Find your first met head. When walking, running, squatting, and lunging. It’s a great cue. It’s the take-home message of today’s post, so if that’s all you need…you’re done. See ya! But if you want to learn more about foot function, gait mechanics, exercise performance – and other forms of asskickery – hang on for a few minutes.
Let’s explore the concept of Gait and Exercise Simplified. Here’s a video if you prefer that type of content.
The way our feet interact with the ground is intricately tied to how we breathe, function, and perform. But in my opinion there is a bit of a disconnect in the understanding of this principle…both in the general population and among many clinicians and fitness influencers. This is a topic I’ve been studying for 40 years. I don’t know everything there is to know about biomechanics (beware anyone who claims to) and I learn a little more every day. But I do know a fair bit and I’m going to share some of that knowledge with you today because I think it can be immensely helpful.
We always want maximum performance. We strive for optimized training. But first we need ideal movement. This is true in both a general sense and also with specific regard to each person’s uniqueness.
I’ll hit a few of the points that relate to gait and exercise. If you like this information and have some questions, feel free to let me know.
Considering the foot in standing, we can think of it as a tripod. Our 3 main points of contact are the heel, the 5th metatarsal head (outside ball), and 1st metatarsal head (inside ball). This creates a very stable structure which can rapidly shift loads to the 3 points in the tripod. Ideally, in relaxed standing, there should be a nearly even distribution of pressure across the 3 points, but when we move, this changes significantly as we progress through the stance phase (foot on the ground) of the gait cycle.
We have 3 dynamic arches in each foot. There is the medial longitudinal arch (MLA), lateral longitudinal arch (LLA), and transverse metatarsal arch (TMA). These arches are domed upward (convex toward the sky when we are upright) and have the ability to essentially flex downard and spring back up. Or at least they should. The dynamic arches are the true keys to proper foot function and health. Many people lose the ability to compress or reform (or both) the arches and this is an underlying root cause of injury and poor performance.
Footstrike, or initial contact should generally be on the lateral border of the foot and it should also move forward in relation to the speed of locomotion. To put this simply, the sole of the foot should be slightly turned to face midline as the foot approaches the ground. We land on the outside edge and basically roll to the inside edge. When walking, we should contact softly at the heel (although on very hard surfaces this changes a bit when you are barefoot). Jogging moves that contact forward on the bottom of the foot an inch or so. Running brings (in most ideal cases) the initial contact into the lateral midfoot. And with sprinting (at least over the shortest distances at the fastest speeds) we see mainly a forefoot contact. In most cases there can also be a “setdown” effect where we place the entire plantar surface of the foot flat on the ground, but with speed this is diminished.
Finding the 1st metatarsal head, or getting to the inside ball, is the key. What the foot “wants” to do is move from that lateral contact point, use its various structures, and then wind up somewhere between mid and late stance, with a lot of pressure on the 1st met head. This is our propulsive power point, and it correlates with alignment of joints and recruitment of muscles all the way up the body to deliver “locomotive thrust.”
We toe-off the big toe, or hallux. That’s generally the last thing to leave the ground. However, most of the force happens at the 1st met head and then there is a smaller secondary assist from the big toe. We need good extension mobility and joint integrity in this region known as the first ray. I don’t tell athletes and clients to really press their big toe down hard because this can alter foot mechanics, and even produce injury. The big toe works along with that inside ball, but in a much more passive manner.
Pronation and supination are terms that describe global foot motion, which can be either an indicator or a driver of what’s going on in the entire kinetic chain. I’ve talked in a more comprehensive manner about what happens in the rearfoot, midtarsal, and forefoot joints before, but suffice to say that pronation is lowering of the arches as the foot rolls in and down. This makes the foot more flexible and able to adapt to the support surface. Supination is reforming those arches and jacking the foot back up into a partially “locked” condition so it can function as a rigid lever (either for initial strike or push-off).
The suffixes “ing” and “ed” are worth appreciating. The foot initially lands on the ground in a supinated position but it immediately begins pronating. As we approach push-off, the foot is still in a partially pronated position but it is rapidly re-supinating. Over all the years when I mentored physical therapists, clinicians, and students…this was the biomechanical phenomenon that was most important for being effective at gait analysis and exercise prescription.
Pronation and supination occur in wavelike fashion. From back to front, in a flowing fashion. Pronation begins in the rearfoot and moves to that medial forefoot. In a healthy foot, supination begins to occur at the rearfoot even before heel-off and it is heading toward the big toe as the foot is pushing off. The supination is completed in the air but we ideally get enough of it to allow for a strong push-off. This is where the big injury mechanism can rear its ugly head. We often think of overpronating as pronating too early, too far, or for too long. Another way to view this is inadequate re-supination. The foot is not in locked, stable, rigid status and is pushing off a noodly, slop-flop condition. This places overstressing loads on tissues and joints instead of using the foot as a powerful, connected unit.
When the foot is in the air, and just as it strikes the ground…it is a claw. Easy analogy. Makes sense. You want to attack the ground (most true when sprinting) with a strong, striking mechanism. You don’t want to slap the ground with a sack of wet dogshit.
When the foot is on the ground…it is a paw. It broadens and flattens (to the highest degree when walking) and accommodates to the ground. This helps with balance, torque conversion, shock absorption, and traction. You are pushing off on a paw that is in the process of converting back into a claw. When sprinting, the pronation-supination cycle is less complete and much faster than when walking. We (should) only pronate just enough to get some pressure on that 1st met head but we naturally keep the foot a little stiffer because ground contact times are much more brief at maximum velocity.
Descending, when walking, running, squatting, or lunging requires an expansion bias. This is paired with inhalation and an eccentric or muscle lengthening orientation. We yield and accept energy as we go down. This is true whether your center of mass is barely lowering as in walking or when going to a parallel 90 degree or half-squat position (things get a little different below that point so we won’t talk about that today). We are “inflating” and building pressure as we sink and our foot (or feet depending on the activity) pronates as the leg internally rotates. As soon as we hit the desired depth, the goal is to use compression and reverse direction.
That reversal, or propulsion, drives off the 1st met head as the foot begins to supinate and the leg moves back toward external rotation (at varying rates depending on the person and specific motion). Keep in mind that the tibia and femur can rotate independently of each other, but to some degree those motions are coupled in this example. Ascension uses a compression bias, concentric or muscle-shortening contractions and exhalation to create movement, and eventually (partially) “deflate” the system.
A lot of this will make perfect sense as you think about squatting, lunging, and jumping. You’ll notice how all those things we just discussed will happen. The challenge is to appreciate that they happen in walking and running as well. However, our respiration rate versus stride rate is not always in a 1:1 relationship (like it is in most resistance exercises)…so the breathing there can be a little different.
The gold in this discussion lies in that 1st met head. As we descend we are moving our pressures, and consequently our limb alignment, toward it. And when we push up, we load it maximally at first and then gradually drift away from it as we complete our (often incomplete) extension.
Human movement is artistic, poetic, and fascinating to study. The movement gurus like to debate whether we are using pulleys, linkages, and levers or simply changing pressures in a viscous system to literally “squirt” ourselves along. Our movement is an interconnection of biology, physiology, neurology, and physics, to say the least. But it’s more than that…it’s a flowing magic that has thousands of instantaneous axes of rotation. We often use the construct of triplanar motion (x,y,z or pitch, yaw, roll, or sagittal, frontal, transverse) because it helps us to quantify and recognize three-dimensional existence. Some experts argue there really is only one dynamic plane and our bodies adeptly wind and unwind in a helical fashion. In the video I used a barber pole analogy but you can see from these points that it’s more of a shapeshifting beastly mojo which best describes human movement.
So back to this first met head business. The trick is to figure out where you start out loading on the lateral foot, how far you need to travel to get to the inside ball, how quickly this must happen, and how long you stay there. Because this wavelike motion drives and sets up joint and total body movement…being out of phase at the foot can alter mechanical sequences elsewhere. This could be a subtle wear and tear issue that may take 30 years to wear through cartilage and produce osteoarthritis. Or it could be a rapid flexion with a large load into a knee that is overly externally rotated and thus at great risk of ligament or meniscus damage. And either of those cases (and many others) definitely hurts performance potential.
That’s why you gotta be a MOVEMENTSMITH. Someone who owns every position and who is a master of motion in every direction. And this starts at the feet. When those puppies hit the ground everything changes, and this was actually the name of a seminar I took 20-some years ago. Today I don’t agree with much of what they taught, but you gotta admit they nailed the catchy name.
There are those who are naturally, genetically blessed with good mechanics and their 1st met head access is optimal. Others learn quickly and get a sense for correction just from a little piece like this one. But many people benefit from working with a professional who can expertly analyze motion and determine what’s not working and what needs to be done to fix that. Someone who has a lot of experience. Probably has an advanced degree or two. Is licensed and certified. I’m biased in this arena because I honestly feel the education and training of the physical therapist is the premier HCP to address these issues, particularly if said PT has decades of experience and is an athlete herself or himself. It doesn’t have to be me and not everyone loves the convenience and low cost of cutting-edge online coaching. Just get help if you need it.
Find that 1st met head!