Dorsiflexion: A Big Cause of Lower Leg Injuries
A friend asked me the other day, what I considered to be the single, most-prominent cause of running injuries. I didn't answer right away. In fact, I told her that I'd have to get back to her with an answer because the question merited some careful thought. I was on my way to teach a week-long ChiRunning course at the Kripalu Yoga Center in western Massachusetts.
During my week of teaching, I was on the lookout for anything that seemed common to most of the runners and walkers I was teaching. Fortunately, there were more than 30 people with whom I could conduct my study. During each class I made a mental note of any form correction that I found myself giving more often than others. By the second day of class, the answer to my study became clearly evident. It was dorsiflexion.
"What in the world is that?" you might ask.
To dorsiflex means to contract the muscles on your shins (the tibialis anterior) which makes your ankle bend in a way that points your toes upward. If you stand upright and try to pick the front of your foot off the ground, you're dorsiflexing.
Here's what I saw many of the runners and walkers in class doing. Every time their legs would swing forward, their toes would point upward. When this happened, they came down hard on their heels with each footfall. So, in order to better understand the effect this had on their bodies, I ran walked for brief periods dorsiflexing my ankles so I could feel it for myself.
As soon as I began dorsiflexing, I could feel my heels hitting hard on the ground. Having dealt with a couple of bouts of plantar faciitis in my past, I knew that this was one of the causes of that dreaded malady. It's easy to get and takes forever to heal.
The plantar tendon runs along the bottom of your foot, beginning at your toes. When it comes to your heel, it wraps over your heel and heads up the back of your leg toward its insertion point at the base of your calf muscle. With a heavy heel strike, the entire weight of your body is coming down onto a very small area of your foot, namely the back edge of your heel, right where the plantar tendon wraps over your heel. When I think about what happens to your plantar tendon when this is going on, I flash back to my childhood and find myself watching a butcher tenderize a tough piece of meat by pounding on it with a meat mallet. Plantar faciitis happens when there is inflammation of the plantar tendon from getting beat up. The cure for this, of course, is to not let the back of your heel hit the ground when you swing your leg forward. If your lower leg is relaxed (not dorsiflexing) you'll land more on your mid-foot and avoid all the weight of your body coming down on a small, square-inch spot on your heel.
The second thing I noticed was that my forefoot was slapping on the ground just after my heel strike. This brought up memories of my earlier years of training for ultra marathons, before I learned ChiRunning. I would do long runs every Sunday and about 10 miles into the run my feet would begin to burn like they were on fire. I came to realize that the burning sensation was caused by the slapping of my feet. To cure this problem, I practiced landing more on my mid-foot, which meant that I couldn't let my foot fly out in front of my body with each stride. Instead, I let my foot come down directly under or slightly behind my hips and then let my stride open up out behind me after the foot strike. This allowed me to land on my mid-foot which made the slapping problem disappear.
Another thing I noted with the slapping of my foot was that when I was contracting my shin muscles (dorsiflexing), the slapping of my feet would pull against the contracted shin muscle and give enough of a tug that my shins would get irritated within just a few steps. I realized quickly that if I continued this, I'd have a case of shin splints in no time. No thanks.
By relaxing my lower leg as I swung it forward, my mid-foot landing prevented the tug on my shins from happening … an easy fix.
Every time my heel hit the ground, I could tell that I was putting on the brakes with each step. My study of physics tells me that whenever any part of your body (namely your heel) makes contact with the ground in front of your center of gravity, you're putting on the brakes. This, of course will wear out your legs sooner because you'll be working harder to move yourself down the road. Imagine driving your car with the brakes on. It's not a very energy efficient way to get around.
Landing with your heel out in front of your body with each stride is the cause of what I would guess to be the most common running injury… runner's knee. If you're running or walking and leading with your legs instead of your upper body, you're essentially creating a force to your knees with each heel strike. Depending on whether you're a runner or a walker, that means your knees are taking a hit 1200-1500 times with each mile you run or walk. That's a repetitive motion injury just waiting to happen.
On the other hand, when you walk or run without letting your heels swing out front, you avoid almost all of that impact, because the force of the road will sweep your leg to the rear instead of going up into your knee. No pain, no pain.
The ChiWalking Cure
A solution to the problem? Let's talk about walking first, since we all walk. When most people walk, their hips are leading and their upper body is tilted slightly backwards. Their leading leg straightens at the forward end of its swing and they're dorsiflexing, which causes their heel to strike.
There are two things you can do to counteract these injury-creating moves. The first is to teach yourself to not dorsiflex by keeping your lower leg relaxed through all phases of your stride. By relaxing your lower legs, you'll be eliminating any chance of dorsiflexion. Just let your entire lower leg dangle from your knee with every step you take. It also helps to take 3/4-length strides instead of full strides. A shorter but quicker stride is what racewalkers use quite effectively.
The second thing to do is tilt your upper body slightly forward at the hips as you walk. This brings your center of gravity over your hips and changes your stride from a forward swing to a rearward swing. As you tilt your upper body forward it should feel like you're doing a crunch. It's simple to do, but takes some practice and persistence on your part.
Doing this "vertical crunch" will engage your lower abdominal muscles (core muscles). You'll feel your center of balance shift forward and you'll notice that you walk more smoothly and with less impact on your heels. When you're doing it correctly, you'll find yourself hitting on the front of your heels instead of the backs. This new smoothness in your gait will leave you feeling like you're gliding along on one of those moving walkways at the airport.
When you're walking with your stride opening up to the rear, you'll find that it's almost impossible to dorsiflex your ankles. There'll be less discomfort in your knees, hips and lower back. And, your shoes might even last longer because you won't be heel striking like you did before.
The ChiRunning Cure
For you runners, the solution is almost the same. The key, again, is to relax your lower legs during every phase of your stride. If they're relaxed, you can't dorsiflex your ankles. When you engage your lean, let your body fall forward with the pull of gravity and let your heels peel off the ground at the end of each stride. As your heels come off the ground, let your ankles relax and your toes drop. Think to yourself…" Heels up…toes down."
The biggest mistake runners make is thinking that they have to swing their legs forward to run. Not so. With ChiRunning, the emphasis is on having your body falling forward while your legs are swinging to the rear, thus creating balance in your movement. The trick to not swinging your legs forward is to not lift your knees when you run. Pick up your heels instead.
If you're thinking that you might be a chronic "dorsiflexor," watch other runners or walkers and let them be your constant reminder of how you want to move. Awareness is the first step of change, so be on the lookout for dorsiflexion in others and in yourself. By taking away this habitual way of moving you will be taking responsibility for directly lowering your odds of having injuries common to most runners and walkers.