Importance of Ankle Range of Motion (ROM) for Stance and Balance
As BICP mountain bike skills coaches, we talk a lot about “bending or hinging at the hip” and a “deep bend in the knee” as critical components to finding a proper stance and balance. Often, you encounter riders who just can’t get into Ready Position, find a foot wedge or bracing leg, or slide their hips back for Bike-Body Separation (BBS) drills. To help our riders find improvement, multiple components must be considered in our error detection that could be affecting that rider’s mobility. In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of range of motion (ROM), assessment, and management tools to improve stance and balance, and your students’ overall biking experience.
While dysfunctional or improper movement on the bike can have many causes, approaching these movements (or lack thereof) the way we would in a clinical or gym setting can greatly improve our own coaching and our rider’s outcomes. Using the Kinetic Chain as our guide, and starting from the bottom – up, we begin our assessment with an important, and often, overlooked factor: ROM in the ankle. The body’s kinetic chain is essentially the body’s system of joints that, when working together, form a complex motor unit (Kinetic Chain. (2017, June 7. Physiopedia, . Retrieved 19:35, August 1, 2018 from https://www.physio-pedia.com/index.php?title=Kinetic_Chain&oldid=174782) .
As a personal trainer, I am concerned with potential injuries and lack of performance caused by decreased ROM. As a skills coach, I am concerned with how limited ankle ROM could effect my riders’ abilities and advancement on the bike. *****Note: While decreased ankle ROM is associated with decreased hip ROM, at this time we are only focusing on what is happening in the lower leg. We will address how dysfunctional ankle movement works its way up the kinetic chain by addressing each joint individually and how they play off each other over the next several weeks.*****
Some common errors or issues you’ll see that could be associated with limited ROM in the ankle are:
- “Toe-down” riding style
- Limited or inability to achieve a foot wedge or heel drop
- Hanging off the bars or “in the back seat”
- Inability to create a hinge at hip
- Round low back
- Inability to slide back in BBS drills
- Ankle pain (especially off drops, steep descents or advance/hard braking)
- Knees inward, as if it were gripping top tube
- Inability to open or move knee sufficiently in either BBS drills or cornering
From this list you can see many necessary skills are dependent on proper ankle ROM. A foot wedge, clawing, bracing leg, crouched or squat positions are the obvious ones. Along with all of these issues, decreased ankle ROM is associated with an inability to fire the gluteal muscles properly. This is important because the glutes are one of the largest and most powerful muscle groups we have. A cyclist will be faster and, more importantly, more explosive with these muscle groups working properly.
To understand how decreased ankle ROM may manifest itself, we would first use a squat test off the bike to assess. This includes observation of the following elements:
- Excessive upper body forward lean (glutes and deep intrinsic core muscles will be weak here as well)
- External rotation of foot
- External rotation of tibia
- Internal rotation of femur
- Knees dropping in
- Round lower back
- Decreased ankle ROM can also cause ankle and knee pain. This is often due to tibial/talas bone impingement. This condition causes pain and is exacerbated with hard bracing or flexion. Examples would be off drops, steep descents and hard braking.
This assessment is a great place to start because a ‘low ready’ or ‘crouched’ position has many of the same characteristics or elements as a squat. Any weakness appearing here will also manifest on the bike. Simply put, lacking ROM in one area causes the body to find it somewhere else (path of least resistance), which places a kink in our ‘kinetic chain’ and our ability to attain proper body position on the bike.
Often, ROM issues are caused by overactive and underactive muscles. An easy way to look at this is to observe muscle and/or strength imbalances. Muscles that are often or always in a shortened state have a tendency to become overactive and muscles that are always long or in a stretched state become underactive. While overactive muscles are in a shortened, or what we would think of as a contracted state, it does not mean they are strong. It is just the opposite: Always being short, never firing correctly and inhibiting other muscles groups from doing their job, Overactive and tight muscles truly limit an individual’s ability to move to their fullest potential. A good example is this: Sitting at a desk all day puts our calves (hip flexor complex, hamstrings and MANY other muscles) in a shortened position. Everyday events like pressing down on a gas pedal, wearing high heels, hiking up hills, running, elliptical trainers, etc., only adds to the shortening. The moment we get on our bike and start riding, we find our pedal stroke or foot position are poor. We may find we’re pressing through the toe exacerbating the shortened calf muscles even farther, therefore, not achieving the elongation needed for a full, powerful, pedal stroke.
How do you help your rider if you think some of the issues in finding their skills is related to decreased ROM? Having an awareness of these common issues is step one, so, we’re on the right track! It’s not as easy to make a significant change with riders you see only once for a clinic, but for riders you coach on a regular basis, you have the opportunity to help them manage some of these postural dysfunctions that are affecting their riding. We may not completely correct these improper movement patterns, because we usually can’t. What we can do is make our riders aware of possible issues and give them some ways to manage these issues.
Self-myofascial Release(SMR)/Foam rolling and focused strength training are the two best methods to reduce pain, improve and, hopefully, correct ROM issues around the ankles and up the legs on the kinetic chain. Together, and done regularly, these are likely to improve your rider’s abilities and comfort on the bike.
SMR / Foam Rolling
To foam roll Soleus and gastrocnemius (muscles in the calf), start with the foam roller or ball at the ankle. Roll towards the body. Hit sides and back of calves. Any places with excess pain may indicate an area that needs some special attention and extended rolling times. Foam rolling will:
- Inhibit or help “shut down” overactive muscles. Pressure from foam rolling stimulates the golgi tendon organ (GTO) to “turn off” muscle spindle activity, allowing muscle fibers to stretch, unknot and realign.
- Break up adhesions in the fascia (adhesions keep tissues from gliding smoothly, making movement painful or decreasing it. Adhesions reduce elasticity and can eventually cause permanent damage and change to soft tissue.)
- Increases circulation to the area.
- Increases flexibility and lengthening of the muscles to then promote strengthening.
Key Points for Foam Rolling:
- Always roll towards body/lymphatic system
- Look for “hot spots” or painful areas and hold there (10-20 seconds or longer)
- Always roll SLOWLY. Rolling fast or in a back and forth pattern irritates the muscle.
- For deep muscle tissue (i.e. soleus) use a hard rolling or lacrosse ball.
Similar to foam rolling, stretching is also critical in promoting circulation, flexibility, and allowing a rider to lengthen muscles. Stretch gastrocnemius and soleus with the help of a yoga strap, towel or rope. Push heel to ceiling with a slight pull on the strap. Draw the leg in closer to the body without rounding or pushing back into floor. Using a wall or small step to slowly stretch calves, stretch with both a straight leg and then a bent knee.
Key Points While Stretching Soleus & Lateral Gastrocnemius:
- Internally rotate tibia
- Externally rotate femur
- Do not let ankle collapse or foot to rotate
- Do not bounce; move into stretch slowly
- Stretching is most productive with warm muscles and done on a regular basis
Following the foam rolling and stretching, we need to strengthen the them. To begin, we need to activate the shin muscles (Anterior tibialis, extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus) primarily through dorsiflexion (flexing the toes up towards the shin). This is important because, as riders, we use our legs independently of each other on the bike, therefore, we need to be strength training in a similar fashion. Exercises should be done one leg at a time at a ratio of 2:1, meaning your weakest muscle groups should be worked two times for every time you hit your strong leg or group.
Single Leg Reach
- Stand on one foot.
- Start with flexion in the ankle then knee, finally the hip.
- Reach with the opposite hand towards the foot of the leg you are working.
- Be sure to keep your back flat and long, pulling shoulder blades down your spine.
- Your knee should track over your 2nd to 3rd toe with all ankle and knee flexion.
- Arch should not collapse.
- Ankle and heels should not roll inward.
- Toes should not turn outward.
Banded Ankle Dorsiflexion
- Sitting on the ground wrap a band around foot, just above arch.
- Draw the foot back towards your shin.
- Try not to flex your toe back; Rather, lead with the top of your foot, right about where your shoe laces begin.
Please be aware that you and/or your clients/riders could have these or many other issues happening that inhibit movement. These rolls, stretches, and strengthening exercises are just a few of many ways to start addressing range of motion issues that many of us suffer from. Beyond this, if you encounter someone with extensive ROM issues and aren’t qualified to work with a client on it, we recommend connecting with their doctor, a licensed physical therapist, or certified personal trainer for additional recommendations or diagnoses.
It’s important to understand that the causes are not always due to limited ROM in a specific joint that is making them struggle; However, having some knowledge or awareness of how joint ROM effects riders that are continually struggling with certain skills will make you a better instructor and help your client get the most out of their riding.
~Paige Ramsey, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer and BICP Instructor Trainer
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