Updated: Aug 29
Ankle stiffness is a term being mentioned a lot these days in the strength and conditioning/speed development world. More times than not, when an athlete hears the word stiff/stiffness, they automatically associate it with something negative. Stiffness is usually not categorized as a desired trait, however, when it comes to the ankle and it’s role in sprinting, stiffness is definitely something we want to have.
Stiffness vs Tightness
Stiffness and tightness are two phenomena that are often interchanged. Generally speaking, when a coach refers to stiffness, we are usually referring to the pliability of a tissue, and as I mentioned before, that’s usually perceived by the athlete as something negative. Every muscle in the body has tendons at either end that transmit the force a muscle generates into movement of the attached bones. Attributes such as the shape and size of the tendon effect how much force it is asked to transmit, and how quickly it’s able to transmit it.
One of the largest tendons in the body, the thick and tensile Achilles tendon, can be found at the ankle joint. Above it, attaching directly to the Achilles, are the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the calf. Those two muscles along with the Achilles make up what’s known as a MTU or musclo-tendinous unit. From a behavioral standpoint, Musculo-Tendinous Units have the following properties:
They have extensibility: The ability to be stretched or increase in length
They display elasticity: The ability to return to normal resting length following a stretch
They display irritability: The ability to respond to a stimulus
They have the ability to develop tension: The contractile component of muscle function
Simply put, the muscle should be flexible and responsive to stretch whereas the tendon should be stiff and readily available to transmit force.
Ankle Stiffness and It’s Impact on Sprinting
In regards to efficient sprinting; if the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles are weak and the Achilles tendon is too pliable, we won’t get much spring back when our foot strikes the ground. Our body will be forced to provide all the energy and other muscles higher up the kinetic chain have to create and sustain repeated motion. This mechanical scenario is inefficient and will certainly lead to overuse injuries over time. In an efficient mechanical scenario, our gastrocnemius and soleus muscles are strong (capable of producing a good amount of force when asked to) and the tendon is stiff and springy, allowing us to propel ourselves forward with relative ease and use of significantly less energy doing so. This efficient use of elastic energy is done through the process known as the Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC). We will touch more on this process along with methods of training the SSC, improving muscular strength and tendon stiffness. Contact us today for more information on how we can help you improve your training and athletic performance. #TrainELITE