Why Athletes Must 'Sense the Ground'

Our feet didn't evolve to be in shoes, particularly ones that don't give us proper stability.

Your foot's relationship with the ground is paramount to athletic performance.

Problem is, people are often visually dominant to the point of fault in their balance systems.

Next time you walk down the street, notice how many people walk with their heads down.

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Your foot's relationship with the ground is paramount to athletic performance.

Problem is, people are often visually dominant to the point of fault in their balance systems.

Next time you walk down the street, notice how many people walk with their heads down.

They're relying on their vision to give them a sense of the ground and where they are in space. This is often a compensatory result of losing a relationship with the ground through the feet.

Our feet didn't evolve to be in shoes, particularly ones that don't give us proper stability. Our feet have thousands of sensory receptors on them that allow us to feel where we are in space and the type of surface we're on top of. But chances are, your shoes are acting as a sensory deprivation chamber for your feet.

This brings me to a concept called "grounding."

Grounding refers to our feet and their ability to sense the ground beneath them.

We sense via our plantar proprioceptors and baroreceptors. Their function is to sense changes in pressure on the foot.

The brain has to be able to feel and appreciate the forces going in both directions. If we push down into the floor, the brain must process the floor pushing up into our feet (think physics class and Newton's laws).

Insufficient grounding can take the shape of:

  • "Bouncy" walking, which is categorized by an early heel rise
  • Excessive leaning or weight shifting outside the base of support during movement to counterbalance
  • Increased activity of the low back extensors and calves
  • Decrease in arm swing while walking
  • Feet excessively turned outward

If there is poor grounding, athletes will rely on their visual system to find the ground, causing them to keep their eyes down as opposed to the action taking place around them. This has many negative implications, including:

  • Inability to recruit proper musculature during movement
  • Poor balance
  • Lack of stabilization through explosive movements such as running, jumping and throwing

All of those things add up to compensatory action and potential injury.

Therefore, when we move and train, we need to keep our eyes up, feel stability through our arches, and ensure we can find and feel our heels.

Improved grounding can also lead to more optimal muscle activation.

For example, in a Lunge, first establish a proper foot arch position by pressing your heel, big toe, and little toe into the ground. This is known as the "tripod" position, and it will result in a feeling that your arch is coming up off the ground. This signals you have stability through your foot proprioceptors.

Now, instead of lowering yourself to the ground, think about feeling the ground "come up" to you through your heel as you go into your lunge.

Next, have the intention to "push the ground away" as opposed to simply standing up.

This will activate the proper muscles for stabilizing your femur and pelvis while providing your brain with a sense of the space around you. This helps avoid the need for neuro-reflexive extension movement patterns to keep us upright (when we can't use the proper muscles, we arch our low backs to compensate).

Footwear plays a huge role in being able to sense the ground well during training. The Hruska Clinic's "Shoe List" is the best resource I know of for outlining what to look for in a shoe along with specific models that fit those parameters.

Photo Credit: miodrag ignjatovic/iStock

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Topics: STABILITY AND BALANCE | FOOTWEAR | BAREFOOT