The structures of the lower legs take a pounding in the long and triple jump and sprints, as they do in numerous other sports. These areas are prone to ankle, Achilles tendon and calf strains for example. pre-training or pre-conditioning is a way to bolster the strength of your body by performing 'protective' type exercises that are designed to strengthen areas of the body prone to injury, such as the lower legs. So what can you do to minimise risk of injury to this body region?
There are a multitude of exercises that can be used but how effective are they?
A Norwegian study looked at how ankle (and knee) injuries could be reduced in teenage handball players during the 2002 to 2003 season. 1,837 players were split into an intervention group and a control group. The intervention group performed exercises designed to improve awareness and control of the ankles and knees during standing, running, cutting, jumping, and landing. The exercises included those with a ball, the use of wobble boards and covered warm-up, sport technique, balance, and strength. The control group continued with their normal training methods.
For the group as a whole, 262 players (14%) were injured at least once during the season. However, the intervention group had lower risks than the control group when it came to sustaining acute knee or ankle injuries. The incidence of moderate and major injuries (defined as absence from play for 8 to 21 days) was also lower for the intervention group for all injury types. The researchers concluded that: "The rate of acute knee and ankle injuries and all injuries to young handball players was reduced by half by a structured program designed to improve knee and ankle control during play’"
LOWER LIMB STRENGTHENING EXERCISES
Straight leg jumps
Stand with your feet slightly beyond shoulder-width apart. Swing your arms back behind your body and very slightly bend your knees. Swing your arms down, as they pass your hips jump into the air, using your calf muscles and ankles to provide most of the power. Land without undue yielding (in order to increase joint stiffness and improve eccentric force absorption) and spring immediately back into another jump.
Suggested routine: 3x10 exercises with 1-minute recovery between sets.
Eccentric calf raises
Eccentric calf raises have been identified as being as effective as combating and treating the majority of Achilles tendon injuries as other treatments, including surgery. When performing this exercise concentrate on the lowering phase of the movement, lowering to a count of 4-5 and lifting to a 1 count. To gain familiarity, select a medium to heavy weight that creates fatigue after 8-10 repetitions, before progressing to heavier weights that create fatigue after 4-6 repetitions. Use a standard calf raise machine. After gaining familiarity and strength with this exercise, perform freestanding versions from double and then eventually from a single leg stance, using similar loads and repetitions.
NB. Standing calf raise exercises, target the gastrocnemius, whilst seated calf exercises hit the soleus. To fully strengthen the main calf muscles combine both exercises into your training programme. You can also do these exercises free-standing, single leg version being particularly tough, if you have not worked on eccentric Achilles strength.
EVEN TOES MATTER FOOT STRENGTH
Even the foot and even toes can influence running power. A team from Canada studied the energy contribution of the big toe or metatarsophalangeal (MP) joint when running and sprinting. The team wanted to discover what the contribution of the MP joint was to the total mechanical energy involved in running and sprinting. Data was collected from 10 trained male athletes (5 runners and 5 sprinters).
The team discovered that during the stance phase, the joint absorbed large amounts of energy during running and sprinting. In terms of biomechanics this led them to conclude that lack of plantar flexion (toe down position) of the MP joint resulted in a lack of energy generation during take-off; energy was absorbed at the joint and dissipated in the shoe and foot structures and was not returned to propel the athlete forward. Although it would be physically difficult to specifically train the big toe to contribute more to the sprint and running action, concentrating on a more dorsi-flexed (toe up) foot position on foot strike could allow it to generate more propulsive force.
Always include pre-training exercises in your training plans for the lower limbs and all body parts, doing so will likely reduce injury and improve performance.
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