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.

9 thoughts on “Fix the feet, fix the knees?

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  3. I would highly reccommend against the aproach you have employed here. Perhaps there is more assessment information beyond what’s disclosed here but if the abducted foot is coming fron a structural discrepancy and not a soft tissue imbalance then you’ll get issues elsewhere up the chain. The abducted foot may be the result of a variety if causes and you need to ID that first through thorough assessment before simply straighteninv your foot

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  5. Christian, you say you “would highly recommend against the approach” employed here. I don’t get it. The post author has described an extremely conservative approach — he said he was trying to consciously direct his foot, and that he was getting positive feedback in the form of feeling good and less stress. Are you saying the post’s author shouldn’t follow the feedback of his own body?

    In my personal experience, the angle of the foot does influence the feeling at the knee a lot. My impulse would be to experiment follow the feeling of things rather than decide ahead of time on some universally ideal angle — the best angle will be different for different activities (say, squat vs. sprint).

    For making feet straighter during running or walking, there’s one really simple thing you can try: shorter, faster steps. A lot of barefoot runners are doing 180 steps/min or above, whereas most heel-striking runners are doing much less. Since feet tend to flare out more on longer steps, reducing that step size by stepping quicker can reduce the flare.

    And you don’t need any high-tech technical equipment or metronomes to measure your pace. Just find a song that you like that has an appropriate number of beats per minute, and keep that song in your head as you run. For example, Joan Jett’s “I love rock n roll” is about 93 beats/min. If you do 2 steps for every beat, you’ll be doing 186 steps/minute. To find out about your own favorite songs, try this website, which will help you find a beats/min for anything your are listening to: . Cheers!

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  8. I’m having the exact same issues you are talking about Murphy. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Christian and Martin, thank you for your points and counter points. Lots of food for thought.

  9. Thank you guys for the videos. I have been struggling with bad posture and duck feet and I knew in some way it was slowing me down but I just didn’t know how. Its frustrating when you can back squat 500 and barely OHS 95. I learned the hard way about my limitations doing pistol squats when I tore my meniscus. It opened my eyes and made me realize that all those years of beach body workouts, I was focusing on the wrong things. Thanks again and wish me luck with my recovery.

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