Ankle mobility, or lack thereof, is something that I see a lot of in the clinic. When pointed out to the patients that their ankles are as supple as cement blocks, the look on their face is often one of confusion and baffle. After all, the CrossFit athlete typically isn’t out pounding the pavement 25+ miles a week. They usually think about the past two, maybe three days of what they were doing in the gym but rarely past that. Truth is, the current state of their calves and ankle tightness is a product of their entire life. It can be difficult at times trying to explain to a patient that while they are having symptoms in their low back, knee or hip, the actual cause is from the ankle. “So why are my ankles so tight?” they often ask. In this article, we’ll briefly explain why ankle mobility is so important and how to regain it
The average active person takes 10,000 steps per day. The foot, ankle and calf are the first structures to interact, transmit and dissipate the loads caused by those steps. The total of those loads is roughly equivalent to hundreds of tons, or a fully loaded cement truck. That’s just walking around folks; playing, running or working out isn’t even a part of that equation. These loads coupled with time and compensation are enough to make anyone as stiff as steel. So at the very least, the audience is surely foam rolling and stretching every day to undo some of the stiffness. Wait, they aren’t doing it daily? What about monthly? Oh, they aren’t doing ANYTHING?! This is why most ankles move like cement blocks and the heel cord feels like airline cable. It’s ok though. As long as the audience is living and breathing, they can make changes to the issues in their tissues.
A human foot and ankle is a strong, mechanical structure that contain 26 bones (that’s a quarter of all the bones in your body!), 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons & ligaments. With all that being just below the knee, there’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong. One such example is an imbalance or reduction in ranges of motion in those given joints. The range of motion that is classically reduced in all kinds of athletes is dorsiflexion. If standing upright, pulling the toes and ankle up toward the head is dorsiflexion. Pointing the toes and ankles down toward the floor is plantar flexion. The muscles that plantar flex often become stiff and tight very easily and are the major culprits in limited dorsiflexion. The big offenders, the Gastrocnemius and Soleus muscles, originate in the back upper leg, travel down and blend together to form the heel cord or Achilles tendon, which attaches to the heel. There are several methods a trusted clinician can use to assess the mobility of the ankle joint and the surrounding soft tissue structures.
Adequate ankle dorsiflexion is necessary for just about everything in CrossFit, especially squatting. And since squatting is pervasive throughout CrossFit workouts, it’s time to pay attention to those neglected ankles. If dorsiflexion is absent, the foot has no choice but to turn outward. People with tight ankles will also widen their stance to where their feet are well outside their hips. These compensations change the way you load the structures that attach to the knee, hip and low back – not the good kind of change though. People with tight ankles usually own a pair Olympic weightlifting shoes to help them compensate for their stiff ankles. Now I do believe that weightlifting shoes can be beneficial. However, an amateur athlete would be better served working on their mobility issues before learning a dysfunctional squatting pattern. It is better to train through the available ranges of motion and use ergogenic aids, like the weightlifting shoe, when it comes time to compete, not as a crutch to get through a movement.
Simple ways to address ankle tightness include foam rolling the back of the calf and heel cord. For most people, the traditional foam roller doesn’t exert enough force to deform the changes in the tissue that have built up for years. Using a harder surface like a PVC pipe, lacrosse ball or barbell are great tools to get the job done. Just like most mobilizations, the more uncomfortable it is, the greater the change. Speaking of uncomfortable, sometimes more advanced techniques of soft tissue manipulation, like Active Release Technique (ART) or Graston, are required to make the necessary changes to the ankle. Another key here is consistency!. As mentioned above, the calves and ankles didn’t get tight in the past 2-3 days. It took a while for them to get the way they are and it will take a regimented approach to correct them. Be sure to add some banded distractions, like those found at mobilitywod.com, and some heel walking as a part of the dynamic warm-up. Over time that cement and airline cable will start to feel and function like a piece of human tissue once again and that will make you a better athlete.
Dr. Dan Shuman is a Georgia native, a Summa Cum Laude graduate of LaGrange College and a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Life University. He is a nationally certified instructor in Active Release Techniques and CrossFit enthusiast. Call 404-377-0011 to schedule an appointment.