By Lynne Fugard
There are many reasons why yoga can enhance your run training, perhaps most obviously by opening, strengthening and releasing all those muscles that take the brunt of pounding the streets day after day. However, a quick look at the anatomy and functioning of the humble foot provides a fascinating insight into just how transformational a regular yoga practice can be for preventing and rehabbing injury, cultivating greater range and control of motion, safe postural alignment, and an efficient, interconnected use of muscles when running.
When running, every stride and every chain of movement starts with the feet. The function of our feet and ankles is to provide mobility, stability and maintain balance whilst supporting and transmitting the full weight of the body on a variety of inconsistent, uneven and sloping terrains. The foot is accordingly made up of a complex, integrated mosaic of 28 small bones, muscles, tendons, and connective tissues so that it can adapt to changing surfaces and yet maintain its robust architecture. Today though, we rarely realize the foot’s full anatomical potential due to the predominance of artificially flat, smooth walking surfaces, and the custom of wearing thick-soled, high-heeled and constrictive shoes. As a result, the four thick layers of muscle on the sole of the foot are in most cases atrophied, reducing the range of movement and control available to the joints, particularly the toes. The foot is less stable, and less able to propel itself forward dynamically and efficiently when walking and running. Significantly, as every step begins with a complicated movement of the foot itself, any misalignments or limitations in the feet have inevitable consequences further up the body. These can include imbalances, weaknesses and restriction in muscles that over time, and with repetition, become the most common chronic injuries associated with running: runner’s knee, achilles tendonitis, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, as well as hamstring and IT band problems, and even lower back pain.
Yoga can help to reverse such environmental impediments to healthy functioning, most particularly because the practice is carried out with bare feet. Emphasis is placed on splaying the toes wide, grounding each digit individually into the mat, widening the four corners of the feet, developing the arches, and therefore awakening and strengthening the layers of muscles there. Often, we balance on one leg, strengthening the muscles in the feet and ankles, improving balance and control.Sometimes we rise on to tiptoes, and sometimes the toes are flexed and stretched by tucking them under or pointing them long. The foot as a result becomes stronger, more stable, more easily articulated and controlled, as well as better able to propel itself forward and upwards in walking, running and jumping.
For example, there are three arches in each foot that work to spread the load of the body weight away from the heel, generating architectural support on different surfaces and a propulsive spring in the step. When the medial arch is excessively high, the foot supinates (rolls on to the outside edge) out of alignment, resulting in imbalances, tightness and weakness in the muscles of the lower leg. If, on the other hand, the medial arch is collapsed in what is called “flat feet,” the foot will pronate (roll in). Such habitual pronation prevents the spread of body weight throughout the foot, and has therefore been linked with runner’s knee and plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the feet that is common in runners. Unlike many other forms of exercise, a fully integrated yoga practice specifically enhances the full range of motion available to the feet – supination, pronation, pointing and flexing – therefore counterposing any habitual imbalances that inevitably affect the architecture of the anatomy further up the body that might cause chronic injuries or inefficiency in movement.
In our Yoga for Runners workshop on Saturday 28 April, we will be exploring the potential of yoga to supplement and enhance your training: not only by addressing any weakness or tightness in the obvious running muscles, but also playing with exercises and sequences to become better acquainted with the peculiarities and tendencies of our own feet, awakening their full potential to run faster, increase endurance, prevent injury and aid recovery.