Most training programs put major emphasis on the legs, chest, core, and arms - and rightfully so - but some quality TLC should be taken on the ankles and feet. Specifically ankle dorsiflexion and controlling the arch of the foot.
Why is this so important for athletic function and health?
Well for starters, Blackburn et al. (2011) found that restricted ankle dorsiflexion resulted in greater valgus displacement of the knee during jumping, landing, and squatting movements.
Moral of the story, if you lack ankle dorsiflexion, it will affect how well you squat, jump, land, run, etc. Your body will find a way to get into those positions, and if the movement doesn't come from the ankle, it will find it from the foot or knee, either case is not good.
These movements typically require about 110-degrees of ankle flexion. Now if this cannot be reached, a couple of common things typically occur.
1. The knees will cave in to bypass this flexion
2. The feet will collapse to shorten the ROM
Now the body compensated and got into position, but by doing so if created potential problems/issues elsewhere, mainly the knee and foot. And these problems aren't just some sore, cranky joints - these issues are potentially devastating considering increased valgus displacement of the knee is directly correlated to increased risk of knee injury, ie ACL, MCL. So if you still thinks it cool to squat and jump with valgus sign or the feet collapsing, think again!
I've heard many coaches say they see this issue in almost 100% of the athletes they work with, but in my experience it isn't nearly as high. Most of my athletes have adequate ankle range of motion, many times it just comes down to educating and developing proper motor control.
On that same note though, almost all my basketball and football athletes have some degree of restriction.
First off, basketball players live in sneakers 24/7, and all they wear is ankle restrictive shoes. Their sport lives in preventing ankle movement rather than promoting it. These athletes usually have tight ankles and weak feet - and it can make a world of a difference to just get these athletes shoes off and re-engage some of the proprioception and motor learning back into the feet and ankles.
Football players are another one that wear gunky shoes and many tape their ankles day in and day out. If there is a sport that requires great ankle ROM in all planes, football is one; and it is definitely a sport you don't want to get caught in a valgus position.
What We Do
There are a couple of things we do to combat and restore some of these issues
1) Take the shoes off - I'm a big fan of going barefoot for many things. We always warm-up with our shoes off, we like to squat and deadlift with our shoes off - we take off our shoes whenever possible.
We feel it gives a chance for our feet to actually be feet. Instead of being restricted and controlled by shoes, it gives them a chance to act as they intended - feel and form to the ground, provide tons of information via proprioception, and gives the 28 bones and 33 joints of the foot a chance to be free and express movement. (Check out BBA's most popular article of all-time on the feet/ankle HERE)
2) Do ankle ROM drills before jumping, landing, and squatting - If we have an athlete with some ankle restrictions, we'll have them perform some dedicated mobility time before they squat, jump, or land. The thought process is to provide some new range of motion that they can then use during these movements and help establish a better movement pattern. So instead of doing things at the end of a training session, we do them before hand or even during (between sets) to assist the activity.
3) VooDoo That Shiz! - Unless you've been under a rock, you've heard of Kelly Starrett and MobilityWod. I don't agree with all his methods of madness, but I do admit I love his VooDoo or compression bands.
Now let me be upfront, there is no proven reason how these bad boys work - they just do. Here are some proposed reasons and in all actuality it's probably a combination of many different things, but I'm not too concerned with the exact mechanism, because they work and make a huge difference
- Sliding Tissues - Help skin slide better on below tissues
- Compression - Compression is a great and proven method and providing compression can send signals to the joint and brain of added stability/control which can increase ROM
- Blood Flow Restriction - The bands will cut off and push away blood during usage, and then blood supply will return once taken off. This may aid in recovery.
- Form of ART - The band pins down tissues and then promotes active and passive ROM. This can be seen as a form of ART or joint mobility.
4) Roll The Bottom Of Your Feet - Take a PVC pipe or lacrosse ball to the bottoms up your feet and free up some of those joints and tissues down there. Again, in general it's a good idea to give some dedicated time to your tootsies and rolling those guys can not only make the feet feel better but has some proposed benefits up the chain as well with the fascial connections of the plantar fascia. Be warned though, this IS painful and will leave you grimacing like a babay!