Training the Weak Link: Feet and Ankles

 A tree’s strength ultimately depends on how strong its roots are. If the roots are weak, then there’s risk that the tree will fall over. The human body is much like a tree, in that we are only as strong as our feet and ankles are. Particularly for athletes, if muscles controlling movements at the hips and knees are very strong but the foot and ankle complex is weak, then power expression will be greatly diminished. There are 26 bones (1/4 of the bones in the human body are in the feet), 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. When there’s weakness, imbalance, poor activation, or poor coordination of the muscles in these areas, the foot and ankle complex doesn’t function properly. This can cause muscles in one area to have to work harder, which can increase stress, leading to soreness, tightness, or an overuse injury because other areas of the body, such as the hips and knees, will have to compensate for the poor foot/ankle mechanics. The structures in the ankle and foot must be strong to create stability, but also mobile to function properly and to reduce the risk of an injury. 

There’s many exercises we can do for the foot and ankle since the structures are so complex. Here’s a list of several exercises that are beneficial for flexibility, mobility, stability, strength, and coordination. 

Flexibility/Mobility
Toe flexion/extension
This action is bending the toes up and down. A stretch can be held for time or you can use your hands to get the range of motion. Then try to hold these positions or move in and out of the end ranges of motion.
Ankle bounces
This exercise is very similar to the toe walks, but done in place and more explosively. Stay on the balls of the feet and start bouncing, finish the movement by getting up on the big toe. The bouncing action of this exercise will help the body use the elastic energy from tendons of the foot/ankle instead of using much muscular energy from the calves.

Vertical Pogo hops/Multi-directional pogo hops
Pogo hops are one of the best exercises for being able to train stiffness and explosiveness from the feet/ankles. If an athlete can create lots of power from the hips and knees, but can’t apply that power into the ground from their feet, then their ability to run faster and jump higher will significantly decrease. When sprinting, the leg is relatively straight when the foot contacts the ground in almost the same exact position as pogo hops.

Jump rope
Same benefits as ankle bounces and lower intensity pogo hops.
Marching/pistons
These exercises work on form and technique for acceleration/top end speed. Focus on optimal foot pressure and mechanics.
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