IS DORSIFLEXION YOUR ACHILLES HEEL?

As a field sport athlete, injuries are almost inevitable. I was fortunate to make it to college injury free, but two weeks before the first lacrosse game of my freshman year, wouldn’t you know it, I went down. Rocking hightop Allen Iverson football cleats, which I referred to ironically as ‘ankle breakers’, as a defensive midfeilder I slid and hit a kid taking a shot on goal during practice. My follow through knocked him to the ground and my momentum carried me with him. To catch my balance I took an aggressive step onto his helpless body, inverted my left foot, and fractured my ankle costing me my freshman season.

It was a sports contact injury; not much I could do, but the follow up approach I took still affects me as an athlete today. I taped my ankles every practice, every game, and unfortunately every training session; my ankles were not going to cost me another year. The approach of completely eliminating the ankle from myself and the athletic demands of the sport was the wrong move, and is a mistake I will never make again for another athlete. Although I never missed another practice or game; my feet, calves, and shins took a beating and are still huge limiting factors I have to deal with when training.

The ankle is oft overlooked in training, yet it is one of the most injury prone joints in field sports like lacrosse. So much time is invested in developing strength, power and speed, but an athlete won’t be able to use these tools if they are on shelf because of ankle issues, or issues that appear due to improper ankle care. Ankle issues can also limit full potential of strength, power and speed development. This article is going to take a quick look at what the ankle is all about, and the correct positioning during common movements found in training.

There is a lot going on within the ankle joint, but we are only going to cover the basic anatomy and function. The ankle is a hinge joint, and on its own, only has the ability to move through one plane of motion, the sagittal plane. There are two movements through this plane, Plantarflexion and Dorsiflexion. Plantar is pointing the toes down like a ballerina, and Dorsi is pulling the foot up towards the knee. The foot is not just at bay to what the ankle is doing. It has the ability to control Eversion, turning out of the foot, and Inversion, turning in of the foot.

Positions LabeledContraction of the muscles in the lower leg controls the motion of the ankle during walking, running, or jumping. We’ll start with what are considered the pecs of the lower leg, the gastrocnemius (calf) and soleus. These muscles are attached to your achilles tendon and, aside from looking glorious, they control plantarflexion of the ankle. When the ankle is plantarflexed, the calf is in concentric, shortened, contraction. Remember this! Also in the Plantarflexion mix are the peroneals, peroneus longus and peroneus brevis on the front of the lower leg, on the outside below the knee.

The next muscle of focus is the tibialis anterior. Although not as sexy as the calf, it’s arguably more important for protecting the ankles a field sport athlete needs to succeed in their arena and prevent injury. The tibialis anterior is located on the front of the leg, just outside your tibia (shin). It’s the muscle that starts to burn after tapping your toes on the ground, and really gets a pump during cocky walks! This is the muscle that is the primary mover for dorsiflexion of the ankle and controls the inversion of the foot. If you want to protect your ankle, start with the tibialis anterior.

Now that we have taken a quick look at the ankle structurally, I want you to envision any past ankle or lower leg injury experiences that you’ve had. What position was your ankle/foot in? The positions with the highest risk of injury for the ankle is Plantarflexion and Inversion. The ankle, or any joint, absorbing force in an unstable position when landing, planting, or cutting, could take down an athlete who has done everything else right in training. Let’s take a look at some good and bad positions we are very familiar with from the sport of fitness or field sport arena.

We know that an athlete’s success relies on their ability to move through space, whether its is known movements or completely instinctive. The following are familiar examples of training movements and tasks where ankle injuries are common due to bad positioning, and/or set up the athlete for possible non-contact injury during field sport. The most common ankle injuries that occur during are due to making contact with the ground in a plantarflexed and inverted position.

Check out the following ankle positions as the athlete with fantastic legs lands from a jump. The first image shows the athlete descending in plantarflexion with flexed, concentrically contracted calf muscle. As the athlete begins to make contact with the ground, the foot is forced from plantarflexion into dorsiflexion. The action of the calf muscle goes from concentric contraction into a FORCED eccentric, lengthening, contraction. This is extremely damaging to the calf, soleus and the ever important achilles tendon. Eccentric training can be used as a highly effective tool, but we know that true eccentric contraction is extremely damaging to the muscle and volume must be regulated. Now imagine a poor joint position, repeated forced eccentric loading to a group of muscles and repeat over and over, at high speed. That doesn’t end well.

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We’ve all heard of lower leg injuries from high rep or high elevation jumps, now let’s look at plantarflexion when applied to sprinting. For this demo, we are going to use the wall to mimic proper sprinting angle and ankle position. Watch as the ground contact forces the foot to transition from plantarflexion to dorsiflexion. Another instance of forced eccentric loading, and again, in this example both the calf and achilles are forced through an eccentric contraction when the foot transitions into dorsiflexion resulting from ground contact. Sprinting hard and fast with a high frequency of foot contact to the ground with plantarflexion puts your calf, soleus and achilles at a high risk for a non contact injury.

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If you’re ever running straight ahead in a field sport, odds are you changed direction hard and fast to get that point. Running with a foot in plantarflexion off the ground in hard cutting field sports puts athletes in a high risk position for inversion. Most cuts are reactive, so an athlete must be in the best position to produce a strong, effective cut with no risk of injury. A coaching point we make with all of our athletes is if their foot is off the ground, it’s in dorsiflexion. Period. We want our athletes to think of their foot as a loaded gun, whether sprinting straight away or working their way through a defense. Dorsiflexion allows them to drive against the ground, generating a force versus absorbing force, and is an extremely stable and strong position.

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We often speak of knee and shoulder position and how proper posture play huge roles in our ability to instinctively move through space. Dorsiflexion is another big piece of the puzzle in preventing injuries in field sports. Coaches, this position is low hanging fruit and easily identifiable through assessment.

Put your athletes to the test. Assess their foot position in the home position of a deadbug. Do they have tight calves, inverted feet, or imbalances between left and right? Next ask them to simply skip and test their foot position as they move through space. Watch their ankle position as both feet are off the ground, is either foot in plantarflexion? Are both feet in dorsiflexion? They need to be. If you train alone, film yourself. What do you see? Build an awareness of these positions of both your ankles, and your athlete’s ankles.

They may not be a problem now, but how many reps or plays does it take to get hurt?

One.

The way you or your athletes are running, landing or cutting may be a ticking time bomb.  If the ankle is the limiting factor in performance, check out how to strengthen and build a Power Ankle.

Tex McQuilkin
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Tex McQuilkin

Director of Training at Power Athlete
MS, CSCS, SCCC, CHES
Book a consult with me regarding coaching, training, life, education... anything your heart desires. Click below:
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Former collegiate lacrosse defensive midfielder, 4-year letter winner and 3-year team captain. Coached strength and conditioning collegiately with Georgetown University football, Men's and Women's lacrosse and Women's Crew, as well with the University of Texas at Austin's football program. Apprenticed under Raphael Ruiz of 1-FortyFour-1 studying proper implementation of science based, performance driven training systems. Head coached CrossFit Dupont's program for two years in Washington D.C. Received a Master's in Health Promotion Management from Marymount University in 2010, and has been a coach for Power Athlete since October, 2012.
Tex McQuilkin
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24 Responses to IS DORSIFLEXION YOUR ACHILLES HEEL?

  1. shiroma

    Tex great post! What do you think about this as a potential source of shin splints? By keeping the tibialis anterior under tension could it suffer from overuse? I’m applying the same concept of how tightly a bar is held in a front squat. Allowing the tension to be relieved by releasing the bar affords better positioning. Then add a push press (aka thruster) and you change position of the hands through the top of the movement. I would argue that an athlete should train to pull loose and plant hard. Transition to dorsiflexed on the downward movement and allow free movement on the pull, even if that causes plantarflexion momentarily.

    • There are a lot of factors that play into shin splints; surface, shoes, point of contact with the ground, volume!; so it is hard to say. Plus factor in how long, distance and time, an athlete would need to maintain dorsiflexion and drive. Majority of the field sports an athlete sprints hard for 5-15 seconds and either the play dead stops like in football, or play slows down like in lacrosse or rugby.

      We teach high knee, dive and drive for sprinting, as you see above. The goal is power and explosiveness from the high knee to the drive, and generating as much force in as short a time as possible. We don’t want to pull with our sprints, check out the angle above. If pulling with the hammy, that foot travels back, and a hard, reactive cut could catch that foot in an awkward position. 5-15 seconds of tension in dorsiflexion is sustainable, and powerful. Majority of the athletes we work with need to be explosive for 5 yards straight ahead to 5 yards cutting back and forth while covering 15 yards+. The pull loose plant hard could ease some tension off the Tib, but are they running or sprinting with the unknown possibility to plant and cut at any moment?

  2. Jim G.

    Great article Tex. I think the ankle joint is the red-head step child of performance. Everyone talks about the knees, hips, and shoulders, but ankle is often not addressed.

    For me, I realized my ankles have the mobility of a 90 year old grandpa that hasn’t got off his rocking chair for 20 years. Been working extremely hard on dorsiflexion and smashing my tibialis anterior with a lacrosse ball. Realized my ankles collapse and heels come in pretty bad while squatting…

    • shiroma

      @Jim G: Ditto on that. Pressing through the outside edge of my foot and ‘clawing’ the ground to generate an arch helped so much with my power generation in the dead and squat. Keeps my hips externally rotated and knees tracking properly. My flat footedness finally caught up to me

  3. Travis Jewett

    Just spent a couple weeks working with the local high school freshman PE for introductory weightroom and saw a lot of crappy ankles. It is a very overlooked part of movement and position.

  4. Ingo B

    I get the sprinting aspect, but when jumping, you are to land with feet already dorsiflexed? Is the impact less damaging than absorbing the landing by going from plantar- to dorsiflexion? This question is in the context of jumping in sport, not box/depth jumps.

    • Safe to assume you are talking about vball based off the pictures posted yesterday? What we are referencing above is FORCED eccentric loading of the calf. When jumping and landing the outside force is always going to be greater than force generated by the muscles, and the muscles are going to try and reverse this on the landing. If you’re calf is flexed and forcing a concentric contraction when the foot comes down, the calf will go through an extremely damaging true eccentric contraction. If you’re foot is neutral and calf not flexed when the foot comes down, the legs will still go through an eccentric contraction, but the external forces are substantially decreased because the concentric contraction after take off was neutralized and the distance the foot/ankle has to travel is decreased.

  5. Murph99

    Ingo B – I am confused by this too. How should your feet land when jumping rope? I would think in plantarflexion (on the toes). are you also supposed to jump down from a box jump and land in a dorsiflexed position?

    • Yes, dorsiflex when using jump ropes and multiple response bounding jumps in your TRAINING if you are interested in TRAINING with skill transfer to sprinting and protecting your achilles/calf. Last I checked field sport athletes don’t get paid to skip rope or jump on boxes… They get paid to play. Remember… What Are You Trining For??

  6. Jeremy Mumu

    What about jogging or double understand? If I remember correctly Kelly Starrett was talking about trying not to strike your achilles when you land on a run. I can understand how the above topic works with a sprint, but can this be applied to running or jump roping? Just need to understand..

    • Jeremy, stay dorsiflexed for double unders if your sport is the sport of fitness. It reduces ground contact time allowing you to cycle faster and reduces excessive eccentric loading since peiple tend to do hundreds of DUs at a time. Its fast AND safe.

  7. Carter

    Cali really needs to shave her legs…

  8. Ingo B

    Tex – I like to think I asked the question for the global, universal benefit of field sport athletes around the world.

    But yeah, volleyball. Thanks for the clarification.

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  10. Ian Nigh

    Great post tex, I’ve been using the dead bug as assessment and cue before lifting and sprinting workouts with good success. Keep this info coming!

    One question though: Where is this athlete with great legs you speak of?

  11. Paul Olson

    Wow. My 13 year old son has had multiple ankle sprains through the years, and this explains it. His plantarflexion is incredible- he should be doing ballet or swimming. His dorsiflexion is horrible- he can’t get past 90 degrees. He always is in the vulnerable position. A pitching coach did an evaluation last week and discovered his limitations. We’re doing the myofascial release and stretching to improve the dorsiflexion, but because of your post, he’ll now learn to consciously put his feet in a more dorsiflexed position.
    You just help save a young kid a lot of pain. Thanks

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  17. Shawn

    I don’t think I agree with this, but I’m willing to listen/learn more. I read that you are trying to limit tendon forces. But in order to create an explosive athlete you need to create thick more efficient tendons. If you watch an elite sprinter like Bolt run they are attacking the ground with plantarflexion creating even more energy transfer for the tendon to contract an uncoil to create an explosive counter movement. And you’re looking to eliminate that from your athletes? Why not embrace functional movement that includes the tendons, but be careful with huge jumps in load or volume. Instead look to utilize the tendon to force it to adapt to be thicker and more efficient?

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