Biomechanics is a topic often overlooked by athletes. I think it’s important for athletes to have a basic understanding of how everything fits together. I hope you’ll take a few minutes are read this article.
Many athletes who have participated in extreme sports have learned firsthand how one minor problem can be magnified over time and eventually have major consequences. Typically this happens when a blister affects the gait, a backpack’s weight throws off balance and stance or stressed or weakened muscles cause an imbalance in the body’s mechanics. Every athlete has different strengths and weaknesses, different degrees of flexibility, and different muscle skills and body types. These factors affect the way we walk, run, and move. Add on a fanny pack or backpack, or put a flashlight in one hand and a water bottle in the other hand, and your biomechanics change. Each time your foot lands, it absorbs about two-and-a-half times your body weight. For every mile you travel, your feet hit the ground around 800 times each.
The Importance of Alignment
You all know the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone, and the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone. True, correct alignment of all those bones at the joints keeps you moving relatively pain-free now and prevents many degenerative changes down the road. Total body alignment is essential to the success of any athletic activity.
Even more important to the healthy functioning of the feet and their ability to carry you through life is the spine—the very specific focus of chiropractors. The spinal cord carries sensory and motor information from your feet (and everywhere else for that matter) to your brain and back again. If one of your vertebral bones is even slightly misaligned or fixated, it can affect the communication lines and your feet and brain can be broadcasting misinformation. The joints of your feet and particularly your ankles contain nerves called proprioceptors that send messages about the changes in terrain that you are walking, standing, or running on. The brain then interprets and makes the miniscule changes in every joint in your body, from the tilt of your skull to the tuck of your tailbone, to keep you upright.
Chiropractors come in many styles. I recommend one who specializes in sports chiropractic and who adjusts extremities as well as the spine. Those chiropractors are certified in orthopedics and can design a rehab program of strengthening and stretching. Always get referrals from other runners and make sure the chiropractor is a good fit for you.
Biomechanics is the study of the mechanics of a living body, especially the forces exerted by muscles and gravity on the skeletal structure. The foot, which includes everything below the ankle, is a complicated but amazing engineering marvel. With an intricate biomechanical composition of 26 bones each, together the foot bones account for almost one-quarter the total number of bones in the entire body. Thirty-three joints make each foot flexible. About 20 muscles manage control of the foot’s movements. Tendons stretch like rubber bands between the bones and muscles so that when a muscle contracts, the tendon pulls the bone. Each foot contains 109 ligaments that connect bone to bone and cartilage to bone and hold the whole structure together. Nerve endings make the feet sensitive. With each step you walk or run, your feet are subjected to a force of two to three times your bodyweight, which makes the feet prone to injury.
The big toe, commonly called the great toe, helps to maintain balance while the little toes function like a springboard. The three inner metatarsal bones provide rigid support while the two outer metatarsal bones, one on each side of the foot, move to adapt to uneven surfaces.
Your feet are each supported by three arches. The transverse arch runs from side-to-side just back from the ball of the foot. This is the major weight-bearing arch of the foot. The medial longitudinal arch runs the length of the instep, flattening while standing or running, giving spring to the gait, and shortening when you sit or lie down. The lateral longitudinal arch runs on the outside of the foot. Both longitudinal arches function in absorbing shock loads and balancing the body. These three arches of the foot are referred to singularly as the foot’s arch.
Our feet have four ranges of motion. Upward motion is called dorsiflexion and downward is plantar flexion. Inward motion is known as inversion while outward motion is eversion.
With a basic understanding of the foot’s construction, it becomes increasingly important to be aware of how we affect our body’s biomechanics. At some point in training for an event, we need to try to mimic the event itself. Wear the same shoes and socks that you plan on wearing during the event. Wear the same clothes. Carry the same weight in a fanny pack or backpack. Even get out in the same weather. Although we may not realize it, these factors can change our stride, work different muscles, and put pressure on different body parts—including the feet.
Your best bet is to maintain good form by thinking smart and training wisely, whatever the discipline. Make sure your shoes are not worn down—replace them before they lose their support and cushion. Wear good insoles to balance the foot and provide good heel and arch support and alignment. Strengthen the ankles and knees with specific exercises. Do upper body exercises to strengthen your abs, back, and shoulders for carrying your pack. Work your arms so they can help maintain balance and proper form. Learn how to tape a sprained ankle or turned knee. Condition yourself in incremental stages without huge jumps in mileage or extremes. Train with the gear you will use in an actual race—building up to appropriate weights rather than carrying everything all at once. Use hiking poles for support and to help the knees. Learn your body’s weak links and find exercises to strengthen those muscles and joints.
Every one of us, at one time or another, can fall victim to biomechanical problems as we race to extremes. Train smart and race smart, and you can stay healthy, starting with your feet.