Ankle Dorsiflexion – The Ultimate Guide for Athletes
Dorsiflexion is a critical component of how your body moves. Every time you walk, run, or jump, your foot relies on the ankle’s ability to move through its correct range of motion.
Unfortunately, many factors can lead to restricted dorsiflexion and ultimately degrade your athletic performance and ability to maximize your training efforts.
This article breaks down what dorsiflexion is, what causes restrictions, and the exercises and tools that can help you regain mobility and improve your athleticism.
What is Dorsiflexion?
Your ankle is a hinge joint that provides your foot’s up and down movement. Dorsiflexion is the movement that brings the foot upwards towards the shin.
The easiest way to remember what direction dorsiflexion moves your foot is to break down the word. The term dorsiflexion comes from the two words dorsal and flexion.
Dorsal is the word in anatomy used to describe the upper side of an animal. If you look at the dorsal fin on a fish, it is located on the upper part of the fish’s body. When you think of dorsal, think of upper and upwards.
Flexion is the action of bending a limb or joint. If you think of flexing your muscles, it is the action of bending your limbs to cause the muscular contractions that allow the movement to occur.
Dorsal + Flexion = Dorsiflexion
From its root words, dorsiflexion is the upward flexing of your foot at the hinge of the ankle.
Muscles Used in Dorsiflexion of the Foot
There are three important muscles responsible for dorsiflexion of the foot and ankle:
- Tibialis Anterior
- Extensor Digitorum Longus (EDL)
- Extensor Hallucis Longus (EHL)
Tibialis Anterior: Located mostly near the shin, the tibialis anterior muscle starts on the outside of the tibia and connects to the middle-inner side of the foot. Its primary function is to dorsiflex and invert the foot. The tibialis also plays a crucial role in injury prevention and athletic movements originating from the feet.
Extensor Digitorum Longus (EDL): The EDL muscle starts on the outer side of the tibia and runs all the way down to your feet. At the top of your foot, the EDL divides into four slips that run down to each of the toes (excluding the big toe.) The EDL both dorsiflexes the ankle as well as extends the four toes it connects to.
Extensor Hallucis Longus (EHL): The EHL sits opposite of the EDL muscle and originates on the inner side of the tibia. Since the EDL muscle divides to accommodate the four lesser toes, the EHL’s purpose is to connect to the one remaining digit on your foot, the big toe. The EHL also assists the dorsiflexion and inversion of the ankle.
Dorsiflexion vs Plantar Flexion
Since your ankle is a hinge, it can move both upwards and downwards. Dorsiflexion is the upward motion of the foot at the ankle, and Plantar flexion is the downward motion moving the foot away from the body.
Plantar is the anatomical term for describing the sole or underside of the foot. If you’ve ever experienced plantar fasciitis, you recognize the pain originating along the bottom of the foot.
It’s then easy to remember that plantar flexion means flexing the foot downward in the direction of the bottom of the foot.
Why Ankle Dorsiflexion is Important for Athletes
Nearly all propulsion requiring the legs (running, jumping, squatting, and lunging) also requires varying degrees of dorsiflexion to be performed correctly. Limitations in your ankle mobility can cause all sorts of issues in your athletic performance.
Let’s first use squat technique as an example of dorsiflexion’s importance. A restriction in dorsiflexion mobility during the squat causes your body to compensate by leaning forward. A forward lean causes the load’s center of gravity to also shift, placing additional pressure on the back, neck, and potentially the entire spine. Not only does this put you in a compromised position for higher risk of injury, but you are also diminishing power output and the overall effectiveness of the exercise.
For running, dorsiflexion is your first line of defense for absorbing shock from the ground with each stride. Improved mobility in the ankle also improves your ground contact time, increasing your turnover rate and overall stride speed and efficiency.
Dorsiflexion mobility restrictions impact both the effectiveness of your training by limiting proper technique, as well as reducing your overall athletic performance in competition.
Reasons for Restricted Dorsiflexion
Medical Disclaimer: If you suspect that you are experiencing an injury, do not delay seeking out advice from your physician or preferred medical provider.
One of the most common minor causes of dorsiflexion limitations is muscle tightness and restrictions in the calf muscles. If you’ve ever experienced sore calves after an intense workout, you’ve likely noticed the pronounced limitations in your ability to walk.
Another common reason for restricted dorsiflexion is scar tissue build-up in the ligaments due to prior injury. Scar tissue can form around the affected area when you damage healthy tissue surrounding the ankle (from as minor as a slight sprain to significant as major surgery). Additionally, continuing to train before an injury fully heals can cause the joint capsule to tighten and further limit dorsiflexion.
How to Improve Dorsiflexion
Restricted dorsiflexion can be a real pain to deal with as an athlete. Many times there are aspects of your athletic performance that suffer right along with the limited mobility.
Luckily, there are several ways you can work towards gradually improving your ankle dorsiflexion:
- Ankle Mobility Exercises
- Self-Myofascial Release
- Calf Stretches
We’ll briefly cover a few mobility exercises in this section. And then, we will also go over self-myofascial release and calf stretches in the following tools and devices section.
Ankle Mobility Exercises
Half-Kneeling Dorsiflexion Stretch:
- Place a standard barbell plate on the ground in front of you (or any 1-2″ flat object like a board or block.)
- Put the ball of your foot on the plate with your heel firmly placed on the ground.
- Keep your heel on the ground, lean forward, and direct your knee over your toes. (Do not let your knees or hips move to the sides.
ABC Ankle Mobility Exercise:
- Sit in a chair with your foot hanging freely without touching the ground.
- Trace the letters of the alphabet in the air with your toes.
- Continue from A to Z and then switch feet.
Resistance Band Dorsiflexion Exercise:
- Have a trainer hold a resistance band behind you (or firmly secure the band to an object.)
- Place one foot on an elevated surface like a plyo-box, bench, or stool.
- Wrap the band around the top of your foot below the ankle joint. (Do not place the band above the ankle joint on the lower leg, You want the downward pressure to be on the upper part of the foot.)
- Lunge forward, keeping your foot flat on the surface.
Tools and Devices For Stretching and Myofascial Release of the Calves
If you want an in-depth dive, check out our recent article on how to release tight calf muscles, where we break down everything you need to know about the causes and tools to improve immobility caused by sore and tight calves. We’ll review the basics and list a few of the best devices below.
Best Calf Stretching Devices:
One of the best ways to improve the dorsiflexion of the foot is to increase the flexibility of the calf muscles. Some fantastic products on the market will help you maximize your stretching practice and improve the functionality of your calves.
Three of the best tools you can add to your stretching corner are the ProStretch Original Calf Stretcher, the Adjustable Slant Board, and the Foot and Calf Stretching Strap.
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Self-myofascial release like foam rolling or using a massage gun is a powerful way to jumpstart the recovery process, reduce muscle soreness, and improve the range of motion in your calves.
Not only will it help release tight calves to improve your dorsiflexion, but there is also an entire cascade of additional benefits from increased blood flow to decreasing trigger point sensitivity.
Adding in self-myofascial release to both your pre-workout and post-workout routine is a simple way to help you maximize your athletic performance and amplify your recovery efforts.