the point of pain or severe discomfort, but do maintain an extensive stretch in your right hamstring while simultaneously rotating your right knee in a clockwise - and then counter-clockwise - direction for 20 repetitions. As you move the right leg in the clockwise and counter-clockwise directions, stay relaxed and keep your movements slow and under control.
After the 20 reps, remove your right leg from the table and rest for a moment.
Then, lift your right leg up on to the table and repeat this clockwise and counter-clockwise stretch of the right hamstring, but this time keep the left (support) foot rotated inward (to the right) approximately 10 degrees as you carry out the appropriate movements. Perform 20 repetitions (clockwise and counter-clockwise) before resting.
Finally, repeat this entire sequence of stretches, but this time have the right foot in support and the left foot on the table for the repetitions (do 20 clockwise and counter-clockwise reps with the left foot on the table and the right (support) foot turned out 45 degrees, and 20 more reps with the right foot turned in).
Why is this stretch valuable? Tight hamstring muscles (which cross both the knee and hip joints on the back of the leg) can lead to limited extension and exaggerated flexion of the knee during the running stride (they tend to pull the lower part of the leg backward). This over-flexion at the knee actually increases the amount of dorsiflexion at the ankle during the landing phase of the running stride (remember that the entire leg functions as a kinetic chain; change one thing, in this case hamstring flexibility, and that change will 'ripple' right down the leg to the ankle joint). Increased flexion of the ankle creates an inordinate amount of stress on the Achilles tendon (the Achilles tendon's 'job' during running is to control dorsiflexion of the ankle), which in turn pulls on the heel bone (calcaneus) and plantar fascia. The rotational hamstring stretch ensures that hamstring flexibility is developed in the transverse (rotatory) plane as well as the sagittal plane. The hamstrings undergo movement stresses in both of these planes during the running motion and therefore must have flexibility in both planes to avoid overstressing the plantar fasciae.
B. The Tri-Plane Achilles Stretch
To carry out this stretching manoeuvre, stand with your feet hip-width apart and your left foot in a somewhat forward position compared to your right foot (it should be about six to 10 inches ahead). Shift most of your weight forward onto your left leg and bend your left knee while keeping your left foot flat on the ground. Your right foot should make contact with the ground only with the toes. You are now ready to begin the stretch.
Move your left knee slowly and deliberately to the left. As you do so, also attempt to 'point' the knee in a somewhat lateral direction. You should be able to feel this side-to-side and rotational action at the knee creating a rotational action in your left Achilles tendon. Bring the knee back to a straight-ahead position, and then move it toward the right. As you move the left knee to the right, again rotate the knee somewhat, this time to the right, creating more rotation at the Achilles tendon. When you bring the left knee back to the straight-ahead position, you have completed one rep (you should perform 20 total repetitions). Make sure that you keep most of your weight on the left leg while performing this exercise.
Repeat the entire action described above for 20 reps, but this time with your right leg bearing your body weight and doing the side-to-side and rotational movements.
What is the value of this stretch? The Achilles tendon (also known as the heel cord) inserts directly into the heel bone on the back of the foot. The plantar fascia is attached to the heel bone on the underside (sole) of the foot. During the running stride each component of the body's support system (hip, thigh, lower leg and foot) is responsible for controlling and dissipating a portion of the impact force associated with landing. Insufficient flexibility in the Achilles tendon during the landing phase can lead to overstress of the plantar fascia, since the plantar fascia must then do more than its fair share of the work as the body moves over the foot while the foot is on the ground (a tight Achilles tendon tends to 'throw' the foot forward onto the plantar fascia as impact is made with the ground, magnifying the stress on the plantar fascia). The frontal-plane and rotational movement of the knee during the tri-plane Achilles stretch forces the Achilles tendon to undergo rotation, and this rotational component of the stretch ensures that Achilles flexibility is developed in the transverse (rotatory) plane as well as the sagittal plane. The Achilles tendons, like the hamstrings, undergo movement stresses in both of these planes during running.
C. The Rotational Plantar Fascia Stretch
Stand barefoot, with your feet hip-width apart and with your left foot in a slightly forward position - two to three inches ahead of your right foot. The bottoms of the toes of your left foot should be in contact with a wall in front of you (the wall should be creating a forced dorsiflexion of the toes, so that the sole of the left foot is on the ground but the toes are on the wall), and your left knee should be bent slightly. Keep your weight evenly distributed between your right and left foot to start the exercise (see note below). You are now ready to begin the stretch.
Slowly rotate your left foot to the inside (pronation) so that most of the weight is supported by the 'big-toe side' of the foot. Then, slowly rotate your left foot to the outside (supination), shifting the weight to the 'little-toe side' of your foot. Repeat this overall movement for a total of 15 repetitions.
Next, simply repeat the above sequence with your right foot.
Note: As you become more comfortable with this exercise, gradually shift more of your weight forward onto the forward, 'stretched' foot and ankle. This shift in weight will increase the intensity of the stretch.
What is the value of this stretch? The plantar fascia runs the length of the foot from the heel bone (calcaneus) to the toes. During a running stride, the plantar fascia undergoes a rather sudden lengthening and then shortening during the landing phase - much like a rubber band that is suddenly stretched and then allowed to shorten. This 'elastic' event requires the plantar fascia to be sufficiently supple and strong to handle such stress without breaking down. Insufficient elasticity in the plantar fascia combined with the tendency to over-pronate (which puts extra stretch on the plantar fascia) is a nearly foolproof formula for pf problems. This plantar fascia stretch utilizes both rotational and sagittal (front-to-back) stretching in order to develop flexibility in both the transverse and sagittal planes - the primary planes in which the structures of the foot and lower leg function during running. Regular use of this stretch helps the plantar fascia better withstand the key twisting and lengthening forces which are placed on it.
II. Strengthening Exercises for the Plantar Fascia
A. Toe Walking with Opposite-Ankle Dorsiflexion
Barefoot, stand as tall as you can on your toes. Balance for a moment and then begin walking forward with slow, small steps (take one step every one to two seconds, with each step being about 10 to 12 inches in length). As you do this, maintain a tall, balanced posture. Be sure to dorsiflex the ankle and toes of the free (moving-ahead) leg upward as high as you can with each step, while maintaining your balance on the toes and ball of the support foot. Walk a distance of 20 metres for a total of three sets, with a short break in between sets.
Why is this exercise valuable? The muscles of the feet require good strength to control the forces associated with landing on the ground during the running stride. This toe-walking exercise helps to develop the eccentric (support) strength and mobility in the muscles of the foot and calf, as well as the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon (eccentric strength means hardiness as these structures are being stretched out). The exercise also works the foot and ankle through a broad range of motion, especially for the foot which is bearing weight on the ball and toes while the ankle is extended (is in plantar flexion). The exercise also improves balance and stability, which are critical factors for runners hoping to improve their efficiency of movement.
B. Toe Grasping
To perform this exercise, stand barefoot with your feet hip-width apart. In an alternating pattern, curl the toes of your right foot and then your left foot down and under, as though you are grasping something with the toes of each foot. Repeat this action (right foot, left foot, right foot, etc.) for a total 50 repetitions with each foot. Rest for a moment, and then complete two more sets. Try pulling yourself across the floor (smooth surfaces work best) for a distance of three to six feet as you become more skilled at this exercise.
What is the value of toe grasping? Toe grasping develops strength, coordination and flexibility in the muscles of the foot that run parallel to the plantar fascia and help support the longitudinal arch of the foot. This exercise also strengthens selected stabilizing muscles of the calf and shin. Your range of motion during the 'grasping' action will improve over time, as will the range of motion of the entire foot.
Overall, your strategy should be to strengthen the plantar fascia and related structures in your feet and legs, as well as improve their flexibility in all planes of motion. By doing so, you will take stress of your plantar fasciae and be less prone to fasciitis. Please bear in mind, though, that if you currently have a tough case of pf, you will need to start slowly with the exercises to avoid aggravating your condition. If the exercises themselves produce pain, stop immediately!
1. If your friendly neighbourhood surgeon says you have heel spurs which need to be removed, beware! It's important to remember that heel spurs themselves do not usually cause heel pain. In a recent study, it was determined that about 21 per cent of the adult population has at least one heel spur (!), yet few of these individuals reported actual heel pain.
2. In forthcoming issue, we'll tackle the question of whether custom orthotics are good for pf and various other running injuries. In the meantime, bear in mind that prescribing orthotics for pf is like saying that the key problem which produces pf is always in the feet. This is certainly not true: as we mentioned earlier, tight hamstrings can cause pf, and prescribing orthotics for taut hamstrings is nonsense! You've got to think of your plantar fascia as being part of an interactive chain of muscles and connective tissues which runs from your hip down through your toes. If you want to stay away from pf, the whole system must be taken into account - and worked on. In addition, even if your pf problem is truly the result of 'weak feet', does it make more sense to install appliances under your feet and forget about correcting the weakness - or work diligently on overall foot (and leg) strength?!
3. Always remember that icing, anti-inflammatories, reduced training, massage, etc. are temporary palliatives for pf. They do not cure the problem. The only true plantar-fasciitis elixir is an increase in the overall resiliency and strength of your legs and feet - so that plantar fasciitis just can't come back.
Owen Anderson (text)
and Walt Reynolds (exercises)