You may already be thinking about your ankles to some extent, trying not to reach your foot forward and aim your heel towards the ground as you run. But the moment before footstrike, when you’re about to collide with the ground, is perhaps the most difficult part of the gait cycle to manipulate because if it goes too wrong you have the largest risk of getting hurt.
What your ankle does in the early part of the leg’s swing phase, however, has a huge effect on how it will later meet the ground and is much easier to change.
- If you rapidly dorsiflex the ankle (like the first runner above) so it’s flexed before you’re in midstance on the other foot, you’ll likely meet the ground with your heels, shorten your stride due to hip flexor tension, and feel excessive tension throughout your body.
- If the ankle is relaxed and somewhat plantarflexed (like the second runner above) just after the foot leaves the ground, and only gradually dorsiflexes as you approach midstance on the other leg, then you’re less likely to heelstrike and excessively overstride and your running will feel much easier.
This is because dorsiflexing your ankle when you bring your foot forward fires a chain of flexor muscles, including your hip flexors and trunk flexors. At midstance this becomes appropriate, since the whole leg and hip and diagonal shoulder are beginning to flex, but before then it restricts your stride length and your ability to run using the transverse and frontal planes of movement. What you’ll feel is just that it tightens you up all over.
So many of my clients dorsiflexed their feet early in the swing phase when I was in New York that I started calling it “American ankles.” Then I moved to the UK and found that most of my clients here do it too. I think it results from growing up in cushioned shoes and sitting a lot but I don’t really know. Once you know what it looks like, though, it’ll jump out at you whenever you see a runner do it.
Take a look at this video of the elite women in the New York City Marathon in 2010:
At the front of the pack you’ll see American distance runner Shalane Flanagan, in white knee socks. She generally has superb form but you’ll see that as her foot reaches its highest point in the air behind her has dorsiflexed her foot to roughly a 90 degree angle to her lower leg.
Compare it to many of the other runners – you’ll see their ankles are still slightly plantarflexed when their foot is at it’s highest point in the swing phase. They begin to flex more actively as the foot begins to move down and forward from that point.
In this video of Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenhein from the same race you’ll see they both also have their feet slightly plantarflexed until they descend from their apex through midstance.
You could go crazy trying to keep track of all your leg joints and coordinate the dorsiflexion of your ankle with your knee and hip, but if you just think of relaxing the tops of your feet the whole time when you run they will dorsiflex at the right time spontaneously. The improvement in timing of the flexion of the entire chain from foot to knee to hip to opposite shoulder and arm will help reduce any excessive overstriding and heelstriking, allow you to take longer strides without slowing down your stride rate, and for many runners will generally reduce effort and improve form.
Unlike many elements of good running form, this one also works for walking, making it much smoother, easier, and more enjoyable.
Give it a try on your next run and let me know how it feels!