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Want to Improve Athletic Performance? Don’t Overlook the Relationship Between Ankle Mobility and Stiffness

Yes, this sounds like two competing demands, so what do we mean when both attributes are essential for improving performance?  First, I want to make sure we are using similar definitions and assumptions when we say stiff yet mobile.  

There are numerous ankle mobility drills and exercises that coaches prescribe to improve ankle dorsiflexion, which is not a bad thing, I’ll even share a few go to’s.  However, are you incorporating ankle stiffness drills into your programs as well?

When we refer to ankle stiffness in this context, we are not talking about limiting range of motion, instead referring to the ability to instantly contract and relax muscle and utilize the stretch shortening action of said muscle.  It is also just as important to have resilient connective tissue to handle load and help to mechanically produce force in a very short period of time.

The ankle mobility we are searching for in this context is gained through improving ankle dorsiflexion (within reason), certainly not laxity to create more risk of eversion or inversion of the ankle joint.

In short, the right type of ankle stiffness coupled with the right amount of ankle mobility can lead to improved sprinting, landings and agility.  That’s a lot to unpack, so let’s break it down a bit.

Think about the difference in speed you would see if you were to run on a track versus running on airex pads.  Having too much mobility in the ankle and not enough stiffness is going to have a very similar effect.  You won’t be able to create as much force, the ground contact time will be much slower, the list goes on.  

First of all, we need to establish whether our client (or ourselves) needs additional ankle mobility or if we already have a sufficient amount.  Remember, more is not always better, especially when it comes to joint mobility.

The Half Kneeling Ankle Rock (Knee Drive to Wall) is a quick, simple, yet effective assessment tool to check ankle mobility. 

  

Pay attention that the knee is driving over the middle of your foot and not drifting over the big or little toes, that’s gaining mobility by cheating! A very general rule is that if your knee can touch the wall from about 4-5 inches away from the start position, you have the requisite mobility in the ankle, so move on to creating the stiffness.  

However, should you be lacking mobility, a great drill is banded ankle distraction –  You could also go the route of using a roller or ball to address the tibialis anterior, soleus and gastrocnemius first, and then perform the banded distraction or dynamic knee to wall drill, experiment and see what works best for you.

Time to get athletic!  

To improve the ankle stiffness component of athleticism, start with bilateral movements on a firm surface and stick the landings.  Incorporate pogos, which are the most basic regression of a true plyometric movement. You can then progress to landing on a soft surface or a low single leg depth drop and further progress to unilateral stance movements and incorporate locomotion and different planes of motion.  As you progress through the hop continuum, the emphasis on short ground contact time is what we want to focus on. Even adding some light partner contact work (nudges and pushes for multi-joint stability) to land under duress; this is as real as we can get in the gym to mimicking the true reaction and chaos component of sport while still being responsible.

Check out this quick demo of a basic, yet complete warm up/activation series you can perform after your ankle mobility work and before your next S&C session. 

Sprinter Stretch: 8-10 per side to loosen hips, ankles and calves

POGO’s – :20-:30 working ankle stiffness so we want to see most of the movement through the ankles, minimal knee flexion.

Single Leg Depth Drop – working on landing mechanics and making sure to sit butt back and absorb the drop. Start with a small box; you won’t need to add much height to it as you progress. 5-8 reps per leg.

Single Leg Hop to Airex Pad (or other soft surface) – 6-8 per leg with same cues and emphasis as previous exercise – use glutes to help absorb the landings.

Single Leg Hurdle Hops – Medial and Lateral versions are shown here. 3-4 reps per leg.

Make sure to smartly move through the exercise progressions based on mastery of previous variations, but the examples above can be a good place to start. I would love to hear some of your thoughts and go to’s to improve athleticism through the ankle.

Take the first step towards your fitness goals today!

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