We runners have some predictable issues and injuries. Starting from the bottom the most prevalent are plantar fasciitis (PF), Achilles tendinitis, calf strains, sore knees, tight hamstrings, hip and groin strains, and lower back pain. If you’ve been running very long, you’ve probably had bouts with all of these. I certainly have!
What to do? Could there be a one-size-fits-all solution to these multiple maladies up and down the kinetic chain? Well, no. But I have found one rather simple exercise that both directly and indirectly addresses these issues – eccentric heel dips. I think some of my clients consider me eccentric and obsessive when I impress upon them the importance of doing them – day in and day out. Perhaps they are right. Meanwhile I take my own medicine and perform them multiple times each day.
Here’s the basic description: Stand on the edge of a stair or any kind of a riser that allows you to dip your heels to a comfortable stretch. Supported only by the front of your foot, allow your body weight to stretch the heel downward, allowing one foot to take the majority of the weight. When you hit bottom, and just after a second or two, push back up onto your toes with both feet and then repeat the downward stretch with the other foot. Remember this is a dynamic, not static stretch – keep moving! Do some while bending the knee and some with straight legs. Repeat for one to two minutes if you have the time – 15 seconds if you’re going up an escalator. Any amount of time is beneficial. Find excuses to do these throughout the day, and certainly before and after you run. Focus on where you feel the stretch. Do not be surprised if you feel it all the way up your back. There are neuromuscular connections all through the kinetic chain.
Now that I’ve described these, let’s explore what’s going on. First, with eccentric exercises, there is negative resistance applied to the muscle, which lengthens it. Muscles resist force rather than produce it. An illustration is the basic bicep curl. When we lift the weight towards us we are concentrically shortening the muscle. When we let the weight down it is eccentrically lengthening. While we might think of concentric exercises as more strengthening and eccentric as stretching, eccentric action also strengthens muscles. In fact, about 30-40% more weight can be handled eccentrically. Not surprising, eccentric exercise helps build concentric capacity. For example, if we lower the weight slowly when doing bench presses, over time that helps increase the amount of weight we can press back up. As it relates to running, heel dips not only ward off debilitating injuries but also enhance spring in our step and improve balance.
Give heel dips a try! But do not expect an overnight miracle. You have to be willing to do them regularly to see the benefits. Heel dips are most helpful with calf, heel, and foot issues. But if your hamstrings are tight (and what runner’s are not!), you should feel a slight stretch there too. If there is pain, don’t overdo it. While this stretch will improve circulation and help healing, it can also increase irritation and inflammation. As with all things, too much of something good can be detrimental. Once you get the hang of this, start holding a 10-pound weight while doing your dips.
So maybe it’s not magic. But it sure is effective! I’ve been doing these consistently for over six months and have not had the recurring hamstring and calf issues I had been plagued by. Maybe they will work for you too!