Ankle Flexibility In Athletics: Underrated & Overlooked!

Perhaps the most overlooked area in flexibility with regards to athletics is the ankle. Coach Wagner focuses on the muscles of the lower leg and their role in ankle flexibility.
    12/26/2001 - Perhaps the most overlooked area in flexibility with regards to athletics is the ankle. Coach Wagner focuses on the muscles of the lower leg and their role in ankle flexibility.

Perhaps the most overlooked area in flexibility with regards to athletics is the ankle. This article will focus on the muscles of the lower leg and their role in ankle flexibility. While the hamstrings, hip flexors, and groin make up the foundation of most stretching regimens, the gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibialis anterior cannot be overlooked. Flexibility of these muscles can improve body positioning both on the field and in the weight room, making movements safer and more efficient.

Range Of Motion

First and foremost is the effect of the ankle's range of motion on an athlete's performance on the field and on the court. Flexibility in the lower leg will allow the athlete to push his/her knee farther over the ankle. This positive shin angle will allow the athlete to get in a lower position while maintaining a relatively vertical torso. The lower center of gravity gives the athlete a stronger foundation to deliver and receive blows, accelerate and decelerate, and change direction.

The basis behind all land-based sports is the ability to put force into the ground, and this upright position enables the athlete to produce force more efficiently due to the transmission through a straight line. This force transmitted through the body into the ground can help the athlete explode quicker from a static position to that of a straight sprint or lateral shuffle.

The greater range of motion in the ankle enhances force production not only by traveling through a straight path but also by increasing the distance over which the force is applied. As the athlete dorsiflexes the ankle to a greater degree, more force is created as the ankle cocks and extends into the ground. Improved dorsiflexion also allows for a more efficient, and faster, recovery of the lower leg as the gastrocnemius acts as a heel flexor.

A greater range of movement in the ankles can often prevent the sprains that are so commonplace in sports that involve constant changes in direction. A comprehensive ankle-flexibility program can prepare the ligaments and tendons of the ankles, as well as the muscles of the lower leg, for the sudden forces that occur in these rapid accelerations and decelerations.

Ankle flexibility also carries over to the weight room, particularly in the Olympic lifts, ensuring proper execution to maximize performance and prevent injury. A large part of the success behind the snatch and clean is the squat. Sufficient ankle flexibility is required to allow the knees to move in advance of the ankles and keep the lifter's hips proximal to his/her heels, resulting in the essential vertical trunk position. This upright position places the center of gravity of the body and bar over the hips rather than the knees.

Proper full squat positioning reduces sheer forces placed upon the knee and lumbar vertebrae of the low back. Optimal ankle flexibility is also required in separating the bar from the platform in the initial stages of both the snatch and clean & jerk as well. Having the flexibility to comfortably keep the knees over the toes enables the athlete to press the entire foot into the platform, transmitting the downward force more efficiently.

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Active Isolated Stretching

A relatively quick and easy ankle-flexibility program incorporates active isolated stretching (AIS), which is based on contracting the antagonist muscle in order to relax the agonist while it is being stretched. The stretch will only be held for 2-3 seconds before returning to the resting position to avoid any response from the golgi tendon organ that might contract the agonist. AIS is convenient for teams and allows a more balanced stretch due to the prescriptions of sets and repetitions. Though a set of 8-10 repetitions for each leg is recommended before and exercise, the total volume will vary depending on the individual's flexibility.

With regards to calf flexibility, two stretches should be performed, one with the legs straight and the other having the legs bent.

Straight Leg Stretch:

    The straight leg stretch targets the gastrocnemius and can be performed alone or with a partner. While standing with the quadriceps contracted, the athlete simply puts his/her foot at an angle and leans forward while keeping the leg straight. If a partner is available, have the athlete sit upright while the partner pushes on the balls of the feet. Again the quads are contracted and the stretch held for 2-3 seconds at a time.

Click Image To Enlarge.
Straight Leg Stretch.
Video Guide: Windows Media - MPEG

Bent Leg Stretch:

    The second stretch focuses on the soleus by having the athlete bend his/her legs. The standing gastrocnemius stretch mentioned above is simply modified by bending the leg and pushing the knee forward.

    The partner stretch involves the athlete lying on his/her stomach with the legs at ninety degrees. The partner then presses down on the soles of the feet towards the ground.

Click Image To Enlarge.
Bent Leg Stretch. Video Guide: Windows Media - MPEG

Both of these stretches involve the contraction of the tibialis anterior, which is vital in the relaxation of the soleus and gastrocnemius, allowing a greater stretch. However, repeated contractions of the tibialis anterior and other activities, such as running on hard surfaces, may lead to problems like shin splints. To stretch these muscles plantarflex the ankle by placing the front of the foot on an elevated surface and squat down. Try to focus on stretching the front of the lower leg rather than the quadricep or hip flexor.