| Article written on August 21st, 2016 at 10:12am | Follow Garrett on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram |
The lower leg is an overlooked area when it comes to self-treatment and strength/power development. That is why many people suffer from shin splits, calf strains, achilles tendonitis, and general aches and pains.
In the following article, I will show you various ways to improve the function and resilience of the lower leg. It’s important to implement strategies that offset poor footwear, increasing running mileage, or simply trying to improve performance. As always, looking elsewhere for dysfunction that could contribute to lower leg pain is important. But, we will keep it simple with this focused approach.
Self-myofascial release (SMR) has been a popular strategy to reduce tone and tension throughout the body. While incorporating foam rolling, trigger point release, and other related strategies, we are down-regulating the nervous system’s sympathetic control on a tissue. This can lead to more relaxation, improved flexibility, a reduction in soft-tissue pain, and quicker recovery between training bouts.
The lower leg in particular holds tons tension and stiffness. But, the problem is we usually target the calf (gastrocnemius/soleus) when it comes to SMR and not other important areas. The “other” areas that deserve just as much attention are the anterior tibilialis, and peroneals. These muscles create motion at the ankle and are very active to provide stability during single leg stance. That means they are essential for running, gait, and everyday movements.
Watch the video here to learn how to perform self-myofascial release on the anterior tibialis and peroneals…
Increasing the strength of a muscle will also raise its threshold to failure. This is usually a reason why those who incorporate strength training are less likely to be injured. But, where do we begin with the lower leg?
Calf raises are a known and well-used strengthening exercise for the gastrocnemius, and soleus muscles. These muscles provide much of the propulsion during push-off with the help of the great toe and hip. Although this area is still important to strengthen, I think most people would see tremendous results in also targeting the anterior tibialis.
Hopefully by now you have already watched the self-myofascial release video that showed the location of the anterior tibialis. It is essentially the big muscle on the front/lateral side of the lower leg. Its importance in running and gait comes from the muscle’s action to pull the foot up towards the front of the body. This is essential during movement so the toes can clear the ground during the swing phase. Quickly ramping up mileage, having limited mobility elsewhere, or a collapsing arch can cause this muscle to overwork, often leading to stiffness and/or pain.
Watch the video here to learn how to strengthen the muscles surrounding the lower leg…
Stability and balance are other characteristics that make the lower leg such a vital area to human movement. Not only do these muscles need to be strong and resistance to fatigue, they must fire in anticipation and reaction to movement. This is where I usually see people missing the boat… Just because a muscle is strong, doesn’t mean it will stabilize properly. They are two different characteristics that require different strategies.
Stability and balance can be best trained in split or single leg stance. In these positions, the surrounding musculature must fire to maintain control via the toes and ankle. This is important during movement, and running in particular, as the body needs to stabilize from the ground up to maintain proper alignment. Loss of stability has been known to increase the stress through the medial longitudinal arch, and knee.
And, the true beauty is that stability is really a team approach. The muscles respond with constant communication from the nervous system to either change or maintain joint position. That is why incorporating stability and balance training in addition to your strengthening routine will pay dividends.
Watch the video below to learn how to improve lower leg stability and balance…
The last strategy that will really put you in a better place to prevent injury and improve performance is power training. Because there are thousands, upon thousands, of push-offs happening throughout the day (especially during running), raising the muscle’s capability to produce force can be worthwhile. After improving soft-tissue quality, strength, and stability, we still need a certain degree of stiffness throughout the calf to create elasticity and also withstand the high rigors of training.
Power is actually one of the characteristics we lose earliest in life. With runners placing so much emphasis on strength and endurance, not taking into consideration power can be a decrement to performance. The great part is it doesn’t have to be fancy. In the following video, I demonstrate one of the most effective power movements that can be done with no equipment and as part of your dynamic warm-up. Completing a series of bounds, hops, and skips are also recommended to positively train the tissue as you increase mileage.
Watch the video below to learn how to increase power output and resiliency of the calf…
So there you have it! If you have suffered from lower leg pain and injury in the past, these strategies may be your saving grace in prevention moving forward. Remember, it’s always easier to put the work in on the front end which will allow you to function at a higher level and without the incidence of pain.
As I mentioned above, looking at the body as a whole is the best way to reduce the likelihood of injury. But, the above exercises and drills are a great starting point to ensure proper function of the lower leg. The key point to take away is that it’s about more than just strength. We must also take into consideration the quality of the tissue, stability, and power. That is why a well-rounded functional training program is the best injury prevention tool.
By: Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC, CSCS, ART