The ankle is a complex hinge joint that is primarily defined by the shin bone (tibia) and its meeting with the talus bone on top of the foot. There are several other bones that surround this meeting, as well as all the muscles, ligaments and tendons that make these bones moveable in several directions, but with an estimated 23,000 Americans suffering an ankle injury each day, who wants an anatomy lesson? Instead, let’s focus on how to prevent ankle pain and injury by improving the joint’s overall function.
Running and sports that involve agility are usually the cause of most ankle injuries, and these usually stem from the joint and tissues that surround it not being strong, mobile or stable enough to control the joint when asked to perform a task. Encourage your clients to perform the following exercises before going out for a run or doing agility work to prepare the body for movement and possibly prevent future injury. These exercises for the ankle and foot will help strengthen the joint by creating stability and mobility in the surrounding regions.
The peroneals are a group of muscles that run down the side of the lower leg and attach between the knee and the ankle. Their respective ligaments run around the foot and ankle and can cause pain and undo tension when these muscles are tight. Using a foam roller to perform self-myofascial release therapy will help muscle release tension and, as a result, relieve the stress being placed on the attachment points in and around the foot and ankle. Begin with the foam roller or therapy ball beneath the lateral aspect of the knee (remember to roll only on soft tissue, not across bone). Slowly work toward the ankle, stopping up to 30 seconds at any spot that may feel tender.
Because the hamstrings and calf (and soleus) are the major muscles in the posterior aspect of the leg, they are primarily responsible for plantar flexion of the foot and can become tight when there is an issue of mobility in the ankle. To stretch both areas, use a stretching strap (yoga strap or belt) while lying supine on the floor. With one foot in the strap and the other resting on the floor with the knee bent, pull back while trying to keep the leg straight and hips on the ground. When the leg can no longer stay straight, bend the knee and continue to pull back on the strap, this time focusing on pulling the toe down toward the face. This will stretch both the upper and lower portion of the back of the leg.
Create an Arch
A week foundation is often to blame for other areas of the body becoming injured, so a good place to begin training is improving the support system. Strengthening the arches in the feet will help provide additional support to the ankle. Think of the foot as a tripod: one leg under the big toe, one under the pinkie toe and one under the heel. Now press those three points into the ground and try to squeeze them together. This will force a contraction in the arch of the foot, pulling the bottom of the foot off the ground. Practice holding this for five to 10 seconds and then releasing for five to 10 reps.
Create an Arch (Part 2)
Towel crunches are another great exercise for creating an arch. Have your client sit with shoes off and place the edge of a towel under the foot. Using only the toes, have the client pull the towel in toward the body, which will force the arch of the foot to do work, further creating a stronger foundation.
Engage Support Muscles
By including dynamic movement patterns, especially when barefoot, the muscles that support the foot and ankle movement will be engaged to further improve stability of the joint. Try performing single-leg exercises like reaches. Stand on one leg in the middle of a ring of cones (as if standing in the center of a clock). Reach the lifted leg to 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and 9 o’clock without rotating at the hips.