I am not a contractor. But I know that in order to build a house, or for anything in this world to function properly, the foundation needs to be GOOD. PERFECT. If something is meant to move and conform to different surfaces, such as our foot/ankle when we walk/run, then that is was good means. If it’s not good, the entire chain will be affected. If the house is built on an unstable surface and it wasn’t meant to be, the entire house will be affected. If our ankles/feet (our human foundation) are not working, something is going to have to compensate up the chain so we don’t fall on our face every time we try to move.
I’ve discussed the importance of having good ankle dorsiflexion for squatting, and how if you don’t have that mobility you will probably turn your feet out and your knees will cave in. This is a common fault. Reasons for having this limitation can be from birth, old ankle sprains, poor movement patterns, wearing heels, running without a good mobility regimen, etc. Many reasons. If you’re interested in how lack of this flexibility affects your squatting, please read here. Today I want to focus on how this limited mobility can affect you during walking and running. And give you some tips on how to evaluate yourself and start improving your movement.
This amazing machine we call our body has been built for efficiency. When we walk our body has specific events that occur at specific times so that we can move quickly with the least amount of effort. The feet have 27 bones and I don’t plan on discussing them today. Just note all the work your feet have to do throughout movements. All of the 27 bones of the feet coordinate with the lower leg, right where the ankle joint is. Dorsiflexion of the ankle (video explanation here) is what happens when you pull your toes up towards your shin. This flexibility is required while walking, at the time when we are standing on one leg and in that same leg as we start to step forward with the opposite leg. As these movements happen, the knee an hip respond in ways to help the body move forward smoothly. 
The range required for this movement to occur naturally is 10 degrees. If this range is limited (most of the people I work with barely have 0 degrees which means they can’t even get to neutral) the body finds another way to move forward. A stiff ankle that’s missing range with have what’s called an excessive heel rise, where the heel lifts up earlier than it should because it’s missing mobility. In order to keep the toe from dragging the ground (which our body is trained to stop from happening so we don’t fall on our face) the hip flexors turn on sooner than they should to lift the leg up. An article discussing returning to sport after an ankle injury states ” To compensate for dorsiflexion stiffness, athletes may demonstrate exaggerated hip flexion and inhibited knee flexion, and the foot may rise from the floor.” 
Here’s a video to demonstrate the excessive heel rise. This person has a prosthetic leg, but it will look like something similar if a person just has limited ankle mobility. Watch how much he has to lift his leg to move forward (excessive hip flexor use).
All of these things may not sound bad, especially without all the other details that happen involving the entire body. But imagine your hip flexors working harder than they should and more often than they were built to work. The results is extra tight hip flexors ….. just what we need is more of that with all of our sitting. The femur (leg bone) starts to get pulled forward, as well as the pelvis and lumbar spine. Then we become more dominant with our anterior chain rather than equal work with our posterior chain because we are so used to using our hip flexors. Imagine a runner with this issue trying to train themselves to use less hip flexors (one of the goals of the POSE method). It’s going to be very challenging and I would even say impossible. These things in the long run can even turn into issues for the knee and hip, possibly leading to injuries such as patellar tendonitis or hip impingement. Things we don’t want to experience, especially with the level of activities we do in CrossFit.
So hopefully now you can see why limited ankle mobility is bad for walking/running, as well as how it can affect the entire chain. Let’s look at how you can evaluate your flexibility at home, and what you can do to improve.
The Dorsiflexion Lunge Test
This test measures the ankle flexibility in a position that is most useful (on your feet). Watch the entire video to make sure that you avoid the common mistakes and get an accurate reading. If you don’t have 10 centimeters of mobility it’s a fail. So pass or fail. Measure both sides and compare.
If you pass: nice work!
If you fail: let’s get to work!
- Start by loosening up your entire lower leg with the lacrosse ball or foam roller. This means calves, achilles, lateral leg and shin muscles. This can be overwhelming with the amount of surface area to cover, but you gotta start somewhere.
- Mobilize the bottom of your feet, using a lacrosse ball or Yoga Tune Up ball (my favorite). If those 27 bones and the tissues surrounding them are not moving there’s no way you will be able to get full ankle flexibility. This is because most of the muscles in the foot cross the ankle joint as well.
- Mobilize the calcaneus
- Mobilize the ankle joint like this, this or this.
- Stretch the gastroc and soleus, and make sure you warm them up before workouts.
* Re-test after each and every one of these in order to see which one’s actually work for you! Every body is different and I would hate for you to be doing something that’s wasting your time.
I would also suggest that if you did fail the dorsiflexion lunge test you may want to spend some time working through your anterior hip muscles and quads because you have most likely been overusing these muscles. If you try this at home please let me know how it goes in the comments! Happy mobilizing:) Your feet need to be stable like a house sometimes, but they also need to be able to move and adjust depending on the surfaces and things we are doing. So make sure your feet and ankles are able to give you the proper foundation your body needs!
1. Placzek, Jeffrey and Boyce, David. Orthopaedic Physical Therapy Secrets. Second edition 2006. Page 120.
2. Clanton, Thomas et al. Return to Play in Athletes Following Ankle Injuries. Sports Health December 2012 Vol 4 number 6.