What if I told you that runners don't always know how to use their feet?
Crazy, I know.
But our bodies do amazing, sometimes just plain weird, things.
Like not knowing how to use our feet correctly.
I've seen it in the clinic time and time again and more often then not, runners guilty of falling into one of two categories: completely overusing their feet or totally underusing their feet.
But, Dr. Whitt, why does this happen? What does it look like? And how can you even tell??
Whoa now, you're already one step ahead of me!
Let's break your questions down step by step.
By the end of this blog, I want you to have an idea of how this happens, why it happens, and a way to test and see if this might be you.
Let's dive in.
Why do runners end up either completely overusing their feet or totally underusing their feet?
There's not just ONE answer.
It starts with the big picture. A big picture that's made up of many different details.
Every runner is different. We all learned how to move as infants but we all grew up differently and played differently as children.
Why does that even matter, Dr. Whitt?
Because our feet are our connection to the earth beneath us. Our feet have to adapt to the ever-changing environments to keep us upright. We first began to learn this quickly (or not so quickly) as babies, growing into toddlers. Our little feet first had to learn to how navigate a carpeted floor and other indoor surfaces. Then, once we were old enough, we quickly realized the outside world was not as soft as carpet. Sure, grass is soft, but pebbles, concrete, mulch…those aren't so nice on bare feet.
Want a more current day and adult example?
One day your walking barefoot along the sandy and sometimes pebbly beaches of Lake Michigan. The next day you walking around in Florsheim's or Louboutin's in bustling, urban downtown Detroit. Can you picture how different these environments are? Your feet go from adapting to unsteady, shifting surfaces to being cramped in skinny shoes where they impact the hard concrete over and over again.
Either scenario, you're walking. You're staying upright.
All thanks to the adaptability of your feet.
But if my feet adapt this easily, how do I end up overusing or underusing them?
This happens as a response. Your feet could be responding to a previous injury which results in a foot or both feet just staying "off" long after it's healed. Or, your body has gotten clever and decided that in order to save energy and effort, it's found a way to take the path of least resistance resulting in your feet doing more work than they need to.
All of that is just to say, it depends. It's never a clear cut answer.
The good news: your feet are adaptable. And constantly responding to stimuli and the changing environment. Which means, with the right stimuli and environment, we can get your feet to switch back "on".
How do my feet switch "off" causing me to "underuse" my feet?
Like I mentioned before, any type of foot or ankle injury can result in the foot "switching off" for a time while the foot heals. It does this partially out of safety, but also due to any damage that's been accrued.
This is especially true for ankle sprains.
There is more and more research coming out demonstrating how ankle sprains (specifically lateral ankle sprains) can result in downregulation of the glute medius. All of that fancy wording to say, there is decreased activation (or use) of one of your glute muscles because something down the chain, your ankle, got hurt.
Sounds crazy at first, until we look at how our body works together.
Our hips and glutes are the source of stability and power for our legs. Our ankles and feet are the source of information to the rest of our legs and our brain as to what is going on in our environment. These two big players, our glutes and our ankles, co-exist together. They give and take information constantly so you can stay upright, walk, and run! To truly have strong feet and ankles, you also need activated and strong glutes.
How do my feet get "overused"?
This one is a little easier to understand because as runners, we spend a lot of time on our feet.
And we've already talked a lot about how much information our feet pass on to the rest of our body and who much our feet adapt to our ever-changing environment.
Runners can end up over-using their feet because the body will sometimes take the path of the least resistance, meaning, if your feet, ankles, and calves are already doing such a good job holding you upright, the rest of the muscles in the back of your body (your posterior chain), are going to go on a little vacation. If they don't need to do their job because somebody else will do it, then they're off the clock.
Remember what we talk about a lot: compensations lead to injury.
This is definitely one of those compensations that can be the reason for foot stress fractures and other foot overuse injuries. The feet just might be doing too darn much.
How do I test myself and find out if this might be me?
Well, bad news is, I haven't figured out a way for you to test yourself.
Good news is, all you need is your running buddy!
It's actually super simple. There are 2 tests.
Test #1: Stand up with both arms straight overhead. Having your running buddy try to pull one arm down at a time. Resist them; don't let them win!
Test #2: Now, kneel on both knees with your toes flat on the ground. Put both arms straight overhead again. Have your running buddy do the same thing as before: try to pull one arm down at a time. Don't let them win here!
Now let's talk results of these 2 tests. (Bear in mind, these are NOT foolproof tests in isolation. It takes a full physical therapy evaluation to get the whole story your body is trying to tell.)
What overusing your feet might look like:
You might be overusing your feet if you were able to "win" at Test #1 and your running buddy could not pull your arms down. But with Test #2, you almost fell on your face because when they pulled your arm, you couldn't stay upright!
What underusing your feet might look like:
You might be underusing your feet if you were NOT able to "win" at Test #1. When your running buddy pulled one arm while you were standing, you found yourself coming into your tip toes to keep from falling. But with Test #2, you were rock solid.
Now I realize, neither of these results might be you.
This speaks to how different we all are as runners and how our unique our bodies move. It also points out the value of a physical therapy evaluation. A good physical therapist and a skilled evaluation teases out the whole story your body is trying to tell.
But by using this test, you can start to see, and feel, the importance of your feet and how dramatically they impact our running. After reading all this, are you interested in learning more? Because I have a workshop called The Blueprint for Runners to Stronger Feet you might be interested in! If so, go ahead and comment down below and I can put you on a VIP waiting list; you'll be the first to know when (and if) I bring it back!
In the meantime, running fit fam…
Marie Whitt //@dr.whitt.fit