Words by:Physical therapist and Norrøna athlete Hillary McCloy.
Warm spring weather brings green grass, a sense of beginning and the beginning of running and hiking season.Ankles and feet are locked into winter boots so they are often tight and the muscles have not been working like they do when you are quickly running down a trail.
Shoulder seasons tend to trip up many multi-season athletes due to a quick change in sport specific stress and strain on the body. Two springs ago, I backcountry skied all winter building up a strong aerobic base and then jumped too quickly into running and hiking season once the snow melted. I felt incredible running the first few weeks of May and then was quickly reminded by my Achilles tendon and lower leg muscles that they were NOT quite ready. I fell into a classic trap and had to address the overuse stress to my muscles for several weeks. As a Physio, I see these injuries commonly in the spring.
The lower leg muscles are stressed repeatedly and quickly when you run and hike as your heel hits the ground, you roll over the foot and then push off of the toes. The two primary muscles in the back of your leg that attach to the Achilles tendon, the gastrocnemius and soleus, work to slow down the lower leg momentum forward and to lift your body weight off the ground as you roll off of the toe. Running generates more stress through the calf muscles due to the increased impact (ground reaction forces) and pounding compared to hiking.
Two other critical muscles for running and hiking are located on the outside and the inside of the lower leg and they work to support the medial arch and stabilize the foot. I hear a lot of arch pain stories or discomfort in the outside of the ankle due to over use of these muscles following winter.
Plantar fascia is a connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot that supports and transfers energy through the foot. This tissue can become inflamed if suddenly overworked with the onset of spring sports. And, if you have ever experienced Plantar Fasciitis, then you will most likely do whatever you can to avoid getting it again!
In late March or April, I would recommend starting to perform a few easy exercises to help prevent overuse injuries in these lower leg muscles. I have included several workouts that will work to strengthen the lower leg and foot muscles as well as mimic the quick dynamic movements of running.