Dmitry Klokov demonstrated ankle flexibility into plantarflexion (i.e. ability to point the ankle like a ballerina) in Performance Potential is Flexibility Dependent . The application to swimming was direct as the ability to generate propulsion with the kick requires swimmers to be able to point their feet.
What about ankle dorsiflexion (i.e. being able to bend the ankle as in a deep squat position)?
In Olympic weightlifting, greater flexibility into ankle dorsiflexion offers the lifter a lower starting point from which to initiate the drive and lift the weight. If the starting position was higher, the lift would resemble a deadlift, the shortened distance of the lift would make it nearly impossible for the athlete to be able to have the time and distance to accelerate the weight upwards in order to get under it. The greater the flexibility of the ankle into dorsiflexion, the greater the lifting distance, thus time, making it easier for the athlete to execute effective Snatch and Clean & Jerk technique.
In swimming, ankle dorsiflexion is equally critical as swimmers need sufficient ankle dorsiflexion to position themselves into a squat position for the push-off at every wall when turning. Ankle dorsiflexion is of special significance to backstrokers who need exceptional range into dorsiflexion to position themselves into a deep squat for the start.
The swimmer who has the greatest amount of contact with the wall (i.e. has the greatest amount ankle dorsiflexion) will have a Force vector pointing directly opposite to the intended direction of travel (i.e. into the wall). Those athletes with poor ankle dorsiflexion instead of pushing directly into and perpendicular to the wall, will push off with a downward vector weakening the push-off while risking one or both feet losing grip, slipping and eliminating any chance of having a competitive start.
A weak start or a start where a foot slips will have a shortened air time and travel distance. A weak start will have the athlete falling into the water, instead of exploding off the wall. A weak start will leave athletes exhausted before they have started to swim, as they play catch up with every competitor who executed a start with exquisite technique.
Strength training is not flexibility training. Training technique is not flexibility training. There is no number of backstroke starts or deep squat repetitions that will increase ankle flexibility. What will happen to the athlete who lacks ankle flexibility as a result of repetitive backstarts, flipturns, and/or strength training is that they will develop compensatory actions leading to soft tissue (e.g. ligament, tendon, muscle), or hard tissue (i.e. bone) injuries. Arch pain in the foot, ligamentous sprains and tendinitis surrounding the ankle, meniscal injuries in the knee, and low back pain are all possible side-effects of poor ankle flexibility. Ice packs, compression clothes, and therapy appointments are exalted as if normal aspects of training and recovery; yet flexibility is rarely cited as a solution. No matter the number of injuries, coaches and athletes fail to learn that attempting to workaround inflexibility always leads to injury (or burn out or max out). Always.
If Olympic weightlifters work to develop full range of motion so that their lifting technique is flawless, then why wouldn’t swimmers?
No, flexibility training is not ‘sexy’ training. Its simple, repetitive, static, solo, meditative training. Flexibility training is in fact harder, far harder than any HIIT workout because athletes cannot hide behind adrenalin or endorphin highs. Flexibility training strips you naked, reveals exactly where you are limited, gummed up and stuck; it humbles you revealing your true skill level. The result, only those who truly seek excellence train flexibility.
Flexibility training is the training which reprograms the body, mind, and spirit as to what are the limits of the athlete. Strength and endurance training do not push the limits of the athlete, they can only be performed within the confines of the available range of motion of the athlete and against the resistance imposed by those limits.
So then why do so few age group and masters athletes spend so little time stretching, developing flexibility? Perhaps it has to do with the perspective that unless they are spending time training the actual sport, then it isn’t training. The problem which arises with this perspective is that the only option for training and competing is uni-dimensional: generate as much power as possible within or against the narrow confines of the athlete’s own rigid limits.
Any athlete who has come against their max knows the feeling: it feels like you hit a brick wall, but, trying to break that wall results in only one thing… hurting yourself, because that brick wall is not weakness, it is not a lack of pain tolerance, it isn’t any of the bull marketed to you by the fitness industry, your trainer, or your coach. Thats all negative motivation and leads to physical and mental health issues, and worst of all, broken spirits.
Those walls are the walls of your own inflexibility, to hit those walls is to hit yourself.
To become frustrated at those walls, is only to become frustrated at your own rigidity, stubbornness, and inflexibility. To hate those walls is to hate yourself. Trying to break those walls leads to one thing and one thing only… self-destruction, slow and steady or all at once.
If all you want is an outcome, then you will bypass proper training, gambling and risking your health to obtain the outcome you seek.
If all you want is an outcome, then I can tell you from first hand experience it isn’t worth it, the finish line you believe will bring closure to your inner turmoil is a mirage. The finish line, the medals, the podium, none of it brings what you truly desire because what you are looking for is not tangible, it is the intangible process of becoming, developing, pushing up against your limits and then deciding to explore what lies beyond them in concert with yourself, not by engaging your fears in hand to hand combat.
Self love, self esteem, self worth don’t arise from punishing and fighting yourself.
If you want an active, fit, healthy lifestyle, then pursue it, not what the sports media and the commercialization of excellence attempt to convince you is right, good, and “healthy”.