How Swimmers Can Improve Ankle Flexibility
In the swimming world, shoulders tend to steal the show as far as body parts go. However, giving your ankles a little TLC is a crucial — yet underrated — element of a powerful kick.
Limited flexibility in your ankles turns your feet into anchors, and the last thing you want is to create drag that slows you down. The goal in swimming is to kick water backwards, not downwards, so strong, flexible ankles are needed to create this effective downwards propulsion.
Let’s dive into the reasons why improving your ankle mobility and flexibility has a positive impact on your kick and body position!
Why Flexible Ankles Are Important
According to Columbia Clippers coach Kelsey Lord, it’s helpful to think of your foot as a a fin when swimming.
“A dolphin has a fin to push the water to help them kick, but for humans, it’s our feet that finishes the kick. Strong ankles propel you through the water and help with the timing of your kick,” she said. “If your feet are stiff, you rely more on your hips and knees, which is less efficient.”
This compensatory movement leads to a breakdown in your performance. When you drive your kick from the hips and knees, your balance is negatively affected and you lose your streamlined body position. If you use your knees in the freestyle or backstroke, for instance, your kick will start to look like you’re running.
“Your knees might come up out of the water, versus the ideal scenario of starting the kick from your hips, using a little bit of your knees and then finishing the follow-through with your feet to get some propulsion,” said Lord. “It’s amazing how important your ankle flexibility really is.”
Following through with your feet is not only more efficient, but it also can prevent injury. Knee pain, shin pain and overuse of the quads and hamstrings can all occur when you kick from the knees. Poor ankle flexibility leads to cramping in the calfs as well, which is never fun.
Ultimately, ankle flexibility boosts your power, speed and stability in the water.
How To Improve Ankle Flexibility
Some swimmers are blessed with naturally mobile ankles, but if yours are more on the stiff side, don’t worry! It’s pretty common, and there’s plenty of at-home exercises you can do to loosen them up.
If your ankles are super stiff, start off by just sitting on them for 15 seconds or so. Repeat this movement three to five times. Gradually increase the amount of sitting time or repetitions, and then practice slowly walking your hands behind you to deepen the stretch.
An article from Triathelete.com explains that a lack of plantarflexion (the ability to point foot and toes downward) in the ankle can be due to poor mobility through the ankle joint, or possibly lack of tissue length and flexibility the calf muscles. In either case, the remedy is to actively contract the calf muscle to point the toes down.
This can be achieved through an ankle flex with resistance exercise. Sit on the floor with your legs straight, a resistance band around your foot, and a towel roll under your ankle. With the band loose, point your toes away from you. Then with a taut band, pull back and slowly move your foot back toward you. Repeat for 3 sets of 10.
Or, one equipment-free idea from Lord is to practice tracing the alphabet with your feet. Simply sit on the ground with your legs stretched out, and pretend to use your foot as a pencil to draw each of the letters, from A to Z.
“For freestyle and backstroke, your feet have to be in a pointed position. But the breaststroke is a whole different motion. Your foot is flexed and needs to be able to torque out to the side. Ankle flexibility and rotation is crucial to being able to pull off that sideways turnout,” said Lord.
That’s also why it’s a great idea to point and flex your feet regularly. Just a few minutes a day helps. To add some resistance, you can wrap stretch cords around the foot while doing these simple movements.
Here’s a few more ideas on improving ankle mobility:
- Jumping rope (you’ll also get some great aerobic exercise as an added bonus!)
- Calf raises
- Drop squats
- Ankle rotations
- Practice childs pose
- Use a baseball, lacrosse ball or foam rollers to roll under the foot and outside the shin
- Train with swim fins
- Practice the inchworm exercise
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