Ankle mobility and flexibility is one of the holy grails of swimming body contortions. For some, it comes easy, while for others, it is more work. Fortunately, we’re here to offer a systematic approach as most tend to address it in a scattershot manner.
To start, we’ll steal from other disciplines such as dance, whose culture is seen to be highly successful at teaching its athletes extreme toe points. You can be a proficient swimmer with limited ankle mobility but it is impossible to make any progress in certain forms of dance.
Although swimming has very little evidence on improving ankle mobility, the dance world has studied the issue thoroughly.
Steinberg (2006) followed over 1,300 female dancers and showed that ankle mobility did not improve with age. There was no specific intervention performed outside their normal dance training. The evidence, however, did not support a hypothesis that experience alone would lead to improvements.
Likewise, Bennell (2001) studied dancers age 8-11 for a year and found no significant changes in ankle dorsiflexion (plantarflexion was not studied) compared to untrained controls. Khan (2000) found no changed in ankle mobility over 12 months among 16-18 year old dancers.
Do these studies mean swimmers have no hope? Not necessarily.
Plenty of swimmers do achieve a full toe point. But what it does mean is that we should be individualized in our approach as one weakness of the studies is that subjects did not receive specific attention, only their normal dance training.
In dealing with those for whom a toe point does not come naturally, the first step is to determine the limitation. There are some for whom a toe point will be easily achievable, especially those with congenital joint laxity. There are others who may never achieve a full toe point and there are those in between who can achieve a full toe point with a systematic approach. The latter group is our main target.
There are three main limitations to identify: Is it (1) a joint issue, (2) a soft tissue restriction, or (3) a motor control limitation?
Swimmers tend to address their toe point with stretching, but that alone is not always the best antidote.
Identifying the source can make all the difference. Although only a trained manual therapist can definitively identify a joint issue, you can still develop a field expedient evaluation process to provide a general idea. As a rough guide, a joint limitation will feel more like a block than stiffness. A soft tissue limitation, on the other hand, will not have as rigid of an end feel (note this excludes pathological states in which other types of joint end feels are common).
STRETCHING + SELF MYOFASCIAL RELEASE
In general, self-myofascial release plus stretching is the most effective, accessible, and evidence-based approach toward improving a toe point.
Some swimmers do one or the other. But both are needed. Static stretching is often maligned as old school, as the preferences in the training world have shifted toward dynamic stretching or complex mobility exercises. This is one area in which static stretching can help. One reason we give 90 days is that it takes months for structural changes to occur in tissues in which they lengthen. The key areas to focus on are the calves, shins, and bottom of the feet.
JOINT and ANKLE MOBILITY
Joint mobility can be indirectly addressed with stretching. But research from the world’s best toe pointers (ballerinas) shows very unique bony alignments that allow these extreme ranges.
Research on dancers has shown that the talocrural joint contributes approximately 70% to the toe point while the interaction of the foot bones adds the final 30%. Also notable is that in dancers with extreme plantar flexion, the talus sits more posteriorly on the talar dome.
Perhaps the most direct way to address joint mobility is through joint mobilization or manipulation. You aren’t going to alter joint mechanics with a few minutes of stretching.
Now, certain techniques are outside the scope of non-medical people, but there are self-mobilization techniques that can directly affect the joint. The key is consistency to cause changes in the joint’s architecture and adaptations to the nervous system to permit a range of motion far outside the norm, especially for those not blessed with natural hypermobility.
For a comprehensive library of ankle SMR see 10 Must Know Tips to Improve Ankle Mobility
Self-myofascial release gets most of the attention in this realm because it is most accessible. But when the opportunity presents, the hands of a skilled massage therapist can also aid in the process to develop an extreme toe point.
A set of hands will be far more precise than a foam roller or lacrosse ball and can be worth the investment if available. But knowing that daily massage for 90 consecutive days is unrealistic for nearly every single swimmer, the self-help methods are the most expedient. Regardless of the method, the main objective is to stimulate the nervous system to effect changes in the tissues.
Consistency is the most important factor to plantarflex your feet onto the ground and improve ankle mobility. Though many swimmers only apply one method to making improvements, a hybrid approach offers the best chances for success.
Stretching, joint mobility, and some form of soft tissue therapy (massage or SMR) should all be part of the equation.
- Steinberg N, Hershkovitz I, Peleg S, Dar G, Masharawi Y, Heim M, Siev-Ner I. Range of joint movement in female dancers and nondancers aged 8 to 16 years: anatomical and clinical implications. Am J Sports Med. 2006 May;34(5):814-23. Epub 2005 Dec 28.
- Bennell KL, Khan KM, Matthews BL, Singleton C. Changes in hip and ankle range of motion and hip muscle strength in 8-11 year old novice female ballet dancers and controls: a 12 month follow up study. Br J Sports Med. 2001 Feb;35(1):54-9.
- Khan KM, Bennell K, Ng S, Matthews B, Roberts P, Nattrass C, Way S, Brown J. Can 16-18-year-old elite ballet dancers improve their hip and ankle range of motion over a 12-month period? Clin J Sport Med. 2000 Apr;10(2):98-103