Building a Stronger Spring: How improving foot and ankle stability make you a better runner

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

BY: Dave Vargo, CSCS, MedStar Health

Let me throw some numbers at you – I mean, runners love numbers, right?

  • During a 5k, your feet strike the ground an average of 4800 times.
  • For a 10k, this number jumps to 9500.
  • And, for a marathon, there are an average of over 39,000 foot contacts. (Much more if you’re running at a below average pace).

When you look at these numbers, it’s clear that there’s a lot of stress that needs to be absorbed through the knees, hips, lower back, spine, and ego.

But, especially the first thing to touch the ground: the foot and ankle complex.

When you break it down, running is essentially just a series of spring-like hops from one leg to another, with the foot being the tip of this spring.

And, the stiffer the spring, the more efficient the runner.

In other words, the better your foot and ankle are able to “brace for impact” and return energy into the ground, the more effortless your stride will be.

On the flip side, a weak spring can result in the foot collapsing too much into the ground and overpronating, wasted energy, and potential joint issues up the chain if the knees, hips, and/or lower back are taking an unnecessary beating.

Put simply, a strong and stable foot/ankle complex plays a huge part in improving running economy, reducing joint stress and injury risk, and – though I have no hard data on this – probably makes you a more attractive person.

This is where the Spring Ankle exercise comes into play.

The Spring Ankle is a positional isometric drill (or for non-nerds: strike a pose and hold it for time) and one of my favorite methods for building ankle stiffness and stability.

Here’s the rundown:

Set up on an elevated platform with the balls of the feet on the edge and heels floating – just like a calf raise.

With your upper body supported for balance, bring one foot off the platform and slightly behind you, and drive the front knee over the toe without letting the heel drop. You’ll notice that your lower half closely resembles the foot strike position when running.

Start in position 1 – the heel slightly higher than the ball of the foot – and work to progress to 60 seconds per side over time.

For position 2 – raise your heel as high as you can. Again, work to progress this position to at least 60 seconds per side.

A few additional coaching points:

  • Don’t let your knee cave in. Keep it pointed over your midfoot.
  • Drive your big toe down into the platform.
  • Maintain a strong arch and don’t let your ankle roll inward.

Once you’re able to own these positions easily for more than 60 seconds, additional weight can be held in the hand of the supported leg to continue challenging the movement.

Progressions.

Oh, okay, these variations are too easy, huh? I’m sorry to offend you; here are a few progressions when you’re ready to increase the challenge, you ambitious ankle attacker:

Just as with the standing positions, the goal with these variations is to start with bodyweight only and work up to 60 seconds per side before adding any additional weight.

The How and When.

The Spring Ankle is a versatile movement considering its ease of setup and relatively low demand on the body.

It can be placed at the beginning of a workout/run as an extension of the warm-up, in between main exercises during rest as a “filler,” or even as a stand-alone drill on off days.

Aim to complete at least 6 sets throughout the week of each of the standing positions.

Again, the goal should be to add total time until you’re able to easily hold for 60 seconds/side before progressing to added weight and/or advanced variations.

Whether you’re a chronic overpronator, complain of pain on the bottom of the foot and/or heel, or have been chasing recurring pain further up the chain in your knees, hips, or lower back, do not neglect the impact that building a stronger spring can have on making you a stronger runner.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author: Dave Vargo, CSCS

Dave earned his bachelor’s degree in sport management from California University of Pennsylvania. He is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), as well as a Certified Level 1 Coach through Precision Nutrition. In his 10 years in the industry, Dave has worked with a wide range of clientele from high school athlete to senior populations. Prior to joining MedStar in 2021, Dave was the head trainer of a personal training studio where he created and oversaw programming for more than 130 clients.

Date

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

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