“The legs feed the wolf,” said Herb Brooks, the legendary coach of the US Olympic men’s hockey team that won the gold medal in 1980.
And although Coach Brooks is right that all athletes need strong and powerful legs, they also need ankles that can absorb and produce force while sprinting, jumping and changing direction.
Many strength and conditioning programs put all the emphasis on ankle mobility, using various stretches to improve range of motion. Unfortunately, your wolf pack will go hungry if all your athletes have ankles that twist and crumble when they strike the ground. What if working on ankle stiffness could make athletes sprint faster and change direction more effectively?
Here’s why the right kind of ankle stiffness is key for speed and agility, and how to pick the right preparatory drills for your workouts.
Why Stiff Isn’t Always Bad
Before you think having poor ankle mobility means you must have good ankle stiffness, think again. In this case, the word “stiffness” means something completely different.
Stiff doesn’t have to mean slow and clumsy. In fact, athletic movements like jumping and sprinting require a constant balance between relaxation and tension, with certain muscles tensing up to produce force, and others relaxing to allow for fluid movement. And while you certainly need adequate range of motion in your ankles to get into good acceleration and deceleration positions, you also must learn to create stiffness at a moment’s notice if you want to get quicker and faster.
Every stride during a sprint creates substantial ground reaction forces, and the muscles and tendons surrounding the ankle must absorb these forces to direct force back into the ground and push off for the next stride. If they’re not up to it, energy will be lost at that point of contact. Lost energy means a less explosive, less efficient athlete.
A study, which aimed to “clarify the changes in stiffness variables when maximal speed sprinting performance was developed through long-term training,” concluded that “development of maximal speed sprinting performance through longer step length is accompanied by increases in vertical and ankle joint stiffness.”
Think about trying to run on a floor made of pillows vs. your standard track surface. The instability of the pillows is going to make you run a lot slower, right? Well, same goes for loose ankles incapable of absorbing force.
This also applies to changing direction laterally. Whether you are juking a defender or shuffling to defend an opponent, the ankle must be stiff enough to plant and redirect the body without wasting precious time and energy. You can’t accomplish these things with mobility drills alone.
Once you’ve established that your ankles have enough mobility to move athletically, it’s time to build the right kind of stiffness.
Assessing Ankle Mobility
A lack of ankle mobility can lead to a slow, lumbering athlete, and potential injury at the knees and hips at worst. The Half-Kneeling Ankle Dorsiflexion test is a quick way to assess if you have enough ankle mobility and if you even need to focus on increasing your range of motion. Remember: more range of motion is not always better, especially if strength and stiffness are lacking.
Get into a half kneeling position with your front foot an inch in front of a wall. Push your knee forward over the middle of your foot and try to touch the wall without letting your heel leave the ground or your knee cave in toward your pinky toe. If you can touch the wall with your knee, back up another inch and repeat the test. Continue the test until you can’t touch the wall without your heel coming up, or if you can touch the wall from 3-5 inches away.
If you pass this test from 3-5 inches away from the wall, you have plenty of ankle mobility, and more won’t necessarily help you. Congrats, you can skip the next few exercises! If you’re short of 3-5 inches, you should address your ankle mobility with soft tissue work and mobility drills.
First, use a foam roller, lacrosse ball or Accumobility ball on the calves and anterior tibialis (the muscle on the front of your shin).
Next, use a dynamic stretch such as the Rocking Ankle Mobilization.
And finally, learn to control this new range of motion with end-range liftoffs against a wall.
Once range of motion is addressed, you can move on to prep drills to help you learn how to create ankle stiffness quickly. The best approach starts with in-place, two-legged drills, then gradually progresses to one-leg drills moving forward and side-to-side.
Pogo Jumps teach you how to absorb force and quickly redirect it. The goal is to spend as little time on the ground as possible. Make sure to keep the knees locked and toes up; imagine you’re flipping rocks into the air with your feet as you bounce. Start with Pogo Jumps in place, then progress to Forward Pogo Jumps.
Soft Surface Hops
Unstable surface training is fairly useless for strength training and often unsafe, so skip the Squats on a stability ball. However, jumping and hopping on and off a soft surface such as a foam pad can build ankle stiffness by challenging the athlete’s ability to rapidly fire the muscles that stiffen the ankle.
Start with forward two-legged hops before progressing to one leg at a time. Then, try medial and lateral hops. Try to spend as little time as possible on the pad before jumping off of it.
Medial-Lateral Hurdle Hops
Once you’ve addressed ankle stiffness with pogo jumps and soft surface hops, it’s time increase the challenge with hurdle hops. Hopping over hurdles medially and laterally teaches you to absorb greater force because of the increased height of each jump.
Start with low hurdles and “stick” each rep by holding the landing position for one second. Once you’ve mastered that, you can increase the height of the hurdles and/or go directly into each rep without sticking the landing.
Sample Ankle Prep Program
Here’s a sample ankle prep routine to use before a strength and conditioning session. Follow up this routine with sprinting and/or strength training.
A. Soft tissue work on calves and anterior tibialis x 30-60 seconds per side
B. Rocking Ankle Mobilization (if needed) x 10 reps/side
C. Seated Wall Ankle End Range Liftoffs (if needed) x 5/side (3 sec hold per rep)
Perform 3 rounds of D1-D3 with 30 sec rest between exercises
D1. Pogo Jumps in Place x 15 seconds
D2. 1-leg Forward and Backward Hops on and off soft pad x 10/side/direction
D3. Medial-Lateral Hurdle Hops (Stick landing) x 3/side/direction
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