How Dorsiflexion Optimizes Your Running

How to Improve Your Running Technique

Young woman athlete running

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Dorsiflexion occurs when you raise your foot upward toward the front of your leg. For proper dorsiflexion, you must move your foot toward your shin between 10 to 30 degrees.

Although you might consider this a basic movement, dorsiflexion performs a major role in efficient running and many runners fail at achieving this valuable component of their sport.

Why Dorsiflexion Is Important for Running

Dorsiflexion can help runners become more efficient in the following ways:

  • Decrease injury: A bad foot strike in a repetitive movement like running can open runners up to all kinds of injuries because the body starts to make compensations. As everything moves up the kinetic chain, runners should always seek to improve dorsiflexion to stave off short- and long-term injuries in their legs, hips, back and neck.
  • Lessen the chance of falling: Poor dorsiflexion might increase runners' risk of falling because the foot doesn't land where it should, hence why dorsiflexion is also referred to as "foot drop." This holds especially true when sprinting, as foot strike is vital to speed and power.
  • Reduce finish times: With efficient dorsiflexion, runners can increase speed because they limit the time their feet touch the ground. The more flexion runners create in their ankles, the lighter they become on their feet and the more time in the air they generate. This can reduce finish times by seconds and even minutes in longer races such as a marathon.
  • Increase power: By simply raising your foot 10 to 30 degrees, you can land more mid-foot. This is beneficial because you will land in the center of your mass. This gives you the extra weight you need to push off harder than you could landing more toward your toes.

Causes of Poor Dorsiflexion

You can impair your dorsiflexion and make running more difficult through any of the following:

Nerve damage: One of the most common causes of poor dorsiflexion is compression of a leg’s nerve. In addition, a pinched nerve in the spine can change your gait.

Muscle weakness: Lack of strength in your hip abduction, glutes, thighs and lower legs can cause movement compensations, especially if one side is weaker than another. Runners with dominant right or left sides tend to contact the ground with more force and weight lift with more fortitude on their favorable side.

Injury to your lower body: Injuries to your feet and legs, such as ankle sprains and plantar fasciitis, all the way up to your hips and back can transform the way you move. Your body makes improper adjustments when any of these connective tissues get damaged.

Genetics: Your genetics can predispose you to dorsiflexion issues, such as having leg length and structural discrepancies. Seeking the assistance of a chiropractor can help.

Flexibility issues: If you have tight muscles in your calf or hamstrings or a lactic acid build up due to intense cardio or weight-lifting sessions, your running ability can become restricted.

Ankle restriction: Scar tissues in the joint can cause movement issues. A joint acts as a natural hinge for your foot and when that joint can’t function properly, you can lessen the degree to which you pick up your feet.

Disorders: Any spinal cord disorder, muscular dystrophy, or multiple sclerosis can cause a dragging of the foot on the floor when you move.

Surgery: Hip or knee replacement surgery can generate an unusual gait. Working with a physical therapist can help make this a temporary issue rather than a permanent one.

How to Tell You Have Improper Dorsiflexion

You can self-assess how well you dorsiflex using a series of the following evaluations:

  1. Videotape your foot strike. You could do this with your smartphone at a local track and on a sidewalk or asphalt. This will provide you with a view of your foot strike on multiple surface types. You should watch how far you move your foot off the ground. If you stay flatfooted and push down hard, you can then work on consciously lifting your feet at least 10 degrees on every strike when running until this movement feels natural.
  2. Squat several times. If this movement feels difficult, your dorsiflexion needs fixing. This is most likely due to weak glute muscles. Improperly firing glutes and dorsiflexion restriction have direct correlation with each other.
  3. Lunge. You don’t need to do walking lunges, but take a step forward and then back. Like squatting, if this movement feels challenging, your dorsiflexion could use assistance.
  4. Take a knee to wall test. To perform this, take off your shoes. Move your feet so that your big toe is approximately three to five inches away from a wall and bend the knee of that same leg forward. If you can touch the wall with your knee cap, you have good dorsiflexion. If you can’t touch the wall, your dorsiflexion is limited.

How to Improve Dorsiflexion

You can work on improving dorsiflexion through manual techniques. The first and easiest way is to keep dorsiflexion top of mind every time you go out for a run.

Each moment your foot strikes, work on moving your foot up to your shin.

You can also add isolated exercises to your workout routine. These include the following:

Ankle circles. Stand on one leg and move your free ankle around in large circles. You should work on pushing hard, especially when your foot moves toward your shin. You could hear a clicking or cracking noise when you do this. This normal sound means you are stretching out the ankle. Repeat 20 times in both clock and counterclockwise directions. Switch feet.

Foam roll. According to the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, foam rolling has short-term effects on increasing joint range of motion without negatively affecting muscle performance. You can pick up a foam roll at running stores or sporting good stores.

To begin, sit on the floor and roll your calf over the foam roll in a slow motion. When you hit a hot spot, a place when your calf burns, keep the foam roll in place for 30 seconds to loosen the muscle. Roll up your entire leg and then switch. You should do this after each run to keep your calf muscles as loose as possible.

Heel walks. Keep your heels firmly on the ground and point your toe up toward your head. Make sure you keep your knees a little bent to avoid locking them. Now walk on your heels with your toes still pointed up. Swing your arms at the same time. Do three sets of 20 meters.

Heel raises. Keep your toes firmly planted on the ground and raise your heels. Do three sets of 20. According to the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, heel raises help improve ankle joint dorsiflexion range of motion.

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