When we assess an individual to find out how we can improve speed, we have to look at everything. Running mechanics are huge and faulty running mechanics are usually due to some type of strength and/or flexibility imbalance that needs corrected.
Speed coaches sometimes refer to your ankles and feet as an athlete’s wheels. Just like a car, if your wheels aren’t right, then you aren’t going to be running fast anytime soon.
The ankle needs to be strong and flexible in order for an athlete to run fast. The ability to dorsiflex the foot properly will be key for you to increase your speed.
Here is why the foot needs to dorsiflex properly:
- An athlete will improve his/her speed two ways – improving stride length and/or improving stride rate. When the foot stays dorsiflexed (toe is pulled toward the calf and the ankle and foot make a capital letter ‘L’), it forms a shorter lever for the leg. A shorter lever can rotate faster than a longer one. The leg is longer when the foot is plantarflexed (toe is pointed out away from the calf). Simple right. Okay, here is where it gets a little complicated.
- In gait, there is something called toe off when the back leg is loaded and ready to spring forward. If the ankle has poor dorsiflexion we cannot effectively use an eccentric contraction of the gastroc-soleus complex to use a stretch reflex for propulsion. The more force throwing into the ground the faster you are propelled in the opposite direction.
- If you have poor ankle mobility and/or flexibility, what you will see is external rotation of the foot to bypass ankle mobility. This puts additional stress on the knee and hip with greater risk of injury.
- The better the ankle dorsiflexion, the better you can recruit the posterior chain (hammies and glutes) for propulsion. The glutes are big acceleration movers.
- After toe off, the foot then has to clear the ground as the leg is brought forward to land. With poor ankle mobility, the foot has to be lifted higher off the ground to clear it (slowing the process). Basically meaning if you can’t dorsiflex your foot properly, it is a longer lever.
So what can we do to improve the ankle flexibility?
Good question. What we do is try to do some active stretching and mobility drills. Here are a few:
- We take a band and wrap it around our foot. Then we plantar flex and dorsiflex against the resistance. We then will move it to the right and left.
- Trying to do calf raises nice and slow all the way up and down pushing through the big toe.
- But, if the ankle is still tight we will get on one knee placing your foot four inches from a wall. Keeping the foot flat, we will see if the athlete can touch the knee straight ahead on the wall, to the right, and to the left (all trying to touch the wall). If the knee can touch the wall, the dorsiflexion is pretty good. If the heel has to come up before the knee can get to the wall, then the dorsiflexion isn’t good. This can be an active stretch that can be done daily to work on the ankle mobility.
Your wheels are important for you to run fast. Get them checked out and eliminate them as a reason why you aren’t running as fast as you can. If you do need to improve the ankle flexibility, then get it done. It could be the only thing you need to do to really drop some time and improve your speed.