3 simple exercises for healthy ankles
Updated: May 31, 2021
Plus an ankle mobility challenge you can do anywhere.
It is Memorial Day weekend and summer is fast approaching. The call of the wild is never so persuasive than during the summer months. As you pull out your hiking boots and packs, be sure to add a few self-care exercises to make the most of the season.
In this blog post I’ll talk about your ankles but stay tuned for a look at some other areas that need extra attention when back-packing and just general self-care; low-back, neck and shoulders, feet, hips and knees.
Your ankle joint is rotational, it lies between the architecture of the foot with its 26 bones, 30 joints, and 100 muscles, ligaments and tendons, and the hinging strength of the knee joint. Your foot and knee are strong and stabilizing while your ankle should have mobility to adapt to terrain and weight shifts.
Ankle injuries comprise 25% of most athletic injuries, and there are plenty more that happen just stepping wrong or tripping over an unexpected obstacle (such as a root or slippery gravel on the trail). Given our entirely reasonable fear of our ankle’s flexibility, the solution is sometimes to wear braces, tape, boots, and to become more guarded in our movements. While braces and boots have their place, they inhibit natural movement, and compensatory posture makes its way up the chain of movement, joint-by-joint. I recently listened to Gray Cook’s podcast “deep squats and stiff ankles” where he discussed the importance of healthy ankle mobility for recovering athletes.
He makes the point that the ankle joint is crucial to overall physical fitness because our feet, knees, hips and even spines can develop issues if the joint-to-joint action has been compromised anywhere along the chain. For this reason it is preferable to have healthy function in the ankles then to depend overly on tools to preserve their stability.
Even if you don’t have an injury but just an annoying tendency to roll your ankles, or you have ankle stiffness, the imbalances at this joint will affect the rest of your posture and how you move. You might think your problems is knee pain or have painful feet, but you can’t resolve those other issues unless you also work on your ankle joints.
Take the squat for instance, this classic fitness exercise is found in some variation in every fitness and movement discipline for a good reason. While there seems to be perversive internet chatter that Asians have a physical advantage when it comes to a perfect squat, there is more evidence that this is just a matter of practice. Blogger Koji Steven Sakai makes a this point very well in his post.
Foremost, it is a natural human resting position and necessary posture for relieving oneself in the woods. It is also an important test of general conditioning, in part because it is a primal human posture.
I know someone is shaking their head, sure that they are the exception. Maybe you are – but before you give up on yourself, try these exercises for 4-6 weeks. It takes about that long for your body to adapt to a new demand if it’s done consistently and with attention to your technique.
To really make a change you should commit to doing them everyday but they don’t take long and they feel good. Every week test yourself with the challenge and see if you make progress.
Remember the goal is for improvement and a better hiking (or running, dancing, walking, etc…) The most important progress is in how you feel, not whether you succeed in the challenges.
Here are three simple at home exercises that will improve your ankle mobility and strengthen your lower body. These should be done daily but if you miss a day now and again don’t stress, the main thing is to practice it as consistently as you can.
Once you have noticed improvement you will continue to use these as warm-ups and mobility snacks throughout your day.
Avoid the urge to over-work for faster results, create a foundation and build on it over the weeks. Too much, too soon will cause strains and set backs.
3 body-weight exercises for healthy ankle mobility
Squats: The classic
If your heels rise when you squat start by putting some support behind your heels. You can use the rise of an incline, a towel, or roll up the edge of a mat.
Goblet squat: If you have a weight of over 5 lbs, such as a kettlebell, you can hold it as you sit into the squat. Make sure the weight is one that is comfortable for you to hold.
Hold it for however long you like, the point is to have the ability and the endurance will come with use.
Plies and tendus: Dancers basic training
A plie is like a mini-squat and used to limber up the ankles for dancing.
Starting position: Plie
Stand with your feet in parallel under your hips and keep your back straight
Bend your knees as far as you can without lifting your heels. Keep the knees aligned over your 2nd/3rd toes.
Also try toes in V with calves touching. If your knees overlap just put a little space between your heels so your inner-thighs stay together.
Starting position: Tendus
A “tendu” literally means “tense”, to do a tendu use tension while stretching your foot and ankle into a point on the ground. Imagine standing in the center of a clock:
Stand on one leg and stretch the other forward to 12:00 on the ground, toes and ankles extended
Lower your foot to the floor and flex the heel
Point your foot and toes again and slide them back to starting position
You can also go to the side and back but make sure to keep your hips even
This is a classic Pilates exercise used to improve ankle mobility/strength balance. You can use a 2×4 piece or any stable elevated surface.
Starting position: standing with legs together in parallel and/or V position based on your anatomy
Keep your legs together or a couple inches apart. Don’t let your knees overlap. You can use a rolled up hand towel to stabilize your knees in parallel apart.
Choose your starting position based on what fits your ankle joint: everyone is different. Some ankles need a modified V shape or a little wider or narrower. Stay as narrow as is comfortable.
Place your forefoot on the 2×4 and use the back of a chair, a tree, a wall to stabilize your torso so you can focus on your ankle alignment
Action: Rises 5-10x (don’t work to fatigue and avoid resting in your end-range, keep it moving)
Rise up onto your forefoot keeping your toes long (avoid scrunching)
Lower back to your heels
Action: Roll throughs
From starting position bend your knees in a plie. Keep your back straight, don’t hinge forward or back over your hips.
Keeping your knees bent, raise your heels
Keeping your heels raised, straighten your knees
Keeping you knees straight, lower your heels
Repeat a few times and reverse. Don’t over-do it.
From starting position rise onto both forefeet
Bending one knee, keep heel raised
Lower opposite heel to floor with straight leg
Return to starting position and change legs
Challenge: Log walk
Find a log or other narrow domed structure, or walk toe-to-heel on a flat surface without falling off.
Go slow for practice or fast for challenge, just remember this is skill building for better mobility and injuries from losing control are a frustrating set-back!
Other resources and inspiration for this post:
Deep squats and stiff ankles – podcast with Gray Cook