Ankle stretching to become a faster swimmer

This page has a project for my swim students they can work on at home.

Wikipedia tells us that “Michael Fred Phelps II is an American former competitive swimmer and the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals. Phelps also holds the all-time records for Olympic gold medals, Olympic gold medals in individual events, and Olympic medals in individual events.”

Michael Phelps is sooooooo fast, he can swim the length and back of the De Anza College large pool (50 meters each way, 100 meters total) in less time than it takes some of my students to swim across the width of the pool (25 yards.) (His record for 100 meters in Beijing in August 2008 was 47.51 seconds.)

He got to be this fast mostly because he swam miles and miles
and had great coaching since he was 11 years old.

But he had a few other advantages. He is tall and thin with long legs.
His feet are size 14, so his feet are bigger flippers than most people have.

Most of my students have the same width of their arms as they are tall.
(Someone can measure your arm span from finger tips to finger tips with your arms outstretched if you want to compare to your height and sometimes we do this the first day of class.)
Michael Phelps’ arm span of 6 feet 7 inches is three inches more than his height,
so he has longer arms than many people.

Phelps can point his toes as far as (or some say more than) the “pointe” of a ballet dancer,
allowing more flex for his feet to be even better fins.

It is as if he were designed to be fast at butterfly swimming.

Most of my swim students enter the class with very little toe point. People who tell me they are runners, soccer and rugby players usually have tight ankles compared to what Phelps has.

People who have worked on stretching to get a better toe point have told me they made surprisingly great progress by the end of the quarter. AND they become faster swimmers in the process by turning their feet into better fins!

USMS (United States Masters Swim)
explains the problem and why it is important for a swimmer

Limited ankle flexibility —Your feet are dorsiflexed (like when you’re standing) when swimming as opposed to plantar flexed (toes pointed), such as when you’re running. The position of your feet causes your knees to bend and your flutter kick looks more like you’re on the elliptical machine.”

Ankle flexibility is crucial —When it comes to generating propulsion with your kick, keeping your ankles loose enables you to make contact against the water with the top of your foot. Just as in running you contact the ground with the soles of your feet, in swimming your downward strike comes from the top of your foot.”


You can have someone measure your toe point. Sit or lie on the ground/ floor, with your legs straight, thighs and calves staying flat on the floor, heels on the floor, no bend in your knees. Have someone hold a ruler at the end of your foot and you can try to point your toes as far down the ruler, towards the floor as you can.

foot with a ruler next to it

Down to 2 inches is great,

straight leg with toes pointed

many of my students can’t point below 6 inches and benefit from any amount of greater flexibility they can attain.

leg with flexed ankle

stripe of dark blue water

Before you try any stretching, please read and follow the safety rules at:

the Mayo Clinic page: advice on stretching

Stretching should feel good, not hurt.

You are not going to get a better toe point in a matter of a few days!

If a doctor, physical trainer or physical therapist told you to stretch a different way than described below, do what they say.
If you have had an injury to your toes, feet, ankles or legs ask the doctor about this before you try it.

To stretch your ankles you can sit on a bench at poolside / in a chair at home with your feet under the bench or chair, knees very bent, toes on the floor, toes pointed as far as is comfortable. Then push your shins down towards the floor just a little until you feel your ankles stretch (just a little) and hold it for 10 to 20 seconds.

sitting on bench stretching ankles

You can do this multiple times a day. It can get to be a habit and not really take extra time out of your day. You won’t even be in the swimming pool, but you will become a faster swimmer!

(Later when you try figure skating or dancing you might notice the difference.)

More ankle stretches / exercises are at:

Swimmers can truly benefit from stretching their lower leg calves after each swim class
(and after a long walk, hike, tour of a museum, etc.) to help prevent muscle cramps.

The Mayo Clinic has a stretch for calves (and links to many other stretches)

U.S. Masters Swimming has tips for stretching for swimmers.

De Anza College swimming logo: the words De Anza College below a line drawing of water waves and a person swimming

pool lanes with swimmers doing various strokes