Target Muscle/s: Tibialis Anterior
Sets & Reps: 3 x 12 repetitions (each leg)
Tempo: isometric (hold for up to 30s), concentric (push down for 1s, hold for 2s, return for 3s)
Frequency: Twice a week strength training program (or as advised if part of rehab plan)
Most runners are already aware of how hard the muscles on the back of the lower leg (calf muscles) have to work during running and add suitable exercises to their twice a week strengthening routine, e.g. standing & seated calf raises. However, far less runners realise the importance of keeping the muscles on the front (anterior) lower leg in good shape too. The muscles on the front (anterior) of the lower leg contract to pull the foot & toes up towards you (dorsiflexion) but also work hard eccentrically to control & stabilise the foot whilst it is being pointed downwards (plantarflexion). Both of these movements are used with every step in running so it makes sense to ensure the muscles are prepared concentrically (when they shorten), eccentrically (when they length) and isometrically (when they stay at a tensed length). Weakness in the anterior muscles can cause overloading, which in turn can lead to injury including a condition known as anterior compartment syndrome. As always, prevention is better than intervention, so try to include some strengthening of these anterior muscles in your weekly training. The following exercise targets the Tibialis Anterior, the muscle that lies next to the shin bone. You can feel it contract and harden when you pull your foot back towards you.
- Sit with one leg crossed over the other, with a suitably tense exercise band wrapped around the non weight bearing foot. Place your thumb on the Tibialis Anterior muscle.
- ISOMETRIC VERSION: pull the foot back into dorsiflexion and hold this position for up to 30 seconds. You should feel the Tibialis Anterior muscle under your thumb harden as it contracts. The exercise band needs to be tense enough to allow no more than 30 seconds. Once you get stronger and can do over 30 seconds you will need to use a tougher exercise band.
- ECCENTRIC & CONCENTRIC VERSION: pull the foot back into dorsiflexion, maintain this pulled back position for 2 seconds (isometric phase) then take 3 seconds to slowly allow the foot return to start position. The exercise band needs to be tense enough to allow no more than 12 repetitions. Once you get stronger and can do over 12 repetitions, you will need to find a tougher exercise band.
This exercise can be very useful in the early stages of rehabbing an anterior lower leg injury. Your therapist may at first advise you to only perform the isometric version until you see strength gains. They may then progress you to an eccentric only version in which you only tense the band during the lowering phase and not the pull back. Whatever version of exercise you are given, you will need to take the set to fatigue in order to stimulate strength gains. Bands are therefore coloured to signify level of resistance, normally from yellow (least resistance) to red, green, blue and finally black (highest resistance). You can also increase resistance by stretching the band more before engaging and by twisting it. Once sufficient strength gains have been seen, you may be progressed to more challenging exercises.
Matt Phillips is a Running Injury Specialist & Video Gait Analyst at StrideUK & Studio57clinic in Sussex. Follow Matt on Twitter: @sportinjurymatt