Do You Want Better Running Form? – Raise Your Toes! How Dorsi-flexion can Improve Your Running Mechanics and Economy

Do you want better running form? Every runner does. Proper running for will improve your injury resistance and running performance. Sometimes the smallest and most unexpected things can make a big difference. Your toes are a good example. When you think of improving your running form or running economy you probably do not place much emphasis on your toes. Well guess what? – Your toes play a major role in your running economy and running mechanics. In fact your running form all starts with your toes.

When you raise your toes you are dorsi-flexing your ankle. You are pulling your toes and the front of your foot up towards your lower leg. The opposite of dorsi-flexing is plantar-flexing in which your point your toes towards the ground. Why is dorsi-flexing so important and how does it help improve your running economy? The primary answer lies with one of the most important phases of your running mechanics – ground contact time.

There are two components involved in how fast you run. Stride length and stride rate. A basic equation to determine your running speed is speed = stride length x stride rate. It follows that in order to increase your running speed you need to increase stride length, stride rate or both.

A common mistake many distance runners make is trying to increase their speed by taking longer strides. Over striding, in which your lead foot touches down on its heel, in front of your center of gravity, is the common result. Over striding slows you down because of the “braking effect” caused by your forward foot striking the ground in front of your body and interrupting your forward momentum. Instead of taking longer strides you should maintain a high stride rate of around 90 full strides or 180 single steps per minute, improve your stride length by decreasing your ground contact time, and increase your “air time” or flight time. Your goal should be “big air” and small ground time.

So – how do your decrease your ground contact time and increase your air time? You need to increase your running power or your ability to produce force quickly. The good news is that your muscles probably already have that ability – you just need to let them do their job. There is a principle of muscle physiology called the “stretch-reflex” principle. Your muscles are a lot like springs or rubber bands. When you stretch your muscles they store a lot of energy, just like when you stretch a rubber band. When you abruptly release a stretched rubber band all of that stored energy is released and the band flies across the room. Your muscles are very similar. If you quickly release a pre stretched muscle the stored energy is returned and you produce a lot of power.

What would happen if instead of abruptly releasing the rubber band you slowly decreased the amount of stretch and then let it go? The band wouldn’t fly as far. In the same way, if you allow the stored energy in a pre stretched muscle to be lost you will lose power. When you dorsi-flex your foot you are in effect “pre-stretching the muscles of your calf. In a way you are cocking your muscles and getting them ready to fire. When your dorsi-flexed foot touches down on the ball of your foot or flat footed, directly under your center of gravity, it will suddenly release all of that stored energy at push off. The elastic ability of your muscles is doing a lot of your work for you. As a result your ground contact time is less, your air time is longer and you are running with less effort.

On the other hand, if your foot is plantar-flexed upon touchdown a lot of energy is absorbed by the ground and your calf muscles is forced to lengthen in order to complete a push off. Your ground contact time is longer, your air time is shorter and most of the potential elastic energy is lost. Is ground contact time really that critical? You bet it is! A decrease in ground contact time of just .05 seconds per stride can improve your marathon time by 5 to 10 minutes!

Elastic energy potential, decreased ground contact time and increased air time are not the only advantages provided by dorsi-flexing your foot. Raising the front of your foot also encourages a triple response in which your knee and hip also flex slightly bringing them into ideal position for a proper running stride. In addition a dorsi-flexed foot helps encourage a proper foot strike with your lead foot landing directly under your center of gravity.