We tend to think of our calf muscles as being used for pushing off with our feet. But is that all they do? What, if anything, do they have to do with landing during the running cycle? As your foot hits the ground and your body advances over the planted foot, your calf will serve to put the breaks on your lower leg, essentially allowing for some knee flexion. Too much or too little can be problematic.
This brings us to Nicole. She has been a team sport athlete and will be competing in cross country for the first time in the fall. She is not new to running in the context of team sports, which is more sprinting and changing directions. She is however new to the distance running, and her stride has adapting to do. When we met, she had no complaints of pain, so hopefully our time together keeps any aches and pains away!
Two things jump out from her initial running. First, she has extra upper body rotation. This can be seen by her arms swinging across her midline. She isn’t too bad with this, but there is a slight asymmetry as well, with her left arm swinging further across than her right.
Secondly in watching her knees, they don’t bend quite enough. What should be seen is a comfortable loading, much like loading a spring so she can push-off efficiently. Instead, her knees remain slightly stiff which is an indicator that her calves are not allowing for this. Restricted ankle mobility can also be a contributor.
Here’s an assessment for how her upper body, hips, and ankles are moving. It’s subtle, but notice how her feet move as she rotates.
As she rotates to the left, her foot moves more than her right foot moves when rotating to the right. This indicates a restriction somewhere in that pattern of movement. This could certainly lead to other issues in the future!
So, what to do about it. First, we stretched her calves, not only straight forward, but also with a rotational emphasis. This is a great stretch for all runners!
Next, we practiced loading her knees and calves. Having her arms to the opposite side causes the calves to work harder since her gluts are disadvantaged in this position. This also helps bias her upper body to be more comfortable rotated to the left. She also performed single leg squats with the other leg.
Next, a simple run, but with her arms reaching down and forward. This also places more load on her calves during the landing phase, which will translate to greater ease during normal running.
She also ran with her arms to the left, again to bring better symmetry through her hips and upper body.
And what session would be complete without some form of hip stretching!
After all this, here’s the new and improved Nicole!
Notice her landing looks more graceful, because her calves are allowing the knees to come forward slightly more. Even a slight change in this area makes a huge difference to how well she is able to push-off and use her hips for stability. There is still more rotation than desired of the upper body, but this should improve as she gets stronger and uses her body more efficiently. Great job Nicole!