I often talk about muscular imbalances around the hip and pelvis in terms of factors which can cause overuse injuries in runners. Another common area where we see running injuries caused by muscular imbalances is around the shin, ankle and foot.
Issues with range of motion (either too much or too little) around the foot and ankle complex are of course important to identify. For example when it comes to ankle dorsiflexion. Dugan & Bhat (2005) observed that runners need ~20 degrees of ankle dorsiflexion to progress through mid-stance of running gait. It’s equally important however to identify areas of strength imbalances and weakness around the ankle.
While many typically ‘tight’ runners (myself included) need to constantly work on maintaining and improving range of motion at the ankle – in my experience there are so many runners who need to in fact work on simply controlling and becoming stronger in the range of motion they already have. This calls for more strengthening rather than more stretching!
I often find that runners who have a history of Tibialis Posterior injury, Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (Shin Splints) and Plantar Fasciitis display significant imbalances in terms of muscle strength (particularly strength endurance) around the ankle and lower leg.
Example: Heel Walk Drill
A common example of such an imbalance is relative weakness and poor strength endurance in Tibialis Anterior, the meaty muscle in the front of your shin. While Tib.Ant. is important in actively dorsiflexing the ankle, it also has a role to play in controlling pronation as the foot loads on the ground. Weakness in Tib.Ant. can contribute to overuse injuries elsewhere in the ankle and shin region.
Here’s a simple drill I use with runners to first screen for Tibialis Anterior weakness, then if needed as means of developing Tib.Ant. strength.
In addition to strengthening Tibialis Anterior, and other muscles of the anterior shin compartment – in some cases I also find that through the antagonistic relationship with the plantar flexors, developing this anterior strength helps to encourage chronic posterior tightness to release. This is a helpful side-effect of runners needing to improve dorsiflexion.
Important: Some runners, such as those who suffer with Anterior Compartment Syndrome will need to avoid this exercise, as it will only go to exacerbate their imbalance. This simply highlights the need for each runner to be assessed 1:1 by a run specialist therapist.