Flex Your Ankles for Speed

Use these three simple exercises to pick up the pace on your next workout.

The need for speed is a small flame that burns deep within all runners, regardless of ability or pace. And while there are plenty of structured plans and training methods for helping you to up your pace and efficiency, one of the best places to start is with body mechanics. Focusing on ankle dorsiflexion – moving your toes toward your shins, or flexing your ankle – during your next run is one tiny tweak that can yield big benefits for all runners.

“A cue I’ve been using a lot lately is to pretend you’re running through wet grass, trying to keep your toes dry,” says Matt LoPiccolo, an assistant coach at a training centre for professional runners that hosts camps for athletes of all levels. This simple visual prompts runners to pull their toes up, as if to keep fresh white kicks clean, and almost immediately improves their mechanics.

“It’s all about decreasing ground contact time,” LoPiccolo says. The lighter you are on your feet, the faster you run – and science backs that up. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise compared elite and novice runners on different terrains and found that the elites exhibited more ankle dorsiflexion at toe-off when running at the fastest speeds. And, according to a study on running biomechanics in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, as you start to pick up the pace, the body lowers its centre of gravity by increasing flexion of the hips and knees and dorsiflexion of the ankle.

LoPiccolo estimates that pulling the toes up results in runners spending one or two per cent less time on the ground. That may not sound like much, but over the course of a run, it can add up to seconds, even minutes, shaved off a race time.

Rather than landing toes first, or forefoot striking, dorsiflexion ideally favours a midfoot landing. “If your ankle is plantar-flexed [your toes are pointed] at ground contact, the balls of your feet will hit the ground first,” LoPiccolo explains. “Dorsiflexion puts the foot back on the ground under the centre of mass, not in front, so that you land as close to midfoot as possible.”

LoPiccolo acknowledges that it takes time to alter mechanics, and he encourages his runners to focus on a tiny tweak, like dorsiflexion, for a small segment of the run (say, 100 metres or two to five minutes), and gently increasing from there. Before you know it, you’ll be flexing without even thinking about it.

Toe Flick Jump Rope

Illustration: Charlie Layton

Jump rope for a couple of minutes while trying to land midfoot. When you jump off the ground, flip toes up.

Ankle Dribble

Illustration: Charlie Layton

Jog with ankle dorsiflexion, but keep strides short and feet close to the ground like you’re running over three-inch “hurdles”. Then try the same drill with 15 and 20cm hurdles.

Bosch Skip

Illustration: Charlie Layton

Shift weight to right leg and as you skip forward, pull left knee up to hip level. Drop left foot back down as you finish a second skip. Use arms to pump forward. Continue skipping on right leg and lifting left knee; repeat on opposite leg.

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