Footwork

April 27, 2005

John Cheney, the Temple Basketball coach, likes to teach his players that everything starts with footwork; if they can get their feet in the right place then the game becomes easy.

This is a lesson that works both in sports and in life, which is I suspect part of why he spends his mornings screaming about footwork.

This morning I had a moment of good sports footwork. (I also wrote very slowly before going running, a sign of bad life footwork.) I went for a run, the first one since Saturday. I was feeling good, running slowly, and decided to up my mileage to a whopping mile and a half. I did it.

It was a good run.

Sometimes, in a good run, the mind separates into two distinct Joycean streams of consciousness. One is the body monitor, checking pacing, stride, breathing, and yes, footwork. The other looks at the world around, or thinks about problems, or wanders aimlessly.

Today the leaves were that bright green of spring, and they reminded me of the bright green spring leaves along my favorite dirt road back in Virginia. That was a 3 mile run up a dirt road to a mountaintop reservoir, where I turned around and ran back down the rolling hills. It was a great run, and when I was in good distance shape I did it as speedwork. In the springtime the leaves simply glowed with an incandescent bright green that SCREAMED about rebirth and new possibilities. I was reminded of that road as I ran today, and I miss having a body that could run those distances.

The other stream of consciousness was focusing on footwork, since I have found that footwork controls how my knees feel, and my knees are the limiting factor in my running. The following gets a little technical and perhaps a little boring.

One way to breakdown and explain running form is to focus on footstrike, the point on the foot where the foot first contacts the ground on each stride. Runners also generally expand the term to refer to the overall motion of the foot and ankle on each stride. I find that I have five possible footstrikes, and that two of them work best for me.

To find your own footstrikes and strides, run barefoot in the grass without thinking of your mechanics, then look down and notice what your feet are doing. Try going at different speeds and notice how the footstrike changes.

For me, I can footstrike

  • on the front-middle of the ball of my foot, the sprinting stride,
  • on the center-back of the ball of the foot, which is my best stride for knee maintenance,
  • dead in the middle of the foot,
  • at the front of the heel of the foot, my most efficient stride
  • at the back of the heel of the foot, the strike most people use when walking and the only strike that is commonly in front of your center of gravity.
I find that my biggest mechanical problem is that my ankles roll inward, putting lateral stress on the knee. The best way to keep the ankle straight is to strike at the back of the ball of the foot, then let the rest of the foot come down until the heel lands, then roll forward and push off the ball of the foot again. This keeps the ankle straight. In addition, the knee is bent throughout the strike and stride, so that the muscles of calf and thigh help take the impact of each stride. Of course, it also means that the muscles are doing more work each stride, and as a result it is a less efficient more tiring stride than some of the hell-rolling options.

The next best is to strike at the front of the heel - the natural point when running on grass. This is a very efficient strike and does very well with the little shuffling old-man strides I have to take these days. It lets the foot roll forward and then push off, instead of levering on the ball of the foot, and it works well with using your oblique muscles to swing the hips a little forward and back on each stride, putting your core to work for motion and not just for stabilty. But, it encourages my ankles to roll inward, and so I do not let myself use this stride.

I want to try to connect my two Joycean streams of consciousness from this morning, to suggest that the mental effort of keeping my legs in good form, my breathing regular, and my pace constant somehow shaped my memories of running up and down the rolling dirt roads of Virginia. It did not, or rather anything I could say would be forced and contrived. It will be a writing day today, as I discuss the Sabbatarian movement of 1810-1817, the U.S. mails, and civil religion. I will try to keep my mind on my grammar, and on clarity, and on keeping the paragraphs to the point. That, I suppose, is my writing equivalent of good footwork.

Posted by Red Ted at April 27, 2005 10:19 AM | TrackBack