Jan 29, 2015
Recycling a Myth

By Todd Brown, CCS

The speed development world appears to be going green. Here’s a baseless training philosophy that has been recycled as fact: Pull your toe up to your shin! Dorsiflex!

Several speed development coaches have told me that dorsiflexion is the key to not only proper lower body mechanics but also to improving sprinting speed. How? Dorsiflexion initiates the triple flexion mechanism through neural pathways, creating a faster, more efficient recovery process shortly after toe-off to enhance heel recovery, thereby ensuring faster leg speed and better positioning for front side mechanics. Wow, that’s a mouthful!

I’ve heard this explanation at multiple conferences and speed clinics. I felt like the odd man out because I was virtually the only one who wasn’t scribbling in a notebook as quickly as possible. I had a few simple questions that I couldn’t get out of my head: Where did this information come from? Can and has it been tested? Is this mechanism trainable?

J. Bronowski once said, “It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; for they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.” Bronowski’s quote highlights the importance of not blindly accepting information.

Blindly recycling information is a dangerous phenomenon that strikes the speed development field. The inability to question information on a basic level leads to faulty training methodology. Specifically, the triple flexion myth is being perpetuated by many second generation training professionals. The anecdotal information is being recycled to the next generation of trainers and athletes as fact.

A training “guru” states his/her case, and everyone in the audience accepts it as fact and regurgitates it. Before long, it poisons the training world. Briefly, dorsiflexion is said to initiate the triple flexion mechanism (the flexion of the ankle, knee, and hip), which helps accelerate the leg upwards and forward from backswing to the front side of the body while sprinting. This allows sprinters to be in a better position for the ensuing stride.

It all makes sense until we look further into the triple flexion mechanism. There are a few gaping holes in this “fact” when it comes to sprinting.

Noble Prize winner Sir Charles Sherrington discovered the mechanism in the early 1900s. His neurological research with people in comas first illustrated this phenomenon. He found that for the mechanism to occur, there must be a painful stimulus to the sole of the foot. So, unless running on nails is part of the activity, it may not be sport appropriate to train a mechanism such as this. Interestingly enough, the mechanism attenuates (intensity lessens over time) very rapidly. Research has shown that it can be replicated roughly once every 10 seconds, and there has never been any published evidence that this phenomenon occurs during sprinting.

Let’s assume that all this information can be applied to a sprinting athlete–not one who is comatose or sprinting on shards of broken glass–and that it can improve top speed. Is this mechanism trainable? Can we as strength coaches teach something at such incredible speeds?

At “x” amount of degrees per second, can an athlete actively dorsiflex and initiate this phenomenon? If so, how would a strength coach or personal trainer know? Can something this specific be tested?

If athletes improve their sprint time, is it because of this specific factor, or could it be one of many others? At this point, we have the following: A mechanism that applies to comatose patients that can be repeated at a diminishing intensity level roughly once every 10 seconds and can probably not be trained or tested.

Sports performance professionals should reassess some of the concepts regarding maximum speed development and its application to athletes. Misconceptions and flawed interpretations should not form the foundation of athletic development.

All aspects of training are contingent upon the demands of the sport, and to completely ignore scientific evidence only promotes defective methodologies. Speed development professionals must continually challenge views; otherwise our profession will be nothing but recycled mumbo-jumbo.

Todd Brown, CCS, is a sports science consultant working in south/central New Jersey. He has worked with Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and Women’s Professional Soccer. He can be reached at: [email protected]


One question that I have is for sprinting. Do you recommend landing on the heal and rolling on the foot when at full speed, instead of landing on the ball of the foot? Gene Noonan coaches to land with a large dorsi-flexion. We have experimented with it here and it seems to work best, but I have not found conclusive evidence either way. Thanks for your help and have a great day Dave Laing CSCS, USAV www.dlaing.portage.site.eboard.com

Mr. Laing, In what way does it work better than ball of the foot contact? Can you elaborate? Thank you, Todd

Landing on the heel first (large dorsi flexion) and rolling onto the ball of the foot. Many world class sprinters seem to do this when they get up to full speed. It seems to be a smoother transition with less braking for most.

– Dave Laing CSCS, USAV www.dlaing.portage.site.eboard.com

Mr. Laing, Heel strike during sprinting has been conclusively shown to increase braking forces (Komi, Tidow, Wieman, Mann, Mcfarlane, Kyrolainen, Sprague, Delecluse, Cavagna, Belli, Armstrong, Bosch, Weyand, Klomp, Hildenbrand, etc.). This is due to the position of footstrike in relation to the center of mass. Heel strike increases the amortization time drastically, therefore it increases braking forces and stress on the hamstring during the early and middle ground phase, as well as the paradoxical phase. I am very unfamiliar with any world class sprinter running heel to toe at maximum speed. Thank you for your comments, – Todd

Your usual quality of analysis and opinion is lacking here. I truly can not see that you have supported your opinion with anything of substance. Citing a study conducted with [with people in comas] is not making your case.

I have seen athletes get faster with just a simple weight toe-pullback exercise which strengthens dorsiflection. How do you explain my anecdotal experiences?

Where is the supporting commentary from top track coaches? Do you have more to support your position?

– Coach Hoffman

Coach Hoffman, Thank you for your critique. At this juncture, there is not an ounce of scientific evidence that supports what is being perpetuated by various coaches/trainers. In order to prove that the triple flexion mechanism occurs and indeed increases overall sprint velocity, the onus is on the part of the person perpetuating the myth. If there is scientific evidence to the contrary, please provide it. In regard to the exercise that you cite, I agree that this specific exercise may improve speed, but were all other variables controlled? If so, was hip power the reason for improvement, or was the improvement from a reflex mechanism that has never been shown to occur in healthy athletes? The article does not need to provide proof that the triple flexion mechanism isn’t occurring (although there is information to be found), but to stimulate others to provide evidence illustrating that it does occur beyond anecdotal experience. One should not be overly concerned on what top track coaches think, but what exercise and neuroscience has shown. The commentary is mainly to instigate discussion on this topic, and again your comments are greatly appreciated.

– Todd

Shop see all »

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
website development by deyo designs
Interested in receiving the print or digital edition of Training & Conditioning?

Subscribe Today »

Be sure to check out our sister sites: