Reader Question: How can I stop ankle tightness when running?

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A reader on Quora asks: How can I stop ankle tightness when running? When I run my ankles get so tight or numb, not sure what the issue is but it makes me slap my feet on the ground. It prevents me from going long distance; any suggestions or ideas on how to fix this?  (Also, shoe suggestions/sizing.) 

 

I’m having trouble picturing what you mean; is it your achilles tendon (heel cord) that is tight, or is it the inside, or outside, of your ankle, or all around? The fact that you say they get numb is a bit concerning and makes me think that you should consult a medical expert. That could be a sign of something more serious, like a nerve impingement or a circulatory problem. As is often the case on Quora, there isn’t enough room for you to give all the details, such as how long you have been running, how much you run, how much you weigh, your previous injuries, your age and your gender. I also don’t know what kind of surface(s) you are running on, e.g. concrete sidewalks, technical/uneven off road trails, nice smooth soft dirt paths, slanted road shoulders; what other training or sports you participate in, or what kind of shoes your are running in. It could be as simple as you are trying to ramp up your mileage too fast and not allowing your ankles time to adapt. With so little to go on, there is no way to know unless you get it checked out; there are just too many variables to assess. 

They aren’t always easy to find, but your best bet would be to locate a physical therapist who is an expert in running biomechanics. In addition to a thorough medical history and an examination of the related musculoskeletal system, he or she will probably video record you from different angles running on a treadmill to look for clues (bring your running clothes and shoes to the appointment) and conduct a functional movement screen. With a good idea of any muscle imbalances in strength and flexibility (keep in mind it could be caused by an issue further up the kinetic chain, such as hip/glute weakness) and your running mechanics, the PT can design a plan to correct the problem, which will usually include exercises for strength and flexibility and potentially some other interventions.

If the PT does think it could be something other than a simple musculoskeletal issue they would refer you to a physician. Of course if you want peace of mind you could start with the physician and then go to a PT if you get an all clear. 

As far as footwear, research shows that different types of running shoes really don’t affect injury rates; that is, in studies where one group gets running shoes based on an assessment of their ‘pronation factor’ and another is assigned shoe type randomly, the injury rates are about the same. For years, running shoes have been classified as ‘stability’ ‘motion control’ or ‘neutral’, but with this newer information many shoe companies are moving away from those categories. 

What has been found to affect injury rate is the comfort and fit of the shoe to the person, which means you should go to a running shop and try on several models and run in them at the store (most now have a treadmill you can run on; many years ago the shop I worked in allowed you to run up and down the sidewalk). You will want about a “thumbnail’s width” of room between your longest toe and the end of the shoe, and the width should feel good – the shoe should be about the same width as your foot rather than your foot spilling over the sides or sliding right to left, and it should be snug but not overly tight in the heel. There are different ways to lace shoes to improve the fit, and you can ask the folks at the running shop about that. 

Another thing you will notice is that some shoes are easy to flex, others are quite stiff, and most are somewhere in-between. Also, some have a lot of cushioning, some a moderate amount, and some practically none. There are more running shoes on the market now than ever before, and it seems new shoe companies pop up every month. The variety is generally a good thing, but it can be overwhelming having so many choices. You will have to decide which feels the best by trying them, and again a running shop will take the time to help you narrow your choices. 

Once you have your new shoes, it is still possible that they won’t feel as good after a few miles of “real” running as they did on the treadmill in the store, so see if they have an exchange policy in case that happens. Give them a fair trial, but if you feel like they aren’t working for you then you’ll want to try something else. It is just kind of a trial and error system. Once you find the type of shoe that works for you it becomes much easier from then on to find the right shoes. 

One other thought; you didn’t say what kind of shoes you are running in now, but if you are using something like basketball or tennis shoes, that might explain some of the problem with the foot slapping you describe. Otherwise, I think the PT and a gait analysis will help figure out and fix the ‘hitch in your giddyup’. 

So, in summary it could be one or a combination of (1) a more serious medical issue, (2) doing too much,too soon, (3) weakness/tightness in the feet and/or ankles and/or lower leg muscles, (4) weakness/tightness further up the kinetic chain (quads, hamstrings, abductors, adductors, internal & external rotators, hips, glutes, “core” muscles, etc), (5) the surface/slant you run on, (6) improper footwear.

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part II – Jogger, Runner, Revelation

Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and other Celebs Jogging in Central Park in 1978. Photo credit unknown.
Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and other Celebs Jogging in Central Park in 1978. Photo credit unknown. 

 

In the last post [Part I – The Weird Kid], I discussed my early childhood quirks, weight issues, orthopedic shoes, lack of coordination, being picked last for every team, and my early awakening to the possibility of something better. In this post, I continue the story, including my embarrassing attempts to play big time basketball, designing my first workout sessions, my inauspicious entry into high school track, and a life changing revelation..

 

Bad Basketball

I formally began my health fitness journey in 1976 as an overweight 13 year old 7th grader. I was somewhat less physically awkward than I had been in grade school, thanks to physical education class (absent from the grade school curriculum), my discovery of softball, and by this time basketball. Regarding the latter, I learned to shoot pretty well, as long as no one was guarding me. In other words, I was an okay H.O.R.S.E. player on the hoop above the garage door. I would sometimes spend hours by myself just taking shots when I had no H.O.R.S.E. opponent, or my brother wasn’t beating me in a lopsided game of one-on-one.

We had a gravel driveway at the farm, so quite often the ball would ricochet off a rock and go careening down the big hill. My brother and I would nearly always fight over whose turn it was to run after the ball before it ended up a quarter mile away. I’m pretty sure this was not the way Michael Jordan’s basketball career began. I did learn to dribble the ball using the concrete floor in the garage or in the basement. As with shooting, I was pretty good as long as no one was guarding me. However, with the gravel driveway situation, I rarely was able to effectively practice coordinating my dribbling and shooting. I did try, and have the scars on my knees to show for it. 

In keeping with what would become a lifelong theme for me, I did not let my near total lack of skills keep me from trying out for the 7th grade team. The state religion of Kentucky is, after all, Southern Basketball, so I was convinced my life would only be complete if I could become a big star, win a high school state championship, and play for the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Or the Louisville Cardinals; I was conflicted about which team I liked best. Indiana was right out, though.

Not surprisingly, at tryouts when I got my turn to play one-on-one in front of the coaches, all I could do was turn my back on the other player and keep dribbling in a feeble attempt to back up towards the basket like I had seen real players do on TV. This would continue until the opponent either knocked the ball away, I dribbled off my foot, or the coach got frustrated and ended the drill. On my turn to play defense, the other player either was as bad as me and we had another dribbling stalemate, or he was much better and just dribbled past me to the basket. I appreciated the coaches’ ability to keep their eye-rolling to a minimum.

The next day, the head coach posted a list of the 30 or so players that had not yet been cut. Needless to say, my name was not on that list. At the time, I thought this was a great injustice; “they’re just going to cut me instead of teaching me to play basketball?” I remembered the feeling from grade school of not being picked at all for schoolyard games, only this time it was adults letting me know I wasn’t good enough. This being the first real sports team I had tried out for, I didn’t fully grasp that the purpose was to pick the best players and teach them how to win against other schools. This was serious business in Kentucky, a state which has only one boys’ and one girls’ state champion each year (the plot to Hoosiers occasionally plays out in Kentucky.) 

Given that nearly every boy in the class had tried out, and nearly all were cut, an intramural basketball league was formed, with some very nice teachers giving their own time to “coach”. Coaching in this context simply meant being sure every boy got a chance to play in each game, and with only three teams there were a lot of us on the bench. The games themselves were unorganized free-for-alls, but I got a couple of rebounds and shot the ball once or twice, despite my own teammates’ attempts to wrestle the ball away from me. These were low-scoring affairs, usually something like 10 – 8, but my team won the tournament and I received my first blue ribbon for something other than an art contest.

Part of my motivation for getting fit now involved making the basketball team, but I did not try out again until high school. The largest part of my fitness plan motivation remained to lose weight and improve my health. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t very gifted in terms of sports, and unlikely to actually make the basketball team. I briefly considered trying out for football, thinking my extra heft might be an advantage, but my mother refused to let me break my neck playing that foolish game. My father made only a faint hearted attempt to intervene. My parents had grown up during the Great Depression, so they had no time for something as frivolous as sports; if it didn’t put food on the table then what was the point? Ironically, they did later convert to the state religion and become college basketball fans, after my brother and I started regularly watching games on TV.

 

The Jogger

I was a bookworm, so once I decided I needed to get fit I absorbed everything I could find on the topics of diet and exercise. There was no internet in those days, so most of my information came from health and fitness articles in newspapers and magazines, books from the school library, and the occasional fitness segment on the local TV news. One great resource was a weekly newspaper column by an exercise science professor from the University of Louisville.

The first “running boom” was underway in America in the mid-1970s, which brought along a great deal of advice on how to be a “jogger” and all the benefits it would bring. So, naturally, I made jogging a part of my exercise program, with no thought yet of becoming a “runner”. Jogging was just part of a well-balanced routine. I learned that one was never to get out of breath while jogging, but rather one should go at a pace to be able to carry on a conversation. (This is still good advice, in regards to running for health and for ‘easy pace’ training runs.)

Jogging was such a craze that People Magazine ran a feature story on celebrity joggers, including the likes of country singer and actor Jerry Reed, 1945 Miss America Bess Myerson, Batman’s “Penguin”, Burgess Meredith, and even crusty old Senator Strom Thurmond, then age 75 (1). The cover featured 1970s power couple Farrah Fawcett and (Eastern Kentucky alum and Six Million Dollar Man ) Lee Majors in jaunty jogging togs (fig. 1). These celebrities spoke of  jogging as a means to look and feel better, and while the word ‘running’ was used interchangeably with ‘jogging’, the word ‘racing’ never appeared. This information will be useful to you later in my story.

 

Fig 1. Farrah and Lee People Magazine Cover, 1977
Fig 1. Farrah and Lee Looking Jaunty, People  Magazine, 1977

***

As an aside, let me clarify the actual difference between “jogging” and “running”. In the broadest sense, there is none. From a biomechanical standpoint, if you are ambulating on foot, you are either walking or running (or skipping, hopping, or galloping, which most of us don’t do often in adulthood). In walking, one foot remains in contact with the ground at all times, and at one point in the gate cycle both feet are in contact with the ground. When a race walker is disqualified, it is nearly always because he or she was seen multiple times with both feet off the ground at the same time, which is defined as running. The running gait cycle has a “flight” phase in which both feet are off the ground; also, unlike in walking, both feet are never in contact with the ground at the same time.

From a practical standpoint, the difference between jogging and running is in the eye of the beholder. Jogging and “easy paced running” for a given individual are probably conducted at the same pace. The difference, then, is merely one of intention; people that say they are joggers are usually doing it only for health fitness reasons, while people that say they are runners are doing it for something beyond health, usually to prepare for a race or to otherwise improve their running ability. This dichotomy was quite strong in the 1970s, but one very rarely hears people refer to themselves as joggers anymore. It is very well accepted today that if you run, even if you don’t race or run fast, you are a runner.

***

Dynamic Tension and The Exercise Plan

Part of what I had learned in my early study of exercise was the importance of strength training. In addition to the jogging craze, body building had entered the mainstream. Prodded by a comic book advertisement featuring a skinny dude getting sand kicked in his face by a bully (fig 2), I sent away for more information on the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension program (which is apparently still a thing). I found the description of the program seemed kind of silly, and not much in keeping with what I had been reading, so I put it aside. I did first take a good teasing from my Dad and my brother about my apparent Mr. Universe aspirations when they saw the envelope on which Atlas’s brawny 1950s Speedo-clad picture appeared. I was still primarily interested in what strength training could do for my health, my weight loss goal, and possibly my basketball abilities. If I happened to get all muscled up, that would be a bonus. (I wasn’t yet familiar with the difficulty and specificity of muscle hypertrophy training.) I bought a 110-pound plastic coated concrete weight set with a $20 gift certificate I had won in a K-Mart coloring contest (the solid bar from that set is still in my arsenal). My father had purchased several rough hewn wooden benches when a Ponderosa Steak House closed down, so one of those became my weight bench. With these tools and my exercise knowledge in hand, I set about designing my own workout program.

 

Fig 2. Charles Atlas wants to make a man out of you!
Fig 2. Charles Atlas wants to make a real man out of you!

 

I recently found some of the papers on which I had sketched out my program tucked away in a running memorabilia box. The list includes such items as “lift weights” (using the basic exercises described in a booklet that came with the weight set), “jog to the barn and back” (about one mile total, sometimes making multiple trips), “ride bike to end of road” (still amazed my Stingray and I didn’t get crushed on the one lane country road), and “do exercises”, by which I meant static stretching (I became quite a contortionist, a topic for another post), and some P.E. class style calisthenics. By high school I had added jumping rope, and became pretty good at doing cross-overs, single leg hops, and other tricks I had seen fellow Louisvillian Mohammed Ali doing on TV.

I dutifully recorded my weight on 3 x 5 cards and watched it go down a little at a time, which I had read was (quite correctly) the healthy way to do it. I also limited my dates with Little Debbie and her friends, and began seeing more of her neighbors, fruits and veggies. After a while I didn’t miss the sweet treats, but I did have one occasionally. I had read that moderation was the key to good diet, and an occasional indulgence is fine, which is as true today as it was then. And while I didn’t crave those snacks, I still liked them. With all the fad diets I have seen come and go and come again over the last 40 years, I realize that having learned this dietary wisdom early on prevented a lot of heartache and yo-yo dieting.

 

A Little More Bad Basketball

I had kept to my new healthy lifestyle through middle school, and continued playing lunch time softball and bad gravel driveway basketball. While I was fitter, I was still a bit chubby when I entered high school, and I had not specifically trained for basketball. I was about average in height for my age and had, probably, an 8-inch vertical leap at best (indicating very little fast twitch muscle fiber, I now know), so not exactly the raw tools for basketball stardom. But you know me; I went out for the basketball team anyway, having decided once again that the path to Nirvana passed through a high school championship, and then either the Kentucky Wildcats or Louisville Cardinals. My high school did win the state championship that year, and had a player win a scholarship to Kentucky, but of course I was not on the team. My freshman basketball team tryout went pretty much the same as 7th grade tryouts, with the exasperated coach calling time on my dribbling stalemate with another not very talented player. A student sitting in the nearby bleachers, there to volunteer as team manager in order to get a varsity jacket, no doubt, smirked, shook his head and asked me why I had even tried out. “Why are you just sitting there”, I replied as I walked away.

One thing was very different this time, however, for which I am grateful to the coach. At the end of the tryouts, after stating that most of us would not be moving forward in the process, he gave a pep talk reminding us that there was more to life than basketball (a heretical statement if ever one was uttered in the state of Kentucky). He told us that in just a few weeks time, there would also be baseball, golf, tennis, and track & field (and probably that we should study hard and become good citizens or something). He noted that, in particular, the track team usually allowed anyone that came to practice every day to stay on the team. He also indicated that many of the events didn’t require the types of skills one would need for basketball, a polite way of saying we uncoordinated kids could probably at least run without falling down too much.

 

The Runner

After the pep talk from the basketball coach, I gave up the hoop dreams and decided to join the school track team. I approached the first day of practice with great trepidation. I had never been on a real sports team before, and in my mind all coaches were mean Army drill sergeants that yelled and made you drop and give them twenty. It didn’t help that my brother was also on the team, and had been for a couple of years. He inherited any athletic skills that were to be had in our family, and I sensed he might not want his “tag along” little brother embarrassing him at practice. Whether that was true or not, it was in my mind, along with the idea that the other kids were going to think I didn’t belong on the team.

But that first day I put on my jock strap, my P.E. uniform, and my Sears The Winner™  jogging shoes (fig 3) and went nervously to the track. (Those were some really terrible, rock hard, stiff shoes, by the way, and helped me learn all about “shin splints”.) I had reasoned I was already jogging several miles per week, so I wasn’t completely out of my element. I also remembered having watched the ‘76 Olympics, and thinking that distance running thing didn’t look too hard. It surely didn’t require much agility or coordination, as the basketball coach had insinuated. In addition, as a kid with chubby thighs, I was amazed you could see the runners’ sinewy leg muscles. I decided I wanted legs like that, not like those of Charles Atlas. Of course I had no idea just how fast those runners were moving or how much training they did. I had been learning about exercise and jogging for health and fitness, not for competition.

 

Fig 3. Sears The Winner™ jogging shoes, circa 1977. Mine were a spiffy green and yellow.
Fig 3. Sears The Winner™ jogging shoes, circa 1977. Mine were a spiffy green and yellow.

 

Believe it or not, I briefly gave thought to throwing the shot that first day, using the same faulty logic as I did for middle school football; that my extra weight would be useful. After all, shot putters were really big, and most of them looked pretty fat. But once I saw the older guys throwing I knew that would be folly for me; I had neither the strength nor agility to do more than drop the shot on my foot. The coach was experienced and knew better anyway. He sized me up and did what coaches do with most kids with no signs of sprint speed or the agility needed for field events; he put me in the mile. I assume this was because the race was long enough for the non-sprinters to have a chance, while being short enough that the slow pokes wouldn’t hold up the track meet’s rolling schedule too much. After a couple of weeks of practice, with me falling behind on every training run, I was allowed to run the junior varsity mile in our first home meet. This was an over-crowded affair, with all the kids that had yet to quit their respective teams piled into one massive heat. I was nervous but ready, because I had read all that literature on jogging. The gun went off and … 

 

The Revelation

I finished last in every race that first season, and was actually lapped by most of the field  during each of these four lap events. It wasn’t until the end of the season that I realized I was supposed to run as fast as I could. As ridiculous as that sounds, I had read so many books and articles about proper “jogging for health”, I thought the guys running all out and getting out of breath were “doing it wrong”. I was still kind of a weird kid.

At a practice just before the last meet of the season, one of my sprinter friends asked me to run some of his 220 yard (half lap) repeat sprints with him. I doubt he thought I would be of much help with his pacing, but he had come to practice late and didn’t want to do his workout alone. I was nearly finished with my assigned workout, so I agreed. I still don’t know what triggered this response, but somehow when he took off I decided to stay right on his shoulder most of the way. I mentally locked on to him and let him “pull” me around the curve and down the home stretch. I did a few of the sprints with him and managed to run them all just a few seconds behind him, and this was a sprinter. Not that he was running all out, but still, a sprinter! This was the first time since that relay race in grade school, the one in which I was shed of the orthopedic shoes, that I understood what it was to run as fast as I could. It hurt, but in a good way. During one of those sprints the epiphany hit; “I’m supposed to be running the mile like this, at the fastest pace I can for that distance!” I wasn’t just jogging for health anymore; I was a runner.

While I would like to tell you I tore up my final mile race of the season, the truth is I was over a hill behind the track helping with a field event and did not hear the calls for my race. I looked up at the track and saw my race was underway and my heart sank. I had blown my chance at redemption. That was the end of my freshman track season; three last place finishes and a DNS (did not start).

The next opportunity I had to try out my new strategy was in P.E. class. We were doing a module on track and field, and while I was pretty bad at most of the events we had to try – falling over hurdles, tossing the discus into the cage, long jumping short of the sand pit – the final event was the mile run. It was my opportunity to finally see how fast I could go. I did not record my time for any of my mile races, and I’m not sure I even knew that was done or what a good time would be. The best I can estimate is that, having been lapped by people running anywhere from under 5 minutes to about 6 minutes, I probably ran 9 or 10 minutes at best.

The P.E. class mile was perhaps the most dreaded activity of the entire school year for nearly every freshman, but of course I was ready to show everyone what a member of the track team could do. The mile was my specialty, you know. It didn’t hurt that the teacher was also the girls’ track coach, so it was my chance to show her that what she had seen out of me at our meets was no longer the runner I had become. It was a chance to undo some of the embarrassment I now felt over my athletic naivety. Once we were underway several boys took off like it was the 100 yard dash. These boys flamed out by the end of the first lap. Most of the other students quickly became red-faced and began panting for air, and many began walking. I and another member of the track team, a pole-vault specialist and sometimes sprinter, went to the front of the pack in the second lap and pulled away from the few students left that were still focused on running instead of puking. This pace hurt, and my legs were burning over the last lap and a half, but I realized this is what it’s like to race the mile. My pole-vaulter friend beat me to the line, but finishing a close second to a very good athlete was no shame, and certainly better than getting lapped. I don’t exactly remember my time, but I think it was around 6 minutes or 6:15, and considering nearly all my training had been at “jogging” pace, that wasn’t too bad.

Despite the minor redemption of the P.E. class mile, I was still peeved about missing the last race of my freshman track season. I remember the emotions that welled up the day of the last meet as I realized I had missed my chance to put my new found knowledge and motivation to the test in front of my coaches and teammates. But I soon realized that I had the entire summer to train for fall cross country season, and I was determined to make the most of it. By this time I was beginning to think that I might be better at longer distances, and cross country races were 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).

The fuse was lit.

In the next post, I will continue the amazing true story of my metamorphosis through high school In the meantime, feel free to send me any running questions you would like me to address in future posts.

 

1. Jogging for Joy. Lee Majors, Farrah Fawcett and Other Stars (Huff, Pant) Are Latching (Wheeze) Onto the Great American Joggernaut. People Magazine, July 4, 1977, Vol 8, No 1.

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Welcome to Sport Science Running and Fitness

Comrades Wall South Africa 2010

 

 

 

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******

With this brief introduction, and through upcoming posts, I hope to use my story to inspire you to learn more about the wonderful world of running, fitness, and health, and to apply that knowledge to your own story. I will write more about my improbable, and hopefully inspiring, rise from awkward, unathletic, overweight kid to collegiate runner and beyond in upcoming posts.

 

I chose Sport Science Running & Fitness as a title after considering many other ideas, some clever and some more straight forward and descriptive. I settled on the latter because, even though I (attempt to) use humor in my writing, the main focus will be to share insights from my 40 years and counting as a runner, my training in Sport Science, and my experience in exercise physiology, physical rehabilitation, and research. I hope you will be able to put this information to practical use, or at least find it interesting and entertaining.

 

I also plan to write about controversial issues and pseudoscience in an informative and educational manner, that will no doubt result in much wailing and gnashing of teeth among some ‘true believers’ in such things. In the internet age, purveyors of health and nutrition misinformation (usually with a profit motive) have gained wide audiences and do a lot of damage, and are experts at getting their victims to defend them. I will share the work of other science communicators that are dedicated to exposing con artists and quacks. 

 

If you spend any time in running forums, you have also no doubt seen virtual holy wars break out over topics such as ‘the best running shoes’, ‘the best diet’, or the ‘best training plan’, and the rules of the sport. Sometimes these fights even break out over some very silly and trivial issues. Much has changed during my four decades in the sport, and I find we are experiencing some growing pains with the much increased popularity of running. Hopefully I can help bring some sanity to these discussions. After all, running is important to us, but it’s also supposed to be fun.

 

I welcome any ideas you have for blog posts, any suggested corrections for my posts, and any running or fitness related questions. Please keep comments civil and PG-13 rated. Be sure to like the Facebook page, too 

Talk to you soon.

Matt

 

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