Ankle and Plantar Flexor Muscle-Tendon Unit Function in Sprinters: A Narrative Review.
Maximal sprinting in humans requires the contribution of various muscle-tendon units (MTUs) and joints to maximize performance. The plantar flexor MTU and ankle joint are of particular importance due to their role in applying force to the ground. This narrative review examines the contribution of the ankle joint and plantar flexor MTUs across the phases of sprinting (start, acceleration, and maximum velocity), alongside the musculotendinous properties that contribute to improved plantar flexor MTU performance. For the sprint start, the rear leg ankle joint appears to be a particularly important contributor to sprint start performance, alongside the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) action of the plantar flexor MTU. Comparing elite and sub-elite sprinters revealed that elite sprinters had a higher rate of force development (RFD) and normalized average horizontal block power, which was transferred via the ankle joint to the block. For the acceleration phase, the ankle joint and plantar flexor MTU appear to be the most critical of the major lower limb joints/MTUs. The contribution of the ankle joint to power generation and positive work is minimal during the first stance, but an increased contribution is observed during the second stance, mid-acceleration, and late-acceleration. In terms of muscular contributions, the gastrocnemius and soleus have distinct roles. The soleus acts mainly as a supporter, generating large portions of the upward impulse, whereas the gastrocnemius acts as both an accelerator and a supporter, contributing significantly to propulsive and upward impulses. During maximum velocity sprinting the ankle joint is a net dissipater of energy, potentially due to the greater vertical loading placed on the plantar flexors. However, the ankle joint is critical for energy transfer from proximal joints to ground force application to maintain velocity. In terms of the contribution of musculoskeletal factors to ankle joint and plantar flexor performance, an optimal plantar flexor MTU profile potentially exists, which is possibly a combination of several musculoskeletal factors, alongside factors such as footwear and technique.
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