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Like clockwork, every spring we hear the same complaint in our office:
"I had pain in my feet/ankles/toes after I ran. And then I ran the next day and they hurt more. I can't understand it, because I'm running exactly the same route I did as last year."
Each spring, every athlete is anxious to jump right back in where they left off. But we forget just how quickly our bodies get out of condition, especially as we age.
Your body has de-conditioned over the winter months (assuming you're not working out regularly at the gym). Ligaments, muscles, bones, and interconnective tissue have become much weaker from lack of use. When we demand the same from them as we did when we were in peak condition at the end of last season, the disconnect between desire, endurance and strength becomes obvious. The result is soreness, stiffness, tendonitis, sprains, fractures or worse, which could sideline us for months.
Whenever we have a significant break from our training schedule, even a few weeks, it's important to build back up slowly to pre-break levels. This is especially true when we lay off all winter, or when we're recovering from an injury or an illness.
In fact, your hard-earned fitness can begin decreasing in as little as 2 weeks, especially if you're in peak condition. According to Dr. Edward Coyle, the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, the maximum oxygen that an athlete can uptake and utilize (your endurance) plunges in the first month of inactivity and continues to decrease for the next 3 months of inactivity. Even the enzymes involved in metabolizing energy become less active. In fact, for the casual athlete, all the benefits derived from the previous season - the ability to uptake and utilize oxygen - may be completely lost when they lay off their routine for 4 months or more.
And after your endurance decreases, your muscle mass and strength also take a hit. Which is when you feel ankle pain or heel pain pushing that last mile.
The good news is, if you've been a runner or otherwise training for 10 years or more, you can maintain fitness longer than those who've been at it for less time. And highly trained athletes don't decline to the same levels as the casual athlete, even after a long layoff.
So how do you get back into condition?
Breaks are an important part of training, as they're important for your physical and mental health. They can also help you come back stronger and faster. Your best bet is to rest when injured or ill and do some cross-training in the gym during your downtime to maintain strength and endurance. That's a far better strategy than hurting yourself every spring.
If you've ever taken a yoga class, one thing was probably clear immediately: your feet and ankles weren't nearly as strong as you thought they were. In the U.S. and much of the world, we go about our daily business in shoes which protect our feet and our health. If we're athletes, we buy shoes which protect our feet from injuries and hopefully give us a little extra juice when we need it.
But on the downside, those shoes can prevent the muscles in our feet from getting the exercise they need. And as we age, it shows: bunions, hammer toes, aching arches, aching toes, poor balance, and a host of other maladies (some of these are inherited traits).
Strong feet and ankles are essential for anyone, and especially as we age, to maintain our balance. Running, biking, weight lifting and any athletic activity is great, but they tend to develop one side of the body more than the other, due to our natural left-hand, right-hand propensity. Yoga aims to create equal strength and also loosens the joints, helping them avoid injury and maintain flexibility.
One of the first lessons in yoga is how to stand. This may seem silly at first, but our feet are our foundation, and we quickly learn that we need to unlearn some bad habits. Over the years we lean into the sides of our feet, lean back on our heels, lean forward, or shift weight from sore areas. All of these habits change the way we walk and stand, throwing our legs and ankles out of alignment and placing stress on other parts of our body. The result is pain and stiffness anywhere between the toes and neck.
Try these simple yoga-based exercises to build strength in your ankles, feet and toes. Do all exercises barefoot on a flat surface. If you have medical problems with your feet or ankles, or are obese, consult your physician before attempting.
Learn To Evenly Distribute Your Weight
The strength of your feet - and especially your arches - determines if your leg is aligned with your ankle. Strengthening your arches starts with an awareness of how you stand.
Standing upright in bare feet, sense where your weight falls in your feet. Your feet are meant to carry your body weight evenly - not back on the heels or on the balls of your feet. Press down evenly through the heels, the balls, and your toes. You'll feel the difference in your balance immediately. While standing upright and evenly balanced, spread the soles and toes as much as you can and reach the toes forward.
Stretch and Strengthen Your Feet
One of the most common yoga poses, Downward-Facing Dog, stretches the soles of your feet and strengthens your arches. In this position, gently push your heels toward the floor as much as possible. Learn how to do it here.
To stretch the tops of your feet and strengthen your ankles, try Hero Pose (only do this if you have no knee problems). Kneel on the floor, keeping your thighs perpendicular to the floor and touch your inner knees together. Slide your feet apart, slightly wider than your hips, but keep the tops of your feet flat on the floor. Then sit down between your feet. If your buttocks don't rest comfortably on the floor, support them with a thick book placed between your feet. Now lift your sternum, sitting as upright as possible, and try to release your shoulder blades away from your ears. Hold for 1 minute.
Raising yourself on your toes is a simple and excellent way to strengthen your feet. While this may seem easy at first, try doing it very slowly. You'll be surprised at how much effort you'll expend.
Strengthen your toes
Stand with your feet so that they're directly under your hips. Try to lift just the big toe on each foot, while keeping the other toes on the floor. Then do the opposite: lift all the toes except the big toe. Switch back and forth. You'll find that one part of that exercise will be a lot easier than the other. That's because those who pronate (roll the foot inward when they walk) typically have a hard time lifting their big toes, and those who supinate (roll the foot outward) have a hard time lifting the other toes.
Leaning is Exercise
Leaning teaches us how to balance our weight across our feet. Those who shift their weight to their heels leave the front of their foot without much to do, and the foot weakens.
Stand with your feet a comfortable distance apart and put a soft bend in your knees. Lean forward at the ankle as if you were about to ski down a slope. Do not lean from the waist or hips - keep the lean in your ankles. This exercise wakes up the muscles in your toes and the soles of your feet.
If your feet feel tired after these exercises, that's good - it means that the muscles are being worked. If your feet are sore, that's not good - back off a little next time around.
[caption id="attachment_4812" align="alignleft" width="400"] UC Santa Barbara player Zalmico Harmon. Note how his right foot is flat on the court and his leg is bent outwards as he's pivoting. Your ankles and feet had better be in excellent condition to do that every day.[/caption]
Basketball demands a lot of your ankles and feet - they're subjected to sudden, explosive movements, quick turns, and a relentless pounding on a hard surface. If your lower extremities aren't in perfect condition, a lot can go wrong very quickly. The best way to avoid a missed game or worse, a lost season, is to keep your feet and ankles (and the rest of you) in peak condition. These exercises will work muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your toes, feet, and ankles which are often neglected, at the athlete's risk.
But before we get into that, we'd like to mention that a basketball player should use braces and tape as little as possible during training. They're very useful when recovering from an injury, but for training purposes, they'll work against you. If the muscles in your feet and ankles are immobilized and artificially supported by tape or other means, they don't get worked. And a muscle that doesn't get worked is a weak muscle.
Occasionally you should train in bare feet. We know this isn't a practical suggestion in a public space, but when you're working out solo at home, ditch the basketball shoes whenever possible. The foot is the base of the ankle - build it naturally, without restraint, for better balance, mobility, and strength.
While sitting, roll a tennis ball around with the bottom of your foot, applying light pressure. Work it under the arch, the toes, and your heel for 5 minutes on each foot.
When your feet flex upward toward your body, it's dorsiflexion, as when you land on the court after a jump. When the foot flexes down or away, it's plantar flexion, as when you make a jump, sprint, or cut. To condition your muscles to endure this full range of motion, perform a unilateral stretch:
Take the time to do the proper conditioning, and chances are you'll stay safe on the basketball court. If you experience any pain at all, take a break and get the advice of your trainer before continuing. Then follow up with a podiatrist who is expert in sports medicine for a full evaluation.