Fixing overuse running injuries with Heather Parks

This week I had the pleasure of working with local runner Heather Parks on addressing some of her long-term running injuries. These old injuries include Achilles tendonitis, piriformis syndrome, and multiple ankle sprains along with current foot pain. She has been distance running since she was a young teenager and like many of us, has had some of her injuries show up multiple times. To compensate, she has done what many runners might do: try out different kinds of shoes, add an over-the-counter foot orthotic, ice the injured area and start training the core muscles more. Oh, and ignore some of the pain. Runners are great at ignoring pain and we consciously or unconsciously change our techniques sometimes. 

These adjuncts have given her some success, but neglecting proper treatment over time would lead her back to the same types of pain. Recurring themes are an indicator that something is mechanically deficient.

Now Heather is no slouch when it comes to running. She’s run in the US Olympic Marathon Trials. So she’s put big demands on her body in the past, responded well and come out on the other side with greater fitness. Our bodies become really good at improving efficiency within the constraints that they are given. If you learn to run fast with a decreased amount of hip motion, for example, then you have accomplished your goal of running fast but with less than ideal biomechanics. But how long can you keep up this high intensity and high mileage before something in the body begins to wear down prematurely because of the restricted hip motion? The same goes for restricted ankle motion. Someone that is in spectacular physical condition, like Heather, is going to be more resilient. But with time, mileage, and previous injuries, the little mechanical flaws start to add up and pain starts to creep in.

Increasing her intensity with track workouts and turning on the tight corners of an indoor track would stir some of these things up predictably. Running track turns are very repetitive when performed in the same direction and force us into a slight asymmetry with every step. Wearing racing flats would increase her pain as well. This is likely related to the lowered heel height of the shoe that places more load on the calf and Achilles tendon.  Despite decreasing her mileage earlier this week, Heather continued to have right heel pain multiple days later. She had a hunch her history of calf and Achilles pain could be related. And it is. But we’ll get to that later.

First, let’s look at her examination findings. Initially, I noticed a significant right calf muscle atrophy (smaller muscle). When instructed to do a calf raise onto her forefoot Heather did 20 repetitions on her left side but only managed 10 on the right side - and the technique was lacking. She demonstrated weakness of both hamstrings groups (but worse on the right). Her right gluteus medius muscle at the hip was a grade weaker than the left side. She was unable to squat fully to the ground while keeping her entire foot in contact because of the shortness in her lower leg muscles. She was also unable to squat fully because of her tendency to be reliant on her quadriceps muscles and is unaware of how to to use her hip muscles for strength and stability. When squatting on a single leg her right knee tended to drift toward the midline of her body, which is a sign of poor hip control, again linking back to the weak gluteal muscles. Her single leg balance with her eyes closed was better than many people at 16 seconds on the right leg and 12 seconds on the left leg but I’d rather both of them be at least 30 seconds. Heather could hold a side plank on her right side for 45 seconds but could manage only 25 seconds for the left side.

 Right calf with decreased muscle mass

Right calf with decreased muscle mass

Watching Heather run on the treadmill, it was noticeable that she occasionally had her right leg land closer to her body’s midline instead of directly under her hip joint. I never saw the left leg do this. This was not a huge amount by any means, about ¾” to 1” of deviation. Less experienced and weaker runners commonly land with both of their feet heading toward midline, often because of decreased hip muscle strength or activation issues. Also, it was apparent that her right ankle was rarely moving through its full available range of motion and this would cause her to prematurely lift her heel from the ground during the running stride and lead to a rocking over the base of the big toe. It also caused the right heel to whip out just before her foot lifted from the treadmill. By relying on the foot to do the work of the ankle she has demanded more from the muscles and tissue within the bottom of the foot.

 Left heel remains in alignment

Left heel remains in alignment

 Right heel whipping laterally

Right heel whipping laterally

In general, many of these are meaningful asymmetries, or imbalances. Distance runners don’t do well with asymmetries because we go through thousands of repetitions and then fatigue later in a run makes any flaw even more catastrophic. Heather’s physical examination correlates well with her running technique. She uses what strength and motion she has to perform the task of running. Can we fix a couple things? Yes!

Afterwards, I used trigger point dry needling on her right foot to help with the tenderness and pain there. I also used the needling at her lower leg to loosen some of the calf muscles. This did cause soreness at her calf but upon standing, her heel pain was gone. I then taught her a handful of exercises to reinforce the motion increases at the ankle and teach her how to allow the ankle’s available motion. This ankle motion will not translate directly into her running right away and will first take work in her home exercise program. She also started working on the “penguin walk” activation exercise to help her learn to use the gluteus medius more on the right side with running. Heather was able to return to running at a high level on the same day with a 6 mile tempo run at 6:30 per mile pace with minimal pain.

We will meet again in the next couple weeks to see how she is progressing with her exercises and spend more time on the manual therapy required to increase her ankle motion and decrease stress on the foot and lower leg.