Ankle Flexibility With Olympic Medalist Cassie Patten

Last weekend we were joined by Olympic Medalist Cassandra Patten on our Coach Education Course in Ireland. Having recently retired from swimming, Cassie's already developing into a fantastic coach and joined us in Limerick to find out more about Swim Smooth's coaching methods.

Despite attending the course as a coach, Cassie let us take a look at her freestyle stroke and as you can imagine she has a beautiful stroke technique, with a super high body position in the water:

One thing that is immediately apparent when watching Cassie swim is how hyper-mobile she is in many of her joints, even by elite swimming standards. For instance with her ankles, when sitting down she is able to touch the floor with her toes:

This extreme level of flexibility allows her to produce good propulsion from her leg kick, so much so that she can kick in the region of 70 seconds for 100m with a kick board. A lot faster than most readers of this blog will be able to swim full stroke for 100m!

This is all very interesting but what should you be looking for with your own ankle flexibility?

Good Flexibility But Not Too Much

Studies have shown that even the great Ian Thorpe (who was famous for having an extremely powerful leg kick over 200m and 400m) only developed 11% of his propulsion from his leg kick [1]. For most of us racing over longer distances without the flexibility of an elite swimmer, it is unrealistic to generate significant propulsion from our leg kick.

However, very poor ankle flexibility drops the feet down into the water flow as you swim and adds a lot of drag at the back of your stroke, pulling your legs down low in the water:

If you have poor ankle flexibility some simple stretching exercises are well worth adding into your routine to increase the range of motion of your ankles.

If you are already flexible don't go overboard with this, whilst extremely flexible ankles are a useful attribute in elite pool swimming they will leave you vulnerable to ankle and lower leg injuries, especially when running. If you can point your foot in line with your leg that's plenty of ankle flexibility for adult swimmers and triathletes.

Two Simple Stretches For Your Ankles

The safest way to stretch off your ankles is to sit down on the floor with one leg crossed over your lap, holding your foot and knee to stretch through the shin and upper foot:

Hold this stretch for 30 seconds at a time and only apply a light pressure. Developing your ankle flexibility will take many months and shouldn't be rushed. Treat it is a long term project but along the way you will notice every small improvement benefits your swimming.

A second stretch is to kneel on a soft surface and sit back gently onto your ankles. By itself this may be enough to stretch the ankle but you can increase the stretch by lifting a knee up gently with your hand:

Again, hold for 30 seconds at a time and never force the stretch. If you suffer from any sort of knee pain or injury do not perform this one as it places a little load on the knee joint.

Using Fins

In the Swim Smooth squads we make extensive use of fins when performing drills. Not only do the fins give you good support to focus on improve your stroke technique but they also gradually stretch your ankles at the same time. Used regularly during drills sets fins can make a big difference to your ankle flexibility as the months go by.

We recommend mid-length flexible rubber fins such as these as they provide greater support and propulsion than the shorter zoomer style fins, allowing you to relax and focus on the drill.

A special thanks to Cassie (@CassiePatten) for letting us share her feet with the world(!) also a big shout out to Alan Ward and all the staff at the University Arena for making us very welcome at their fantastic venue in Limerick.

Swim Smooth!

[1] Toussaint, H. M., Hollander, A. P., de Groot, G., Kahman, R., & van Ingen Schenau, G. J. (1990). Power of leg kicking in front crawl swimming. In N. Berme & A. Capozzo (Eds.), Biomechanics of Human Movement (pp. 456-459). Worthington, Ohio: Bertec Corporation.


Jim said...

First stretch seems very helpful in particular and I intend to try it.

Seems like for triathletes, flexibility is less important than being able to swim with the toes "on point," like a ballet dancer. I think that's more a training issue than a flexibility issue.

Denaj said...

Recently discovered the importance of ankle flexibility. It's crucial to squeezing every ounce of propulsion out of the kick.

I teach beginners to act as if they are flicking water off the end of their toes. Thanks for good illustration.

Jamie H said...

Thanks for the tips - but I would also like tips on amount of knee flex in relation to hip flex. Should I be creating a whipping action or a more rigid paddling action?

One more thing....70sec/100m with a kickboard...are you serious? I don't believe it. This would put her on elite swimmers pace with no stroke!!

Adam Young said...

Hi Jamie - believe it! She could sprint 100m freestyle in 55 seconds ish, so it's still a lot slower than her swimming speed.


Charles (SolarEnergy) Couturier said...

I may add that 1:10 for 100m kick is typical of fair Varsity/Club level swimmers. There's nothing unusual there, especially given this fantastic flexibility level.


Mr August said...

Just wondering what her time would be with only using her arms?

Adam Young said...

Hi Mr August, fast - well under 60 seconds.

zackme said...

Jamie's times suggest that when swimming free stroke, her kick must account for more than 50% of propulsion, not 10%. same for a romanian female swimmer I saw, who was kicking at less than 80 sec for 100m.

Adam Young said...

Hi Zackme,

Well that's the interesting thing and the reason why they conducted the study to measure it properly. Some factors to take into consideration with your estimate:

1) Obviously full stroke Cassie's going to swim well sub 60 seconds for 100m, at this speed the wave drag power to overcome increases very quickly with an order 4 to 6, not the normal 3 (cube) relationship. So considerably more propulsion is required to overcome this (provided by the arms).

2) When kicking with a board the whole front end of the swimmer is lifted very high by the bouyancy of the board, whilst the rear is brought very high by the powerful kick, this results in a lower drag factor than full stroke swimming.

3) In full stroke freestyle, the kick timing is linked to the stroke timing (6 kicks to 2 strokes) so the swimmer is limited with their kick frequency as determined by the arm stroke frequency. Kicking with a board there is no limitation here and the swimmer can kick with a very high frequency.

4) At higher velocities the drag introduced by the kick increases, offsetting the propulsion produced to a greater extent.

The study was carefully conducted by a very high quality set of scientists using some special technology and peer reviewed, my money is that they're right! :)


zackme said...

Thank you for the detailed explanation. Very informative. By no means was I questioning the seriousness of the study, but rather trying to reconcile the 10% kick contribution to overall full stroke propulsion with the study measures.

Can't one imagine more than 6 kicks per stroke? Especially with women, who often seem to kick at a higher frequency than men.

Adam Young said...

Hi Zackme,

No, in reality the 6 kicks to 2 strokes is a very strong link and extremely hard to break as the pattern (and siding of the kick) fit so well to the stroke.

Many women may have a higher kick frequency but do they turn over their arms quicker too? I think so.

The apparent vigorousness of the kick is brought about by both the frequency and amplitude of the kick. It's quite possible to have a powerful looking kick that's relatively low frequency because of a high amplitude...


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