As a field sport athlete, injuries are almost inevitable. I was fortunate to make it to college injury free, but two weeks before the first lacrosse game of my freshman year, wouldn’t you know it, I went down. Rocking hightop Allen Iverson football cleats, which I referred to ironically as ‘ankle breakers’, as a defensive midfeilder I slid and hit a kid taking a shot on goal during practice. My follow through knocked him to the ground and my momentum carried me with him. To catch my balance I took an aggressive step onto his helpless body, inverted my left foot, and fractured my ankle costing me my freshman season.
It was a sports contact injury; not much I could do, but the follow up approach I took still affects me as an athlete today. I taped my ankles every practice, every game, and unfortunately every training session; my ankles were not going to cost me another year. The approach of completely eliminating the ankle from myself and the athletic demands of the sport was the wrong move, and is a mistake I will never make again for another athlete. Although I never missed another practice or game; my feet, calves, and shins took a beating and are still huge limiting factors I have to deal with when training.
The ankle is oft overlooked in training, yet it is one of the most injury prone joints in field sports like lacrosse. So much time is invested in developing strength, power and speed, but an athlete won’t be able to use these tools if they are on shelf because of ankle issues, or issues that appear due to improper ankle care. Ankle issues can also limit full potential of strength, power and speed development. This article is going to take a quick look at what the ankle is all about, and the correct positioning during common movements found in training.
There is a lot going on within the ankle joint, but we are only going to cover the basic anatomy and function. The ankle is a hinge joint, and on its own, only has the ability to move through one plane of motion, the sagittal plane. There are two movements through this plane, Plantarflexion and Dorsiflexion. Plantar is pointing the toes down like a ballerina, and Dorsi is pulling the foot up towards the knee. The foot is not just at bay to what the ankle is doing. It has the ability to control Eversion, turning out of the foot, and Inversion, turning in of the foot.
Contraction of the muscles in the lower leg controls the motion of the ankle during walking, running, or jumping. We’ll start with what are considered the pecs of the lower leg, the gastrocnemius (calf) and soleus. These muscles are attached to your achilles tendon and, aside from looking glorious, they control plantarflexion of the ankle. When the ankle is plantarflexed, the calf is in concentric, shortened, contraction. Remember this! Also in the Plantarflexion mix are the peroneals, peroneus longus and peroneus brevis on the front of the lower leg, on the outside below the knee.
The next muscle of focus is the tibialis anterior. Although not as sexy as the calf, it’s arguably more important for protecting the ankles a field sport athlete needs to succeed in their arena and prevent injury. The tibialis anterior is located on the front of the leg, just outside your tibia (shin). It’s the muscle that starts to burn after tapping your toes on the ground, and really gets a pump during cocky walks! This is the muscle that is the primary mover for dorsiflexion of the ankle and controls the inversion of the foot. If you want to protect your ankle, start with the tibialis anterior.
Now that we have taken a quick look at the ankle structurally, I want you to envision any past ankle or lower leg injury experiences that you’ve had. What position was your ankle/foot in? The positions with the highest risk of injury for the ankle is Plantarflexion and Inversion. The ankle, or any joint, absorbing force in an unstable position when landing, planting, or cutting, could take down an athlete who has done everything else right in training. Let’s take a look at some good and bad positions we are very familiar with from the sport of fitness or field sport arena.
We know that an athlete’s success relies on their ability to move through space, whether its is known movements or completely instinctive. The following are familiar examples of training movements and tasks where ankle injuries are common due to bad positioning, and/or set up the athlete for possible non-contact injury during field sport. The most common ankle injuries that occur during are due to making contact with the ground in a plantarflexed and inverted position.
Check out the following ankle positions as the athlete with fantastic legs lands from a jump. The first image shows the athlete descending in plantarflexion with flexed, concentrically contracted calf muscle. As the athlete begins to make contact with the ground, the foot is forced from plantarflexion into dorsiflexion. The action of the calf muscle goes from concentric contraction into a FORCED eccentric, lengthening, contraction. This is extremely damaging to the calf, soleus and the ever important achilles tendon. Eccentric training can be used as a highly effective tool, but we know that true eccentric contraction is extremely damaging to the muscle and volume must be regulated. Now imagine a poor joint position, repeated forced eccentric loading to a group of muscles and repeat over and over, at high speed. That doesn’t end well.
We’ve all heard of lower leg injuries from high rep or high elevation jumps, now let’s look at plantarflexion when applied to sprinting. For this demo, we are going to use the wall to mimic proper sprinting angle and ankle position. Watch as the ground contact forces the foot to transition from plantarflexion to dorsiflexion. Another instance of forced eccentric loading, and again, in this example both the calf and achilles are forced through an eccentric contraction when the foot transitions into dorsiflexion resulting from ground contact. Sprinting hard and fast with a high frequency of foot contact to the ground with plantarflexion puts your calf, soleus and achilles at a high risk for a non contact injury.
If you’re ever running straight ahead in a field sport, odds are you changed direction hard and fast to get that point. Running with a foot in plantarflexion off the ground in hard cutting field sports puts athletes in a high risk position for inversion. Most cuts are reactive, so an athlete must be in the best position to produce a strong, effective cut with no risk of injury. A coaching point we make with all of our athletes is if their foot is off the ground, it’s in dorsiflexion. Period. We want our athletes to think of their foot as a loaded gun, whether sprinting straight away or working their way through a defense. Dorsiflexion allows them to drive against the ground, generating a force versus absorbing force, and is an extremely stable and strong position.
We often speak of knee and shoulder position and how proper posture play huge roles in our ability to instinctively move through space. Dorsiflexion is another big piece of the puzzle in preventing injuries in field sports. Coaches, this position is low hanging fruit and easily identifiable through assessment.
Put your athletes to the test. Assess their foot position in the home position of a deadbug. Do they have tight calves, inverted feet, or imbalances between left and right? Next ask them to simply skip and test their foot position as they move through space. Watch their ankle position as both feet are off the ground, is either foot in plantarflexion? Are both feet in dorsiflexion? They need to be. If you train alone, film yourself. What do you see? Build an awareness of these positions of both your ankles, and your athlete’s ankles.
They may not be a problem now, but how many reps or plays does it take to get hurt?
The way you or your athletes are running, landing or cutting may be a ticking time bomb. If the ankle is the limiting factor in performance, check out how to strengthen and build a Power Ankle.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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