It is time to get back in touch with mother earth.
Uh oh, Shaun has gone all Hippie on us!
Don’t worry people, I may be a fan of getting back to nature and a minimalist approach to running, but I’m not going to suggest you join a commune and eat only native nuts and berries.
What I’m talking about today is a component of fitness that is critically important for us as runners, and even more so if you are a fan of trail running.
That thing is Proprioception.
Big word, slightly difficult to pronounce but fundamental to us preventing injuries and rehabilitating from them.
Proprioception is our joint’s ability to know where they are at any given time.
Try this test – Stand on one foot and look closely at what your supporting ankle is doing. You will see it very quickly twitching from side to side as your proprioceptors (type of nerve receptor) send messages to your central nervous system, which in turn sends messages back to the muscles surrounding the joint telling them to contract or relax to help you maintain balance.
This all takes place subconsciously and you don’t generally have to think too much about it at that fine muscle contraction level.
The problem that can arise is that if we injure our ankle (or any joint for that matter), we will lose much of our ability to send and interpret those messages from the proprioceptors in that joint.
If you have previously sprained a ligament in your ankle, I’d wager a bet that you have probably sprained that same ankle a number of times since the first. The reason is that once you lose that proprioception, your chances of re-injury are dramatically increased. Not only that; but your chances of other injuries including joint damage also increase.
Time for some good news!
Proprioception is something that can be regained through specific and fairly simple exercises. Essentially, once the injury has occurred and major signs of inflammation have settled down, you can begin to slowly train back your proprioception.
Ways of doing this include basic balance exercises that are slowly progressed to more difficult and eventually sport specific movements. It is vital that the progress of these exercises is in line with the progress of your healing and should not be rushed. So, please seek the advice of your sports injury specialist for this.
The other thing to consider is injury prevention. Much better to never get the injury in the first place, right? Improving your proprioception is simply a matter of challenging your joints. If we are talking about preventing injuries in the ankles and feet, this is where you want to get back in touch with Mother Earth! Wearing shoes with less structure and support, provides much more feedback and stimulation to the feet. By increasing what we can “feel” when we make contact with the ground, we wake up and further develop our proprioceptive awareness. What you will end up with are ankles like Kilian Jornet’s. Ever seen that guy run down the side of a mountain? His joints are indestructible… From playing on the mountains all his life, his proprioception is incredible.
There are lots of shoes available now that offer improved proprioception and ‘ground feel’, but my shoe of choice is the Vivobarefoot. I haven’t found anything that comes close to these shoes and the great thing is they do trail shoes too.
BE WARNED though – these shoes can be a massive shock to your feet if you are used to wearing big chunky “traditional” running shoes. My advice would be to gradually progress to a more minimalist shoe over time. Our bodies take time to adjust to change.
Free your feet people! The more time you spend actually feeling the ground under you and challenging your feet to work harder on uneven and unpredictable surfaces, the better your proprioception will become and the less injuries you will sustain.