How many of you can touch your toes? Without bending at the knee? Some of you can, folks like me are at about mid shin. (C’mon, I have long legs!) Are the people who are more flexible going to be better runners? Maybe, but maybe not. The key here is being flexible enough. The person who is less flexible still may be flexible enough to complete the task at hand. That is essentially the idea of being functionally flexible. More so, we have come to recognize that the fastest of runners aren’t always the most flexible, either. It has to do with elasticity and running economy- not the point of this post.
What is the point is that doing things like we did in gym class isn’t necessarily going to determine our ability as a runner, or even our likelihood of getting injured due to our “inflexibility.” What I want to show you is a series of tests that you can do that will help determine a) what type of flexibility you have for running and b) if that flexibility needs to be worked on. Establishing this point can then allow us to have discussions about how to stretch and increase our flexibility vs. stretching for the sake of stretching.
All of the following is based off of Jay Dicharry and his book, Anatomy for Runners. If you are into self-help, this is a great resource for you. He essentially has put together a series of tests you can do to see where you are at, in terms of needing to fix issues or identify potential injury sites.
Test 1: Ankle Dorsiflexion
Dorsiflexion is when the top of the foot and front of the shin is flexed. So this can be from you actively flexing your foot towards the sky or from the flexion occurring from your foot landing on the ground when running and the weight of that action causing the flexion. Why having enough flexion is important is because it can directly relate to your ability to cushion your own bodyweight, as well as dictate your stride length. Lacking the right amount of ankle flexibility will shorten your stride length and make your stride more “bouncy.” Effectively, you’ll be less efficient and more likely to have some sort of lower leg injury.
Fortunately, we can test this pretty easily. Here’s how:
- Sit down in a chair with both knee at a 90 degree angle and foot flat on the floor.
- Slide in chair so that knees are just past the toes.
- If you can’t keep your heels on the ground then we now that your achilles tendon is too tight.
That’s all you need to worry about right now. We’ll discuss what to actually do about it in our Flexibility discussion.
Test 2: Dorsiflexion of big toe(s)
The ability for the big toe to have flexion is important for our foot strike as well. If we can’t flex the big toe, then chances are that our plantar fascia is too tight. Anyone who has had “the fasciitis” knows that it isn’t pleasant. It also can limit our form too, as having a big toe that can’t flex means that you affect your push off with your gait. This can affect stride length, as well.
How to test:
- Stay in same position that you ended up in for test #1.
- Keep the ball of your foot on the floor and try to raise just your big toe to a 30 degree angle.
- If you can’t, or the ball of the foot comes off the floor, then the plantar fascia is probably too tight.
Test 3: Hip extension
Hip extension, or when your foot is unsupported and swinging behind your during the running cycle, is vital to running form and running economy. Much like with ankle dorsiflexion, if this is limited, you are limiting the natural length of your stride.
How to test:
- Kneel down on one knee, preferably inside a door jamb. Be positioned so that the femur (quad) of the kneeled leg is vertical. As is the shin of the opposite leg.
- With back against the door jamb, you should have a natural curve along your lower back. Try to flatten this against the door jamb.
- If you can without feeling a stretch, you are good to go. If you do feel a stretch, you should probably put some work in on the hip flexors.
Test 4: Hamstrings
We just talked about the importance of hip extension, but as the leg cycles through, the leg drive (hip flexion) becomes important, too. This requires some flexibility in the hamstrings. Strength is important, as well, but another test. If our hamstrings are tight, we limit this leg drive and again reduce our stride length and economy.
How to test:
- Lie on your back with on leg straight out on the floor.
- Flex the other leg so you can interlock your fingers behind your knee.
- Straighten at the knee and pull foot toward ceiling
- If with a straight leg, you can reach 70 degrees, then you are good to go.
Test 5: Squat test
The remaining tests I am going to show are really more about general strength, but as we do these, it really becomes apparent that these all go hand in hand. For instance, hip flexor flexibility doesn’t do much if we don’t have glute and hamstring strength to pull the leg back during hip extension. With that, the first test is the squat test and what we are looking for is to see what your glute and hamstring strength is.
How to perform:
- Best if you can film (smart phone is perfect), look in a mirror, or have a partner film
- At a right angle to mirror or camera, place hands on hips on hips and perform 5 squats.
- Record and/or review data
What you are looking for: If your shins are leaning forward when in the deepest part of the squat it can mean that your quads are doing the work. What I’ve also noticed is that it can mean that your ankle is inflexible and you are trying to compensate for that! Now, if you can do a nice deep squat and the shins are pretty much vertical, then the hamstrings and glutes are doing the work- this is what you want to strive for.
Test 6: The Bridge Test
The bridge test is a great compliment to the squat test. You may look at it and wonder why we are testing the same muscles twice, and that may be true. However, I like to do both because the test also let’s us see potential flexibility issues and the bridge test may allow us to see certain stability issues. However, yes, we are ultimately looking at glute and hamstring strength in this test as well.
How to perform:
- Lie on your back. Both legs should be bent so that feet are flat on the floor. There should be a roughly 90 degree angle from foot, to back of knee, to butt.
- Now lift backside off floor. There should be a straight line between knee and shoulders. Hold this for 30 seconds. Be making mental notes on what is doing the work.
- Staying in position, now straighten one leg, so that it continues that straight line from foot to shoulder. Hold this for a few seconds.
- Switch legs.
You should not feel tightness in your back, but rather the glutes should be doing the contracting. If you are feeling it in you back, then the glutes are not doing the work and are probably weak. You should also no see any drooping or shifting in the pelvis.
Test 7: One legged squats
Here we are looking at general “core” instabilities. Were aren’t so worried about the ability to do a deep squat, but really what happens to you when put in an unstable environment. Think about it this way, isn’t running a series of hops from one leg to another? It’s a good test to see your balance and what other issues may be exaggerated when you run.
How to perform:
- Have access to a smartphone recording or mirror
- With hands on hips, perform 6 single leg squats and look for what Mr. Dicharry calls “limiters”
Using this data
What these tests are going to tell you is where are you inflexible or just plain old weak? It will really start to narrow your focus down to what needs more of your attention than other things. For instance, my achilles are tight and require constant attention. My balance is ok, so I don’t need to spend as much time on that aspect. From here, we can get into specific things we can do to improve, when to do, and how long we need to do them for. We’ll handle all of those individually in flexibility and strength training discussions.
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