The Importance Of Ankle Stiffness

Admittedly there are a few technical elements to the below article, but the main purpose of it is to help you understand how adding a small amount of plyometric drills into your training can go a long way to increasing your running economy and ultimately get you faster.

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Stiffness vs Tightness

When a coach or exercise scientist discusses stiffness we are usually referring to the pliability of a tissue but it’s not always a negative thing. Every muscle in the body has tendons at either end to transmit the force a muscle generates into movement of the bones. The shape and size of the tendon will depend on how much force it is asked to transmit, and how quickly.

At our ankle we have one of the largest tendons in the whole body. The thick and tensile Achilles tendon. Above it and attaching directly to it sit the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the calf (many others are in the same area but we’ll focus on these). Together they make up what’s known as a musclo-tendinous unit (MTU). 

Simply put, the muscle should be flexible and responsive to stretch whereas the tendon should be stiff and transmit force very readily - like stiff elastic. Imagine 2 tennis balls, one old and soft and the other brand new, stiff and bouncy. If we throw each at the ground which one comes back to our hand with less effort?

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Back to our ankles - if our muscle is weak and the tendon is too pliable we don’t get much bounce back when we stride forwards over the ground. Our bodies have to provide all the energy and other muscles higher up the leg have to create motion over and over again. This is really inefficient and can lead to overuse injuries in time. If in comparison our muscle is strong (produces a good amount of force when asked to) and the tendon is stiff and bouncy, we can propel ourselves forward with relative ease and use far less energy doing so. 

The use of elastic energy in the body is one way in which we can be more efficient. We call the process the stretch shortening cycle (SSC). The good news is we can train the SSC to improve and our tendons can adapt and get stronger/stiffer. The way we train tendons can be by either using heavy slow training (best for injured tendons) or using light and fast movements (like the ankle stiffness drills shown below).

It’s important to note that we have to slowly build up our training of this nature. Tendons can take a while to adapt and too much too soon can be detrimental. That’s why we recommend preparing the foot and ankle with large ranges of motion under lower and slower load before adding the more dynamic SSC drills.

Putting it all into practice:

If this is your first time doing drills like this start off by doing ankle and foot mobilisations before every run and training session for 2 weeks. For a demonstration and coaching points click here.

Then add toe walks and heel walks to your session. For a demonstration and coaching points click here.

Finally, slowly introduce toe taps and pogos in 1-2 short sets of 8-10 repetitions prior to runs. For a demonstration and coaching points click here. These should add a spring to your step and over time you'll be quicker than ever!

By Alex Adams