By Dr. G. John Mullen, Swimming World Contributor.
A swimmer’s propulsion relies a great deal on ankle mobility and flexibility. Unfortunately, the very same swimmers have limited mobility in their stiff ankles. Strength, mobility, and stability are key to effective form in the pool, so give your ankles a little TLC. Don’t let your stiff ankles impede your performance. Try these 10 tips to improve ankle mobility and begin improving your swimming performance!
Importance of Ankle Mobility:
Ankle mobility is crucial in swimmers because it contributes to a forceful kick. Efficient ankle mobility:
- Reduces force pushing against the ankles
- Improves balance in the water
- Improves ability to move the ankles through a larger range of motion
- Allows for more force exerted through the lower limbs
- Reduces strain and pain on the limbs
- Protects the ligaments and tendons in and around the ankle
- Improves explosive power off the wall during turns
- Allows swimmers to get a better feel for the water
Ankle mobility is not just important for performance in the water. It’s critical for jumping off the blocks, too.
Dangers of poor ankle mobility:
What are the effects of poor ankle mobility? The ramifications of poor ankle mobility extend beyond subpar performance in the water. They have a physical effect on the body that can cause significant injury and pain. For youth swimmers, this can lead to a short-lived career in swimming.
The dangers of poor ankle mobility in swimmers include poor range of motion, training imbalances, and overuse injuries. If swimmers have poor ankle mobility, they are at a greater risk for ankle, leg, knee, and hip injuries.
Testing ankle mobility in swimmers:
Assessing ankle mobility in swimmers involves more than looking solely at the ankles. A proper and thorough assessment evaluate knee mobility, hip mobility, and leg mobility, too.
Below are two of our tests for ankle mobility:
10 Tips to Improve Ankle Mobility
1. Self Myofascial Release (SMR) Ankle Dorsiflexors
Using a baseball, lacrosse ball, or foam roller will help swimmers improve range of motion and mobility in their ankles. Mobility with baseballs is effective for swimmers because it tackles so many areas of concern, and it’s affordable. Baseballs and foam rollers for mobility in swimmers targets small muscle groups and problematic trigger points that cause pain and imbalances. Using a baseball also improves blood flow to a concentrated area to deliver more oxygen to muscles and reduce a swimmer’s recovery time after training or a competition. After a hard day in the pool, baseballs and foam rolls for mobility can also improve soreness. Plus, it feels good.
Baseballs and foam rolls for mobility also play a critical role in improving a swimmer’s stroke mechanics, range of motion in the ankle, and muscle length. For example, using a baseball on the anterior tibialis [the ankle dorsiflexors, video below] can greatly improve the toe point. Remember, to improve specific range of motion, we must work on the muscles which do the opposite action. Therefore, to improve plantarflexion (toe point) we must relax the dorsiflexors.
Check out this SMR technique for the ankle dorsiflexors.
2. SMR The Baby Feet Musculature
During a kick, plantar flexibility assists swimmers with kicking out a stronger and quicker motion. But a quick kick isn’t easy with tight plantar fascia or poor ankle mechanics. Limited plantar flexibility is something that develops over the life of an elite or seasoned swimmer, and it can be achieved with youth swimmers, too.
Swimmers with limited plantar flexibility can add exercises to their training regimen to get the desired movement and flexibility that masters swimmers have achieved.
Rolling a baseball under the foot works on the baby feet musculature which becomes tight and often cramps in the pool. This area is also highly dense with vascular structures (arteries, veins, nerves) which may limit ankle range of motion if restricted.
3. SMR Ankle Everters
Continuing the soft tissue work on the ankle, performing SMR on the everters (specifically the peroneal muscles) can help ankle pointing. Although these muscles primary job is to turn the feet away from the centerline, they also help raise the toes. Therefore, if they are overworked and tight (like they are in many swimmers, especially you breaststrokers), then performing some SMR will magically improve your ability to point your toes!
4. Improve Dynamic Mobility Ankle
Everyone is familiar with static stretching, but not many perform dynamic stretching of the ankle muscles. Dynamic stretching is a helpful tool for increasing range of motion and is great as it can also warm up the muscle. This combination makes it a great dynamic warm-up addition!
Dynamic stretching of the ankle can be done on your back, by doing a simple exercise like the foot alphabet or in standing with the heel walk and/or toe walk.
5. Ankle Distraction
In overused joints, the capsule (the structures surrounding the joint) can become tense. In these scenarios, a distraction improves the mobility and range of motion. Unlike the shoulder, where I don’t recommend distraction, the ankle is a stable and secure joint (in the majority of us) making it a safe structure for distraction.
6. Improve Peroneal Neural Mobility
Open a text book or look up the anatomy online and you’ll see nerves lying on the page. This is a poor representation, as nerves are three dimensional and slide/glide throughout the body. These nerves travel through nooks and crannies and if they do not move properly, they can cause a stretch sensation and limit mobility.
The fibular (peroneal) nerve runs behind the fibula and into the front of the ankle. If this nerve doesn’t slide properly, it will limit mobility. This forgotten element of ankle mobility improves with a simple technique, checkout the video below for some fibular nerve flossing.
7. Improve Toe Strength
So far, we’ve talked about mobility, but strength also plays a factor for ankle range of motion. The muscles in your toes play a vital role for grabbing water and propulsion. If these muscles are weak they can also limit ankle range of motion.
See if you can do these two beginner foot exercises:
8. Strengthen your ankles
Strengthen the ankles for improved mobility and power in the pool. You can use weights and traditional exercises to increase ankle strength and mobility. These exercises will help reduce drag, improve explosive power off the wall, and protect the ankles against the force of water in the pool, and build a strong foundation for the start.
One of our favorite ankle strengthening exercises is the elevated heel raise. It is simple, but builds the calf strength while improving range of motion.
9. Ankle Proprioception
Proprioception is the ability of the joint to sense it’s position in space. Many swimmers lack ankle proprioception, making range of motion difficult. USA Swimming dryland expert Mike Mejia suggests balancing as a great method for improving joint proprioception.
Here are a few tools we use to increase ankle proprioception:
10. Static Stretching Ankles
There are a number of reasons why the ankle joint has limited movement. Although static stretching isn’t the first area I focus on (because many swimmers have already worked on this), it can be a helpful tool. The Race Club, specifically Gary Hall Sr., suggests a plethora of static stretching exercises in this post.
Jason Dierking of the University of Louisville suggests calf stretching with the heels elevated and lowered.
Conclusion for 10 Ways to Improve Ankle Mobility for Swimmers
If you are a swimmer who is looking to improve ankle mobility, or you have a youth swimmer who needs to improve his/her kick, attention to the ankle and areas around the ankle are key. Not all exercises will work, as swimmers have specific differences, so keep this in mind. Share those goals and concerns with your personal trainer, swim coach and/or physical therapist.
If you’re looking for more ways to improve your swimming mobility, sign-up for 7 tips to improve your swimming performance!