In the Gym | Hey Swimmers & Everyone, Your Ankles Need Mobility

Posted on August 14, 2013


Here we go, post #2 about my work with a swimmer…but!…this TOTALLY applies to 99.995% of the population (unknown statistical margin of error since I haven’t actually worked with 100% of the population…YET) so read on and see if her issue isn’t your issue!

Swimmer #2 –

This client is a current collegiate swimmer. She has some shoulder issues, as you’d expect from a high-end swimmer who regularly swims 4 hours a day, 6 days a week & knew nothing about soft-tissue massage and mobilization before coming in to see me. But more pressing was a lack of strength in a few areas as well as lacking mobility in a joint you wouldn’t think to look at but that *definitely* makes an impact on the quality of her swim. We’re addressing the ‘lacking mobility’ issue in this post, but will address her strength issues in future posts.

*All of my clients know that watching them move is one way I can determine what joints (and subsequently, which soft tissues) are not moving optimally.* So, I had her squat a few times for me, while facing a door. Why face a door? When many people squat, they fold over at the waist, and this is not what should happen when squatting. A squat should have more of an upright posture in the torso, and if a person has optimal joint range of motion, they won’t bend over at the waist. So, the wall or door being right in front of your face (like, 6” from your face) forces you to remain upright. When a person cannot maintain a more upright torso, we know something’s cooking under the surface…some tissue is not allowing the body to move in such a way as to allow that upright torso, and they end up falling backwards, having their knees cave in or out, rounding their shoulders forward and otherwise having a horrid time facing that wall and squatting to a decent* depth.
*decent meaning hips at or below knees with hips, knees and shoulders all aligned with each other

This is where we found ourselves the first time I had this client squat facing the door…

The Issue:
– during squat assessment, her ankles barely bent as she squatted down, due to extremely tight calves & feet

What does a swimmer do with their legs in the pool? They kick. And a great kicker has mobility in every single joint of their lower body – that means feet, ankles, knees, hips, and lower back. Missing joint mobility in one area means another area has to work harder to make up for what’s missing in the other joint. Any of you swimmers get low back pain? Exactly. Big problem. Any time one part of the body has to take on the work of another part of the body, you’re risking over-use and injury to not only the area taking on the extra work, but even to the area that’s not doing its job because it’s tight and immobile. If an area is immobile, that means it ain’t movin’ right…not moving right means compensation which means injury risk goes up.

Alright, let’s get into today’s work with this swimmer…
Today’s Goal:
– release the overly tight/shortened muscles in the calf and foot to allow her to move her ankle better, which we’ll assess by how deep she can squat (or more specifically, how much she can increase the angle of her tibia & fibula (bones of the lower leg) in relation to her foot as she squats. Greater angle = greater mobility

wall facing squat 1

**notice her head in relation to the door handle, and then note the pic coming up how much lower the person is sitting after releasing their ankles**

The Action:
– release the overly tight muscles & fascia (to review, that’s the stuff that sits over your muscle but under your skin…it’s like saran wrap and has 10x the nerve endings that muscle does) using lacrosse ball & PVC to do trigger point release and soft-tissue massage
– used a lacrosse ball on the feet & heels to release any painful, tight, lumpy, or gravel-ly areas
– used PVC to release her calf muscles, she put pressure on the areas that were tight or painful and stayed on them until they released by 50%
– performed what I would call “old-school” wall stretches for her calves, standing at a wall, placing her heel as close as possible to the wall with her toes pointed up the wall, and then leaning into the wall to create a stretch in her calf
– added on to that stretch by having her twist her ankle while holding the calf stretch. this acts like a sort of “tack & pull” situation on her calf muscles in that her heel is keeping her actual foot from moving but her twisting of her calf allows the calf muscles to rotate from the original stretch and pull in a variety of angles to increase their mobility.
– also had her do one of my faves for foot & calf mobility…sitting on her feet. Try it out, picture below, and lemme know how well you do at keeping your knees, heels, and toes together. Don’t blame me if you cramp up trying it. 😉

Sit on the heels

After we finished that I had her stand up to squat again at the wall, and like a dummy, didn’t have a camera ready to film what would happen, because honestly, I had no idea we’d get such a major body response. Her reaction, and what I saw, when I had her squat is one of the highlights of my job. Just like the previous swimmer who had that awesome grin on his face after we got done with his one shoulder…seeing and hearing the excitement in her voice  as she instantly noticed how much more pliable and move-able she was…ah, it still gives me chills. Her reaction went something like this, “woah, hey, that feels realllllllllly different! look at me squatting!” as she squatted her tush to her ankles. It was awesome.

Since I didn’t catch her squat post-mobility work, I made sure to film swimmer #1’s squat post mobility work since he had the same non-mobile ankle issues that she had. I had him perform a mobility sequence similar to swimmer #2 and made sure to grab a photo of his “post-mobility” squat. This is identical to how my female client looked after we took care of her ankles for the first time. Go back and look at where her head was pre-ankle release, and note that in the pic below, her head was as low as this clients’ is post-ankle mobilization. Crazy right?! I know, it’s friggin awesome.

wall squat 2

This client is over 6ft tall & after releasing his calves has his head far below the door handle!

Next Step:
– maintain this new mobility by going in and doing the same mobility work daily, until we start to see the calves and feet stay mobile on a consistent basis

– start strengthening the foot, ankle, and calf muscles so as to support ideal movement patterns in the ankle

Remember, over time, the body will begin to respond accordingly if you continue to release tissues that previously were glued to each other AND do the strength work that supports the muscles sitting in, and moving in, their more optimal positions. If we just roll out our tissues, but never strengthen the opposing muscles to support proper movement patterns, or strengthen the brain-body connection that says ‘use this muscle, not that muscle to do this movement’-we’ll still have excessively weak muscles, excessively tight muscles, and faulty movement patterns. This particular client is a swimmer, but the same rules apply to gen pop folks…if that ankle ain’t bending well, you got problems heading your way.

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