Whenever you are standing upright, your foot is obviously the only thing in contact with the ground. Because of this, every interaction between the foot and ground affects the rest of the body. Everything that occurs at the foot and ankle carries up the kinetic chain. What happens at the foot and ankle starts by affecting the knee, then hip, low back and eventually the shoulders and neck. So, if there is a mobility restriction at the ankle, it will cause a chain reaction that will ripple throughout the body.
Dorsiflexion is the ability to pull the top of your foot towards your shin. This is the most common mobility restriction at the ankle joint. An athlete should have somewhere close to 15 degrees of dorsiflexion to be within normal limits.
Poor Dorsiflexion can be caused by several factors. A common cause and most easily fixed is a flexibility deficit with the Gastroc/Soleus complex (muscles of the calf). If they are tight, obviously they will cause a dorsiflexion restriction.
More common than a Gastroc/Soleus restriction is an ankle joint restriction. This occurs when the ankle joint itself is restricted. It is caused by a tight joint capsule and/or scar tissue and adhesions which occur in the joint.
A restricted joint can be a genetic occurrence, but it is more likely caused by an injury somewhere in the lower extremity which causes a change in the movement patterns of the athlete. This is often an ankle sprain which is not rehabilitated properly. An athlete will limit their mobility in an effort to limit pain an allow for maximum joint space for fluid and swelling. After several days of this, the joint capsule begins to tighten down and scar tissue forms. If either of these are not addressed, dorsiflexion will be lost quickly.
A similar process can occur due to other injuries in the lower body, including knee pain, muscle injury, and even hip or back pain. As an athlete limps or modifies their gait, the ankle joint can begin to tighten and limit range of motion.
The Ripple Effect
As the lack of motion carries up the kinetic chain, it will ripple up and eventually cause a problem somewhere. As this happens, it will cause problems in the following areas:
- Squatting and Lunging Patterns: Squatting and lunging are among the most basic fundamental basis of athletic movement. An athlete with poor dorsiflexion will compensate for it somewhere else and will struggle to move cleanly.
- Plantar Fascia: It is a pretty simple link here. If there is a lack of ankle movement, the plantar fascia will be directly affected.
- Knee Injuries: Poor Dorsiflexion will usually cause foot pronation, then knee valgus, which can lead to multiple knee injuries.
- Glute Activation: There is a direct correlation between an athlete’s ability to fire their glutes and their ability to dorsiflex.
- Shoulder Injuries: Many will ask, “Can you really tell me that there is a direct link between the ankle and shoulder?” Read here to understand how they are related.
So, what do we do with a dorsiflexion restriction?
It depends upon the cause. If it is a soft tissue issue (Gastroc/Soleus tightness), it is about stretching the calves. There are several ways to stretch the calves, which we will discuss here. Make sure you follow the rules of flexibility training for athletic performance.
If the cause is a joint restriction, the solution is a little bit more complicated. The list of possible solutions includes:
Dorsiflexion restrictions are incredibly disruptive to the body and equally as complicated to fix at times. Continue to work on all of the options at your disposal until you regain that all important ankle mobility.