Ask the Dryland Coach: Improving Ankle Strength and Mobility

By Mike Mejia, M.S, C.S.C.S

Question: My coaches are always telling me that I have weak ankles and that strengthening them will help with kicking. How do I do that?
Luke, age 14. Orlando, Florida


Answer: You're certainly not alone on this one- many young swimmers tend to lack mobility, strength and stability of the muscles that surround the ankles. And your coaches are exactly right; improving these weaknesses can definitely lead to a more powerful kick. The combination of being able to move your ankles through a larger range of motion, and exert force through that increased range, will stop you from generating your kick at the knee joint (by overusing your quadriceps and hamstrings), and instead, put the emphasis on your hips where you want it.
The following drills can be done a couple of times per week either as a warm-up prior to getting in the water, on off days from the pool, or even as part of your regular dryland program.
The Ankle Alphabet: (For ankle mobility) Sit on a sturdy bench, or at the top of a staircase, and extend one leg so that your knee is completely straight and your foot and Achilles tendon are hanging off the end. Next, start writing the alphabet in capital letters with your foot, making sure to flex and point your toes as much as possible. Be sure to use as large a range of motion as possible with your foot, but keep your knee straight throughout the entire exercise. When you reach the letter Z, switch legs.
Alternating Plantar Flexion/ Dorsi Flexion Holds: (For ankle mobility/ strengthening) Once again, sit on a sturdy bench, or at the top of a staircase, but this time have both legs supported and both feet hanging off. Keeping your knees completely straight, begin by pointing your toes as much as possible (plantar flexion) and hold the end position for 5 seconds. Really try and get those toes down as close to the ground as possible without bending your knees. Then, switch directions and pull your toes up towards you (dorsi flexion) and once again hold for 5 seconds. With this one, you want to try and get the top part of your foot slightly past your heels. If you can only get the top part of your foot even with your heels, you'll need to work on improving the flexibility of your calves. After the 5 second hold, quickly go back to plantar flexion and continue the sequence until you've done 8-10 repetitions in each direction.
Balancing Ankle Sets: (For ankle stability) For this one you'll need something that will make balancing more difficult. Your choices here include an air filled disc pillow available through, a thick, folded exercise mat, or a regular  pillow. Begin by placing the balance device on the ground and standing on it with one leg. Keeping your working leg soft at the knee and your other foot off the ground, simply try and hold this position for 20-30 seconds at a time without falling. After a while you should feel the muscles in the lower leg, all around the ankles and even the sole of the foot working pretty hard. Then switch legs and try it on the other side. When you get better at these and want to make the drill more challenging, you can try moving your arms in various directions as you balance, increasing the time interval, or even closing your eyes. Just be careful with that last recommendation because losing your visual cue makes the exercise infinitely more difficult. 

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