It would be be frustrating to learn that something as simple as the ankle flexibility you were born with or acquired through an injury would curse you with a disadvantage in rowing. This is especially so since our bodies’ ‘function’ is rarely able to be altered in a significant way.
We began analysing this problem by critically reviewing the equipment athletes are forced to use: a flat footboard fixed at around 40-42 degrees.
This set-up provides a reasonable, whole-foot platform towards the finish of the stroke, but not at the catch or (for most athletes) up to the first 60% of the drive phase.
Instead, when pushing off a standard footstretcher at the catch, the athlete’s foot is in a flexed position, with weight being braced against a small area under the ball of the foot. The picture above demonstrates a typical position immediately prior to the catch. As it shows, the heel has lifted between 30-40 degrees from the position it will be in at the finish (or between 4-8 centimetres depending on shoe size and ankle flexibility).
What was interesting however was that the degree of heel lift (and thus the foot area an athlete has to push against at the catch) is determined by ankle flexibility. Further, it is rarely the flexibility of the athletes achilles tendon which is the limiting factor in ankle flexibility, rather the point at which the bones of the shin and ankle ‘lock up’ and lift the heel during the recovery.
So, the ankle flexibility you were born with will determine what degree of heel lift you have, and the foot surface area you will be pushing off at the catch. We see the importance of this only when we then consider what happens during the rowing stroke when the foot is placed in this weak position.
The immediate effect is that the arch of the foot collapses as pressure mounts on the foot. Further, postural (non- dynamic) muscle contractions are required as the body strives to hold the foot and lower limb in a position to maintain the power on the blade. As the force increases on the blade, further unnecessary stress is placed on the knees, lower back and shoulders in order to maintain a degree of stability.
At best this means wasted energy and muscles that are not recruited to apply power. At worst, we see a mechanism for injury inbuilt into our standard rowing equipment.
We like to compare it to trying to do squats on your toes – you just won’t be lifting the amount of weight your muscles are capable of if your feet aren’t in a strong, supported position. It makes sense when our data demonstrates that peak leg force is applied only when the foot has full contact with the foot stretcher.