While training for the New York City Marathon this past year, I took a nasty spill during a long run and experienced a minor ankle sprain. While it didn’t really hurt to walk, or even to run after a day or two, the minute I jumped into the pool for swim practice and began the first stroke of my freestyle warm up, the searing pain in my ankle reminded me that I was not yet healed. The simple, yet effective exercise that follows is one that all athletes should add to their routine on a daily basis. This is an ankle flexibility stretch that will lead to greater ankle mobility. Remember that flexibility is the ability to take a joint like the ankle through either a passive (think of somebody moving your foot up and down for you), or an active range of motion (moving your foot by yourself) to the end range (the furthest it can go) while mobility is the range of motion by the limb around the joint while the joint is in motion. This simple ankle flexibility exercise has enabled me to speed up the healing process by increasing my ankle mobility and return to swim practice!
How do stiff ankles hamper a swimmer’s efficiency? Simply put, stiff ankles produce excess drag in the water. Upwardly pointing ankles act as an anchor and can really slow you down. The inability to flex the toes downward can also interfere with a good, strong push off at the wall. To compensate, we will most likely begin to use our knees more in the kick, adding excessive knee flexion and straining yet another body part! Achieving full range of motion in both plantar flexion, the pointing of the toes downward, and dorsiflexion, the backward bending of the foot can mean the difference between a stiff, rigid kick and a loose and supple kicking movement through the water. Backstrokers and butterfly swimmers will also benefit greatly from achieving a full range of motion in the ankles.
How to do it: Loop an exercise band around the ball of your foot. Gently pull on the band creating some tension as you point the toes downward and then push the heel forward maintaining the same tension in the band and bring the toes toward you. Best to do this exercise with a raised leg for full range of motion. Aim for at least 10 reps on each foot two times. Then, perform the same movement of the foot (plantar flexion and dorsiflexion) without the band. It is best to perform this exercise before your workout in order to warm up the muscles of the ankle and get that ankle joint ready for some strong kicking!