Foot Strike: The most obvious but most overlooked component of training young athletes.
About eight years ago, one of my high school high jumpers, Danielle, came running down to me at a track meet to tell me the news. As the coach of the long, triple and high jumps I was making the rounds at a meet trying to miss as few competitive attempts as possible, in a facility that spread the jump areas out. Needless to say, I missed her high jumps attempts. She was about to fill me in.
Between spurts of laughter, Danielle, whose athleticism is best described as “she is a really nice girl”, managed to tell me that during her approach she fell, crashed into the standard, caused a ruckus but rather enjoyed the experience. She then bounded off. Momentarily, I was relieved to have missed it. Days later I scrounged up the video to see what I expected. Poor foot placement in the latter steps of the approach and some other factors caused the wipeout.
Her problem was caused by the same part of athleticism that also led to many of the great performances that day: the” foot strike.” “Foot strike,” refers to the foot contacting the ground while running. That instant is vital to the success or failure of nearly every sporting endeavor, yet it is rarely emphasized, coached, taught or even discussed. It definitely should be. Since then, the other co-head coach of the track team and I have focused many hours upon this very topic. Here are some things to think about:
When an athlete is running a race, coming off a hurdle, making a cut in football, shuffling laterally in basketball or planting to kick a soccer ball, think of how vital the “foot strike” is. Upon contact with the ground, the foot immediately provides feedback to the brain. Think about a time, where you may have “half rolled” your ankle. Not to the point where you go down with swelling and an injury but something that scares you, sends a jolt of adrenaline through the body, hurts a little immediately but is walked off with no immediate, or long-term, injury.
In that scenario, the foot landed, for example, on an uneven surface, struggled to stabilize the body and began to roll. In a tiny fraction of a second, (researchers say at a speed of between 200-300 mph) an impulse travels from the foot to the brain (the feedback) indicating a problem. The brain sends an impulse back to the foot activating muscles that can help stop the roll. In extreme conditions, the roll cannot be prevented and a significant injury occurs. The ability of the foot, in this description, to provide that feedback and work in conjunction with the brain to fix the problem is an example of a Proprioception.
Feedback from the foot to the brain occurs in other familiar instances. Stubbing the toe, walking barefoot on a hot sidewalk, or even stepping on a rock with those same bare feet all elicit fast and strong feedback to solve the problem. The same results occur when touching a hot surface with your hand, a lightning quick, involuntary response.
We have coached high school and middle school athletes for two decades. The bulk of those early years were spent keeping one nostril above water while trying desperately to help our athletes get better. The second decade saw a “relative” calm set in where the answers to questions and responses to crises are pulled from experience and given with greater confidence. Over those years we have sought and earned numerous certifications and poked and prodded the “old guard” for secrets. Now that our whiskers are turning grey and the “old guard” has retired, we realized we are the “old guard” now and when you train athletes to hurdle, pole vault or triple jump you want them to be as protected as possible with great proprioceptive abilities. These undoubtedly will help every athlete in every sport.
The first package of exercises we use with our teams to sharpen the proprioceptive abilities of the feet while strengthening the muscles of the feet and lower leg has made a big difference in preventing injuries to the lower extremities. It is called the Leg Matrix.
The Leg Matrix is comprised of three differing exercises. The first is called the “hop and hold”. The athlete stands on one foot, preferably barefoot if the surface allows. On command, a whistle or their own count, the athlete then takes a small 6-12″ hop landing on the same one foot and forcing it to do the stabilizing work of both feet. The key is to hold each hop for 0:03 seconds before initiating the next. The athlete makes 5 forward hops, then 5 to the right, 5 to the left and 5 backward, sticking each landing and holding it for 0:03 sec.
The process causes the small muscle groups of the foot and shin to activate and go into over-drive. Those muscles are commonly weakened and left out of the party by the modern stability shoes and thick padded soles that do much of that work and potentially dulling the proprioceptive responses described earlier. The athlete will feel an intense burning sensation in the shin and foot. We call this “proof of progress”. This exercise has been vital, along with stretching, rolling and icing, in preventing and minimizing the number of shin related injuries that run the gamut from stress fractures to shin-splints.
The second exercise in the Leg Matrix is “Toe Crawls”. On a comfortable surface, in socks or barefoot, the athletes should literally pull themselves forward with their toes, one foot at a time. The progress is slow but the workout is good for the muscles of the feet. 1-2 sets of 10 per foot.
Finally, we have the athletes do some movements on Airex pads. The Airex ads are blue, foam squares that we use for single leg proprioceptive drills. The pads can be bought with, or without, a black traction pad on the bottom. We suggest getting the traction pads. We use them in our schools wrestling room where the combination of wrestling mats and Airex pads without the traction backing are a very slippery combination and cause a lot of comic relief when athletes bite the dust but it isn’t worth the risk of injury.
On the Airex pads we have them balance on the one barefoot while reaching down with one hand to touch the floor in front of them. They are to do 2 sets of 10 of these with each foot. The other exercise on the Airex pads is a Single Leg Half Squat. The free leg is used only when needed to prevent loss of balance. We ask for 2 sets of 10 of these as well.
The second exercise package is called the Lunge Matrix. We created this based on something we learned from Todd Wright, the Strength and Conditioning Coach from the University of Texas Basketball Program. Coach Wright spoke at the Functional Training Summit sponsored by Perform Better on a core training system he called the Vertical Core. We modified that in several ways to allow for the training age, and attention spans of our younger athletes.
The Lunge Matrix we created is based on an athlete standing in the middle of an imaginary clock. One foot remains anchored in the middle while the other foot and leg execute 12 differing lunges. Imagine anchoring the left foot and then stepping into a lunge with the right foot at each “number” on the clock. For example, lunge to one o’clock, then, lunge to two o’clock, etc. It gets trickier at three and nine o’ clock. We allow the athlete to do a crossover lunge either in front of, or behind, the anchored leg. When the active, lunging leg finishes one trip around the clock it then becomes the anchored foot while the other leg travels around the clock.
The Lunge Matrix is best done barefoot on a comfortable surface. We have all athletes start at one Lunge Matrix per leg, moving up to two after a month. As a training progression, we add a medicine ball. On all forward (10:00-2:00)or lateral lunges (3:00 & 9:00) the athlete holds the med ball at arm’s length straight in front of her chest, and while in the lunge, rotates her torso moving the ball to the right and then left before coming out of the lunge.
The backward lunges (4:00-8:00) are done with the med ball held at arm’s length overhead. While in the lunge, the athlete is to do an oblique crunch in each direction before stepping out of the lunge. Be sure to instruct your athletes to do an oblique crunch, which will cause the ball to move, NOT just moving the ball from left to right with their arms.
The Leg Matrix and Lunge Matrix are now staples in our supplemental programs. We have our athletes do each 2-3 times per week. We have implemented the “Hop and Hold” and Lunge Matrix in our middle school P.E. classes as well. These matrices will assist the middle school student in their development and give athletes coming into our high school program a head start on the techniques and training benefits of those exercises.
The matrices do not erase all issues but they have played a big role in helping our athletes stay healthy and improve performances across the board, especially in the events calling for a one foot landing with full body weight (hurdles or triple jump, some landings in volleyball. basketball, soccer or baseball where the feet do not lad simultaneously). They have also helped create a safer working environment for all high jump standards in our area.
Tom Gose – Certified Youth Fitness Specialist level 1, IYCA High School Strength Coach, USATF Level 2 Certification Hurdles, Jumps, Sprints and Multi-Events.
Jim Wilder – Certified in Functional Movement Screening, Youth Fitness Specialist level 1, IYCA Nutrition Specialist, USATF Level 1
Coach Gose and Coach Wilder have been Co-Head Coaches of the Lindbergh High School Girls Track Program for eleven years. In that time their teams have won ten District Team Championships and numerous Conference and Sectional team titles while coaching State Champions in individual and relay events. The Cross Country program they have led together for five seasons and have seen their ladies win three Conference, Two District and one Sectional Championship while having teams place in the State Top Ten for Four consecutive seasons.
They highly recommend the Functional Training Summits sponsored by Perform Better as a great way to improve one’s ability to help young athletes.