The forces that go through the feet and ankles of gymnasts are pretty enormous. Research suggests the ground reaction forces as well as tissue loads may be multiple times body weight depending on the skill or event. The number of repetitions the gymnast is subject to per day/week is also quite high and add up fast between tumbling take offs/landings, dismounts, and gender specific skill work (beam for women, additional dismount landings for men). The high deceleration forces on the lower body of gymnasts can impose quite the eccentric (muscle contracts as it lengthens) load and strain to the tissues. Due to the foot complex being subject to such high eccentric forces, its important to progressively work on building up the tissue tolerance in a safe manner.
If the tissue loading (forces and repetitions) exceeds its tolerance to handle load, it’s were problems and injuries may start to occur. Due to this, it is important to progressively work on strengthening these tissues in an effort to help build up tolerance to these forces. I was at a Functional Range Conditioning course with Dr. Andreo Spina this last weekend (which was fantastic), and I brought this exercise up in the “Eccentric Neural Grooving” discussion. I wanted to quickly share the drill with readers, because I think when used properly its useful to help build up the foot and ankle strength against the high eccentric forces seen in gymnastics.
As you can see, they start with weight on their back leg, and the front foot is positioned so the inside half of the foot is off the beam (or any step/mat). You can use someone or another object for balance. They will shift their weight forward, while slowly allowing their foot to drop eccentrically into pronation. Then they lean their weight back and bring their front foot back to the start position. No pain in the ankle joint or Achilles/bottom of foot should occur, it should just be challenging or impose a muscular effort type sensation.
Keep in mind no prehab or progressive strengthening program will stand up to flat out overload during training, whether it be quality or quantity based. Keeping and eye on how many impact landings the gymnast is taking, their landing technique, the distribution of landing surface they are using, catching complaints very early, and screening gymnasts, as these are all also important. PreHab programs have to be used in conjunction with smart training decisions to help make a dent in injury risk. Like I always say, the best choice of action is to work in conjunction with a healthcare professional/coaching team to make sure the preventative strategies match the individual movement assessment of the athlete. Interested in learning more about these type of concepts in training? Be sure to jump on board for Dr. Eldridge and I’s Gymnastics rEvolution Seminars that are just 2 months away! Enjoy,
– Dr. Dave