Foot Boost: A Training and Treatment Tool for Feet
10/18/2011 - 9:44 AM
Shrill squeals of squeaking sneakers marked the sudden stops and starts of Andy Murray and David Ferrer during Sunday’s Shanghai final and served as a sonic reminder of Stefan Edberg’s adage that “tennis is a game of legs.”
Movement is so essential to upward mobility in the ATP rankings it’s hardly surprising the world’s top five players—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Murray, Roger Federer and Ferrer—are all known for quick court coverage and finely-tuned footwork.
Coaches and racquet customizers’ commonly video tape players’ swings to provide stroke analysis and remodel racquets to suit players’ swing paths, but can technology aid foot health and footwork?
One coach is using sensor technology embedded inside tennis shoes and corresponding video analysis of a player's movements on court to gain a better understanding of how the feet perform during play. Dr. Allan Grossman, a USPTA coach and podiatrist specializing in treating tennis players at the Harrisburg Foot and Ankle Center in Harrisburg, PA, embeds a sheet fitted with thousands of sensors that pinpoint pressure points inside tennis shoes. The battery-powered device connects to a cuff wrapped around the athlete's ankle to measure pressures on the feet during activity and transmit the data, using Wi-Fi, to a laptop computer, where both doctor and athlete can see exactly where pressure points arise during on-court movement.
His findings have been surprising.
"Conventional thinking is that when tennis players load on the back leg to hit a forehand or plant the foot to change direction that their weight puts pressure on the outside of the foot," Grossman says. "What we learned through thousands of scans of players of all different levels is that in virtually every case the most pressure is applied on the inside of the foot. That's quite surprising—it's the opposite of conventional thinking."
Grossman is applying the data he’s gleaned to help players improve their gait, refine their footwork, prevent injury recurrence and customize orthotics.
“When it comes to your feet, a lot of sports medicine was speculative in that we didn’t know definitively how the feet were behaving inside the shoes during competition,” Grossman says. “With this technology, we can scan the foot in competition, watch the pressure points and show athletes exactly how their foot is reacting as they play tennis. Using this technology, we now have evidence-based medicine to both know how to treat foot, ankle and joint problems and know how to construct the right orthotics that will help each individual the most."
As surfaces have slowed, gear technology has advanced and the game has become more physical, open stances are much more prevalent, and Grossman believes tennis sneakers haven't always stayed in step with other equipment advancements.
"Think about the changes we've seen in racquets and strings and the slower surfaces and then ask yourself: What changes have we seen in tennis sneaker technology during the same period?" Grossman says. "Tennis is more physically demanding now than ever and we've upgraded our training techniques as coaches, but we're not addressing how our feet are functioning in the shoes, and we need do do a better job of building shoes and othortics. Through scans we've found advanced players spend much more time on their toes than club players, and some of those players we've scanned have played in running shoes because running shoes are designed to help you push off your toes."
Dr. Grossman isn’t advising trashing your tennis shoes in favor of running shoes, but he does advocate that more manufacturers apply running shoe technology to their tennis shoes.
“I’m not saying everyone should go out and play in running shoes; I am saying that wearing quality running shoes to play tennis does not lose stability or risk injury versus a tennis shoe, and the advantage of the running shoe is they help you push off and move forward better than most tennis shoes,” says Grossman, who believes scanning technology has both performance and health benefits.
“As a coach, I use the scans as a performance indicator in that you show the player where the pressure and stress applies while they’re on court and help improve their footwork, because players must maximize their footwork to maximize their potential,” Grossman says. “As a doctor it helps me devise the right treatment. Patients’ issues run the gamut from plantar fasciitis to chronic ankle sprains. The key to treatment is not just addressing the symptom; it’s identifying the cause. So when I can see how your feet behave inside the shoe, I can identify the cause and then often help the player without surgery, whether it's correcting a gait issue or creating or testing orthotics. The technology is vital because success in tennis starts from the ground up."