Whips are pretty amazing devices. <I’ll pause for a moment.> Now that you’ve checked the URL and you realize you really are at a running blog, and not some internet equivalent of a dark alley, I’ll carry on. Why do I think whips are amazing devices? Because with a relatively easy and short movement of the hand and arm one can cause a piece of material to break the sound barrier. Think about it: A movement that doesn’t take much strength causes a piece of material to travel faster than 770mph. In fact, even a mildly fit person can break that sound barrier over and over again with an insignificant amount of fatigue.
Let’s say someone was cracking a whip and you were given the task of stopping that cracking sound. It was driving people crazy and you needed it to stop. What options exist to stop the cracking? I can think of three:
- Convince the person to stop using the whip. Use your powers of persuasion to convince them they should no longer crack the whip.
- Physically grab their arm/hand. Stop them from initiating the movement which results in the crack.
- Grab the tip of the whip right before it breaks the sound barrier.
Number 1 is probably the easiest – if you’re adept with persuasion. Number 3 is, undoubtedly, the hardest.
Now let’s look at the leg. Take a conceptual step back and notice that it’s tapered. The top of the leg (the hip) has large muscles. (In fact – gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body.) The leg gets progressively narrower as it gets closer to the foot. Ultimately at the ankle and into the foot itself there are very small muscles.
Over and over and over again in the forums I see people trying to pull off a magic trick with their feet: control foot movement at the foot – which is at the end of the whip. They’re trying strategy #3 above: Grab the tip before it breaks the sound barrier. “Should I get a stability shoe instead of a neutral shoe?” “My over the counter insoles didn’t work. I guess I need to get custom orthotics.” “Asics aren’t doing it for me any more. Maybe Mizuno will solve my Achilles problem.” They’re trying to decide if they should grab the whip tip with their right or left hand. Maybe if they held a flashlight they could see the tip better and increase the chances of grabbing it. Maybe if they stretched their arms or lifted weights they’d have better reflexes and increase the chances they could grab the tip. They’re trying to optimize a set of choices that, as a group, are really bad choices. They may be right in their desire to get better foot control. The problem is that they’re focusing on the wrong area to accomplish their goal.
The way to have the foot better controlled is to prevent the energy wave from being sent down the leg in the first place. The way to accomplish that is to have hips that are both strong and that can be well controlled by the nervous system. Strong hips provide a very stable base for the thigh. When the hip isn’t able to provide a stable foundation a nasty chain reaction can occur: The thigh (femur) isn’t held in place well, which can enable the knee to bend inward toward the midline of the body, which will then cause the lower leg to move toward the midline of the body as well. This in turn can cause the foot to pronate excessively, which then puts incredible forces on the ankle and internal mechanisms in the foot itself. The only option left, at the end of the chain, is for those poor little foot and ankle muscles to work overtime and attempt to provide a stable base for the body – trying to deal with the fact everything above it is causing it to get whipped around. What are the chances those foot muscles can compensate and do the work of those relatively huge muscles above? REALLY LOW!
You can do a few things to help improve both strength and control in your hips:
- Get up out of a chair using one leg. Practice “sticking” the landing – getting up to standing and being very stable.
- Balance on one leg. When proficient at that – close your eyes.
I covered strategy #2 (control the movement at the thick part of the whip) and #3 (attempt to control the tip before it cracks) above in this leg/whip analogy. To complete the sequence – how does strategy #1 (convince the whip cracker to stop whipping) translate to leg movement? Well – to my mind that’s the equivalent of not running at all – stopping motion altogether. To us runners – we know that just simply is not an option.