If you've never heard of dorsiflexion before, pay attention, because it could be about to revolutionise your running technique.
Dorsiflexion is the movement at the ankle joint where the toes are brought closer to the shin, curling upwards, and decreasing the angle between the dorsum of the foot (the area facing upwards while standing) and the leg. According to experts, athletes should aim to have at least 15 degrees of dorsiflexion to be within normal limits.
It doesn’t always come easy, yet it might be the most important technique that could improve your running.
And if you're taking part in Red Bull Race The Moon between June 21 and July 19 – a Strava challenge calling on participants to run a mile (or more) a day for 28 days to achieve a collective goal of 1.5 million miles – it might just help you to rack up some serious mileage!
Here sprint coach and personal trainer Risqat Fabunmi-Alade shares what you what you need to know...
What is Dorsiflexion?
Dorsiflexion occurs thanks to muscles in the anterior tibialis (read: the front part of your shin that lifts your foot). This relatively simple movement plays a significant part in running technique and can cause complex problems for athletes. When running, the foot is the source of contact with the ground, thus everything that occurs at the foot and ankle carries up the kinetic chain and can affect the knee, hip, lower back and more.
Dorsiflexion may not seem as prevalent when jogging at low-level speeds but, the faster and closer to a sprint you are, the more important dorsiflexion becomes as you apply more force.
Why is it important?
Proper dorsiflexion results in correct foot strike and contributes to injury prevention. Dorsiflexion as you run puts your foot in an ideal position to absorb the shock of the landing and tenses your muscles to spring forward into the next stride. This allows a reduced ground contact time per stride, allowing you to run faster and more efficiently. Those with poor dorsiflexion may experience a ‘loose’ or ‘floppy’ foot due to relaxation at the ankle joint which results in striking the ground through the toes, resulting in poor force distribution that contributes to injuries such as shin splints and runner’s knee. Poor dorsiflexion also reduces the ability to utilise and apply power from the posterior chain muscles.
Unlike the bigger, stronger muscles in the calf, dorsiflexion is less natural and lacking from most recreational runners’ gaits. Therefore, when pushing yourself to become a more accomplished runner or sprinter, a necessary focus should be put on dorsiflexion. Poor dorsiflexion can be caused by several factors. One common and easily fixed issue is flexibility with the lower limb posterior chain muscles: when these are tight they restrict dorsiflexion. Another cause of reduced dorsiflexion is restriction of the ankle joint itself, usually caused by a tight joint capsule, or scar tissue and adhesions occurring in the joint. It could even be caused as a secondary reaction to a previous ankle injury, such as a sprained ankle. Finally, if there is no soft tissue or mobility issue, it may just be that the anterior muscles are weak, fatigue quickly and just aren’t utilised in the first place due to a lack of awareness or correct technique.
How can you tell if you don't Dorsiflex?
- Poor dorsiflexion doesn’t just show up in your running: squatting and lunging are among the most basic athletic movements affected. If your DF is bad you will struggle with both these movement patterns
- Glute activation: there is a correlation between ability to fire the glute muscles and ability to dorsiflex. Which is important as weak and inactive glute muscles are linked to a host of other injuries such as hamstring tears
- Shin pain: shin splints are a common injury and every runner’s worst nightmare
- Knee injuries: over absorption of force through the knees, overpronation of the foot (flat feet) and knee valgus (medial knee displacement) can lead to multiple long-term knee injuries
- Plantar fascia issues: if there is inadequate ankle movement, the plantar fascia (connective tissue that lines the bottom side of the foot) will be directly affected
- Visual checks: have an experienced coach watch your technique, or take videos/pictures of you running to look back and evaluate how you strike the ground. Alternatively, you could book in for some gait analysis at a flagship shoes store or training lab
How to master it
Firstly, just be aware of it and consciously try to DF as you run. This will feel strange to start with, but you are trying to encourage this to be second nature.
The range of dorsiflexion can be improved by a variety of manual therapy techniques. If it is a soft tissue issue, it is about stretching and releasing the calves. Self-massage (using rollers, trigger point balls or hands) along the muscles in the lower leg can offer critical and necessary improvements in biomechanics and mobility, assisting the relief of common foot issues related to a lack of range of motion, limiting dorsiflexion.
Single-leg isometric dorsiflexion holds:
Standing on one leg, lift one knee to hip height with a 90-degree angle at the knee joint with the shin perpendicular to the ground.
Flex the toes of the raised leg upwards towards the shin and hold for 30 seconds. Arms should be held in running position and the glutes of the planted leg should be engaged. Repeat on the other side for 3x sets.
Dorsiflexion with a resistance band:
Attach a band to something stable in a loop e.g. table leg, pole.
Sit on the ground with your leg straight in front of you. Loop the other end around your forefoot/toes. Shuffle back so there is a moderate amount of tension in the band. From there, allow your toes to come forward and then pull them back towards your shins and back for 20 seconds, completing 2-3 sets.
Keep your heels on the ground while pointing your toes upwards without locking the knees. Walk on your heels with your toes pointing upwards for 20m x3 sets, using your arms as you would when running. You’ll start to feel a slight ‘burn’ in your shins. This is not shin splints – congratulations, you are activating your tibialis anterior.