Lower Leg Conditioning

By Rick Morris

Today’s running shoes are both high cost and high tech. Running shoes are now available with high levels of cushioning, cushioning for specific parts of your foot, with springs in the heels, springs in the forefoot, all kinds of motion control and all levels of foot support from none to so much support your foot is encased in a soft cast. There are shoes for the road, shoes for the track, shoes for racing, shoes for training and cross training shoes for almost anything. No matter what your goal or how efficiently you run, there is a shoe just for you. But do they help with lower leg conditioning? I don’t think so.

All of those high tech shoe choices are a good thing – right? In my opinion today’s shoes have both advantages and disadvantages. A proper running shoe can help correct bio mechanical deficiencies and give you some help with both racing and training, but they are like a double edged sword that cuts both ways. All of that support those shoes give you also takes something away. They take away the amount of work your foot, or more specifically, the amount of work the muscles in your lower leg are required to do.

The muscles in your lower leg are there for a purpose. The large muscles of your calf, the gastrocnemius and soleus, are primarily ankle extensor muscles. They provide much of the force when you run. But there are many other muscles in your lower leg that provide another very important purpose. They stabilize your foot and ankle. Your feet go through a lot of motion when you are running. They pronate (roll to the inside), supinate (roll to the outside), dorsiflex (pull your toes up toward your lower leg) and plantar flex ( toes down position). There are also some rotary motions involved.

The stabilizing muscles in your lower leg are under a lot of stress during a normal running stride. If your lower leg muscles are strong and properly conditioned they can handle that stress with no problem. Unfortunately, many young runners have weak lower leg muscles for two reasons. They have not had the proper conditioning and the high tech shoes they have been wearing are so supportive that their lower leg muscles never need to work hard. The result – poor lower leg conditioning. In my opinion that is the reason that shin splints and other lower leg injuries are so common among young runners.

I believe that lower leg conditioning is one of the most important phases of developing runners. If a new or young runner properly develops the strength, power and flexibility in their lower legs before engaging in any strenuous or long training runs they will avoid many of those chronic lower leg injuries and will enjoy much more short and long term success in their running careers.
Here are some lower leg conditioning exercises that I feel are most appropriate for today’s young or developing runners. These exercises should be done three times per week and started 3 to 4 weeks before beginning any high intensity or long distance training. The exercises should be continued at least once per week throughout their career.

The Alphabet Drill

Nope – this isn’t a spelling bee; it’s a simple but effective drill for basic strengthening of many of your lower leg muscles. This drill is simple to perform and can be done anywhere, even when at work. Simply sit in a chair or on a bench and with your foot held above the floor and your toes pointed out, trace all of the letters of the alphabet with your toes. This simple exercise will use nearly every muscle in your lower leg. Repeat this three times with each foot.

Heel Walking

You probably already know that heel striking is not an efficient way to run. This drill is an exception to that rule. This heel walking drill will strengthen the muscles on the front and lateral side of your lower leg. With your foot dorsi flexed (front of foot pulled up towards your shin) walk on your heels for about 50 meters. Keep your foot dorsi flexed throughout this drill. Don’t let the toes of your feet drop or touch the ground.

Lateral Foot Walk

You’re going to look a bit strange when you do this drill, but the results are worth it. This exercise does a good job of conditioning some of the stabilizing muscles that act on your foot. Roll your feet to the inside so that you are standing on the outside of your feet with your toes pointing straight ahead. Now begin walking forward on the outside of your feet. Keep going for about 50 meters.

Medial Foot Walk

This drill is very similar to the lateral foot walk except you walk on the inside portions of your feet. Be sure to keep your toes pointed straight ahead and try to keep your knees centered over your feet. Walk for about 50 meters.

Box Drill

This is a drill that is commonly used as conditioning for power sports such as football, soccer and basketball, but is also an excellent drill for runners. Stand in a “ready” position with your knees slightly flexed. Rapidly shuffle laterally to the right for twenty meters, then sprint forward for twenty meters. Now rapidly shuffle laterally to the left for 20 meters before backpedaling quickly for twenty meters to your starting point, completing the “box”. If you have any orange exercise cones you can use them to outline your box with a cone at each corner. Don’t stop during this drill. Keep moving from one phase to the next. Repeat this 3 to 5 times.

One Leg Wobble Board Squats

Wobble boards, a square or round platform with a ball shaped support, are one of the most valuable and versatile pieces of equipment available for balance, propreoception and lower leg conditioning. To do this exercise, stand facing away from a bench or step with your rear foot supported on the bench. Place your front leg on a wobble board. Now perform a one leg squat while balancing on the wobble board. Keep your rear foot on the bench so you are in a basic running stride position. Don’t let the knee of your forward leg move in front of your knee. Do twenty repetitions on each leg. Once you master this exercise with your rear foot supported on the bench, try it without the bench support.

Barefoot Strides

Running barefoot is a fun workout that does wonders for lower leg conditioning because it forces your foot to work as it was intended, without the excessive support of many running shoes. Perform 100 meter barefoot strides. Begin running at a moderate pace and smoothly accelerate to full speed at about 50 meters. Continue at full speed until 80 meters and then “coast” smoothly through the final 20 meters. Repeat 5 to 10 times. The best location for barefoot strides is on an artificial turf field because of the consistent and resilient surface. If you do this on a grass field be very careful of rocks, sticks and other debris. Don’t do these barefoot strides on a hard surface unless you are an experienced and conditioned barefoot runner.

Towel Pull

This exercise is very simple but effective at lower leg conditioning as well as helping prevent foot injuries such as plantar fasciitis. Place the edge of a small towel under the toes of your barefoot. Now grab the towel with your toes and pull the towel completely under your foot by repeatedly flexing your toes. Repeat with the other foot.