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Feet: often neglected!

Feet: often neglected!

Sports physiotherapist

The physical preparation of field hockey players is essential to maintain and develop the physical qualities needed to optimize performance. A body part often neglected in physical preparation is the foot. However, it is the final link between the player and the ice, and it is the skate that transmits to the ground the energy generated by all the muscles during the push. A foot with well-trained muscles can thus become a precursor to performance and help prevent certain injuries.

Foot muscles are often divided into two groups: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic muscles act directly only on the foot joints, while extrinsic muscles also act on the ankle joint. These two groups are often trained together as part of overall lower-limb strengthening exercises. The group most frequently targeted by a specific strengthening program is the intrinsic muscles, since they are associated with the configuration/formation of the plantar arch(2).

There are several exercises for strengthening the foot muscles. These exercises include active lifting of the arch, clutching a towel with the toes, walking and running barefoot or with a minimalist shoe(5). One way of increasing the contribution of the intrinsic foot muscles during toe flexion exercises is to hold the ankle in plantar flexion (pointé, see example). This simple change in ankle position doubles the activity of certain intrinsic foot muscles. The theory behind this phenomenon is quite simple: when the ankle is pointed, the extrinsic muscles are relaxed, so the intrinsic muscles are put to greater use(1).

Japanese researchers have measured the impact of a specific training program for the intrinsic musculature of the foot on performance in various functional tests. Participants were assessed before and after taking part in the 8-week program. Significant improvements were noted in intrinsic foot muscle strength, single-leg long jump distance, vertical jump height and time in a 50-meter hurdle race. These results suggest that specific training of these muscles could have a positive impact on performance(2).

What’s more, the program led to a change in the participants’ plantar arches. The length of the arch between the heel and toes (longitudinal) and the width of the arch from the medial to the lateral side of the foot (horizontal) decreased, suggesting a lifting of the plantar arch. Moreover, arch formation and increased intrinsic muscle strength are said to have a positive impact on a number of foot pathologies(3-4-5). Indeed, greater muscle mass is associated with a reduced risk of plantar fasciitis(4-5). In addition, raising the arch can lead to better positioning of the foot in the skate. In this way, friction between the medial malleolus and the skate boot can be reduced, causing discomfort for many field hockey players.

Although the toe flexion exercise with the ankle pointed is not very functional, it would seem that the benefits associated with performing it are transferable to different sporting gestures, as explained above. Training these muscles is sometimes neglected, even though it can have a direct impact on performance and injury risk. Incorporating this type of exercise into everyday life could make an invaluable difference to a field hockey player’s physical preparation.

Written by Maxime Provencher, M. Physiotherapy

References :
1.Hashimoto, T. & Sakuraba, K.Assessment of Effective Ankle Joint Positioning inStrength Training for Intrinsic Foot Flexor Muscles: A Comparison of Intrinsic Foot Flexor Muscle Activity in a Position Intermediate to Plantar and Dorsiflexion with that in Maximum Plantar Flexion Using Needle Electromyography. J. Phys. T her. Sci.(2014) Vol. 26, No. 3, p. 451-454.
2. Hashimoto, T. & Sakuraba, K. Strength Training for the Intrinsic Flexor Musclesof the Foot: Effects on Muscle Strength, the Foot Arch, and Dynamic Parameters Before and After the Training J. Phys. T her. Sci.(2014) Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 373-376.
3. Cheung R.T.H., Sze L.K.Y., Mok N.W. & Ng G.Y.F. Intrinsic foot muscle volume in experienced runners with and without chronic plantar fasciitis. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 19 (2016) 713-715.
4. Latey, P. J., Burns, J., Hiller, C., & Nightingale, E. J. (2014). Relationship between intrinsic foot muscle weakness and pain: A systematic review. Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, 7(1), A51.
5. Huffer, D., et al, Strength training for plantar fasciitis and the intrinsic foot musculature: A systematic review, Physical Therapy in Sport (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2016.08.008.

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