Fix the feet, fix the knees?

I have a memory of a running coach of mine, circa 1992, who watched me run and noticed that my right foot flared out when I ran, duck-foot style. He noticed the flaring and he also noticed that my left foot flared outward as well but considerably less. At the time I was running up toward 80 miles per week. We were looking at my footstrike because my training was getting snagged by an intermittent stream of minor injuries and pains. Most of them revolving around the right knee. It was clear to the coach that my duck-foot running style had something to do with the development of patella tendonitis that kept stabbing at me. I could run but it usually hurt to run. Runners are a stubborn breed—injuries are meant to be run through if at all possible.

As it was during that time, solving such a problem usually went like this: try different running shoes. Something stiffer, with more of a heel counter, and perhaps a “stability” device embedded in the midsole to brace the arch. Triple-density EVA foam rubber and torsional rigidity. These were the buzz words.

If the stability shoe didn’t work, then it was time to see the sports podiatrist. This path typically resulted in the creation of custom orthotic insoles, which weren’t exactly over-the-counter cheap. Then came the adaptation-to-the-orthotic phase, sometimes accompanied by more injuries and trips back to the podiatrist to get the orthotic tweaked. Technical running shoe stores would often have a list of shoes recommended by sports podiatrists for runners–shoes like the Avia 2050, which was on top of the list that I saw. The 2050 had a midsole with that felt about as stiff as it were cut out of plywood. Imagine the polar opposite of the Nike Free and you had the 2050.

In my case anyway, trying to fix the problem of my flaring foot did not happen by changing shoes or using insoles. The fact is I never fixed it. Until recently, that is.

Indeed, a short while back I had a one on one with Brian MacKenzie, author of “Power Speed Endurance” and the guiding force of CrossFit Endurance. MacKenzie watched me run and what did he see: Just about the same thing that my coach did 20 years ago: right foot flaring out and left foot flaring out as well but not as much.

In unison with what Kelly Starrett talks about on the Mobility WOD and also in classes at San Francisco CrossFit, Brian said something eerily simple sounding: whether standing, walking, running or doing box jumps or whatever, train the foot to be straight. The beginning of this process was awareness–by showing me video of my running form, I could see for myself how the foot was flaring out and landing at angle—even though it felt straight to me. MacKenzie then had me try running pigeon-toed. I did it. In my mind it felt as if my right foot was turned at almost a bizarre angle inward. But further video review revealed this: despite what I thought was happening, the foot was in fact still flaring a bit outward.

So per MacKenzie’s advice (and Kelly Starrett’s as well) I’ve spent the last weeks simply making a conscious effort to keep my feet straight. My girlfriend and I walked a couple of miles today to go see a movie here in San Francisco and during that walk I was spending a constant dimension of thought on keeping the feet straight and also engaging my core muscles about 25% or so.

One of the reasons I’m being so diligent about it is because it’s both been working and–here was the big surprise for me–it feels good. By keeping my feet straight and engaging the butt and core muscles my right leg is working the way it feels like it’s supposed to work. As opposed to the strange wince of weakness and pain that happens on the inside of my right knee when I land a footfall or footstrike in an outwardly angled fashion–where it feels like knee tissues are getting pinched and ground away—by keeping my foot straight the leg feels like it’s organized in such away that impact stress is dissipated into a much more powerful musculoskeletal system. This is especially noticeable when I walk or run down hills or down stairs. In fact, it’s such a noticeable difference I find myself whacking myself in the head with the thought: Good god, is this all that it really took? Just retraining my foot pattern?

MacKenzie demonstrating a simple drill to work on fixing the flaring-foot problem.
MacKenzie demonstrating a simple drill to work on fixing the flaring-foot problem.

I imagine the reason I never even considered trying to change it manually is that I figured that trying to consciously shape what I assumed was a pattern dictated by natural biomechanics would cause all sorts of problems. But here’s the dark side of that assumption: I was already plagued by “all sorts of problems.”

At any rate, that’s my experience so far. While in Iowa and then in Boston for the holidays, I went for just some good old runs for the sake of running, continuing to concentrate on my developing mechanics. Finishing runs without limps, without lingering knee pain, without damage.

For a discussion on rebuilding the feet, here’s a discussion between both Starrett and MacKenzie on the subject.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.