There are many obstacles to achieving your athletic goals, with injuries being a big road block. Depending on the severity, they could derail athletes from their plans or force them to alter the target. A team’s success is dependent on all the athletes being healthy and able to compete throughout the season.. From a coaching perspective, planning must go beyond the sport’s conditioning needs of speed, strength and endurance, with consideration towards injury prevention.
While attending the USATF Level I Fundamentals Course (2015), long time instructor Russ Ebbets DC dedicated time to his lecture to the importance of lower leg injury prevention. He shared his editorial ‘Off the Road’ from Track Coach Magazine on The Foot Drills which he incorporated into his training program starting in 1987. While this was informative, it wasn’t until West Point Director of Track & Field/Cross-Country Mike Smith, at the USATF Level II Endurance Course (2016), followed up with more details on his Foot Strength Sand Drills that I truly grasped the importance of these drills. Since completing this course, I now incorporate these drills during the season with my high school cross-country and track runners. These are also part of the warm-up routine during the annual LEAP-Coaching Summer Strength & Conditioning program, attended by regional high school and college soccer, lacrosse, football, track and cross-country athletes.
Time is a valuable commodity to the athlete, but even more so to a coach. Determining what can be squeezed into a one to three hour practice is challenging. Coaches strive to develop a workout plan to accommodate the demands of the sport: strength, conditioning, drills, mobility, and flexibility. Some days one is prioritized over the others, and components of the training paradigm may be skipped. Fortunately, with injury prevention in the forefront of any coach’s goal, the foot drills are easy to incorporate into the regular training program. Depending on the team size and repetitions, the routine only takes 5 to 10 minutes to complete. As they say, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’.
The foot drill routine should be done on a soft surface. Hard surfaces, such as asphalt, concrete, and building flooring should be avoided. My preference is to perform them in loose sand, such as the long jump pit at the local school track. Grass will suffice, however due to the undulations; other soft surfaces (i.e. artificial turf) should be prioritized. Complete the routine after a short dynamic warm-up or jog. The drills will comprise of 10 – 15 yard barefoot (socks on are okay) walks with the foot and ankle in differing positions. After each modified walk, the athlete will walk normally back to the starting position. Perform each drill at least twice. Here are the drills, perform in any order. Watch the video for visual representations:
- Ankle Eversion, walking on inner edge of foot with outer foot (pinky toe) elevated off the ground.
- Ankle Inversion, walking on outer edge of foot with inner foot (big toe) elevated off the ground. This often results in the knees bending inward.
- Toe-Up. Heel Down. Heels touching the ground, keep toes up as high off the ground as possible.
- Toe-Down, Heel Up. Toes touching the ground, keep heel up as high off the ground as possible.
- Toe-Out, sometimes referred to as the ‘duck walk’. Feet are flat on the ground, as the athlete walks, direct the toes outward (heels inward).
- Toe-In, sometimes referred to as ‘pigeon toed’. Feet are flat on the ground, as the athlete walks, direct the toes outward (heels inward).
For running coaches, incorporating barefoot running into the athlete’s weekly training plan improves neurological response as the foot no longer has the shoe to cushion the landing. It can nervous system will better sense the landing, stance, and toe-off and made adaptations to improve running economy (form). Barefoot running, besides developing ankle strength, has the added benefit of strengthening the foot arch. Running barefoot changes the athlete’s foot strike, as it will (hopefully) become more forefoot. Coaches should monitor the athlete’s stride while running barefoot, as a heavy heal strike could actually lead to injuries due to the large forces incurred. Additional, barefoot running should only be performed on soft surfaces (i.e. artificial turf, beach sand, or grass) and the should be clear of any dangerous objects (i.e. glass). I incorporate barefoot running via two training routines. At least two or three days a week, after their main run, the athletes will complete a set of ten barefoot strides on the artificial turf or grass sports fields. Additionally, throughout the season they will complete easy recovery runs on the artificial turf, barefoot. I limit these to 20 – 30 minutes to avoid overstressing the Achilles and foot arch. Be especially cautious when barefoot running on a beach, keep the duration low as the stress on these same tendons/muscles is even greater.
In reviewing the exercises, a coach should quickly recognize the benefits. While there are strength gains to be made, it is the improvement to the neurological pathways that I find most important. Russ Ebbets points to a Rice University Study which found that 79% of running injuries are from the knee down. These include ankle sprains, Achilles’ tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints. I am a strong proponent to the importance of balance in injury prevention, and these drills done without shoes, help develop the proprioceptive sense (the body’s awareness to its position in space) necessary to improve neuromuscular response to when the body is out of position or imbalanced. While the improvements in mobility, strength, and stability may not be directly detectable, the reduction in injury occurrences will be recognizable. In team sports, athletes may notice an improvement in agility drills such as ladders, while coaches should see a drop in ankle sprains. Since incorporating foot drills regularly into my high school program, the reduction in lower leg injuries – especially shin splints, has dropped dramatically.