Running a marathon is grueling work. And when you’re digging deep for that extra power to maintain speed, most people think that the muscles around your knees and hips (i.e., quads, hamstrings, glutes) produce the most amount of power because they’re bigger, according to biomechanist Dr. Max Paquette from the University of Memphis. However, that’s not the case. “What’s often overlooked are the calf muscles or the plantar flexors,” Paquette says “These relatively small muscles around your ankles are the largest contributors to power during running.”
If you plan to continue running for a long time, Paquette says that keeping up a good amount of weekly mileage and making sure you incorporate faster running into your training may help preserve the ability of those plantarflexors to produce power and ultimately running speed as you age.
“When I start off my training,” says Canadian runner Reid Coolsaet, 38, who placed ninth at this year’s Boston Marathon, “it begins with two-foot hops, and then I progress to one-foot hops, where I’m moving from side to side as well as forward and back. I work on this exercise at a little more than I used to if I want to perform at the same level. I also incorporate hills and varying terrain.”
Paquette says skipping is also a great drill to improve ankle power: “High ankle power maintains running speed, and of the three lower limb joints, power from the ankle takes the biggest hit as we age. It’s literally a ‘use it or lose it’ type of scenario.”
We’ve all seen marathoners who may no longer be in their prime shuffle their feet. It looks like they are running from their hips, as they don’t seem to push off with their calves to propel themselves forward. “It’s because they’ve lost much of their ability to produce ankle power,” Paquette points out.
Right before your foot leaves the ground when pushing off, your ankle is plantarflexing, your toes are pointing down. “That’s the last push we make to propel ourselves forward, and if this powerful plantarflexion is lessened, it effectively slows us down,” says Paquette.
Having trained with Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis while at the University of Guelph, Paquette knows all too well the importance of plyometric drills as a power exercise. “These guys have done this their entire professional careers and it has likely helped them maintain their ankle power. There is no doubt the drills are part of the foundation for their longevity running marathons at a very high level.”
Marylene Vestergom is a regular contributor to Canadian Running. She’s covered sports for over 20 years, including multiple Olympic Games. ■