Ankle Mobility, Resiliency, and Control
The ankle can be a problematic joint. It is very complex and is involved in nearly every activity. Injuring any part of the ankle makes it hard to forget about. The image above is my ankle about a year ago after I had a nasty sprain. Not a good time.
One of the reasons it is so easily injured is due to our obsession with shoes and flat surfaces, as I have written about before. The ankle is capable of moving in many different ranges with profound strength, but we tend to only use it in a few short ranges. Constant flat ground limits exposure to inversion and eversion, which results in higher risk of sprains. High heeled shoes (even your tennis shoes) limit dorsiflexion which can put the knees, hips, and low back at risk. Shoes also act like a soft cast for the foot, limiting its ability to deform and contribute to a stable surface for the ankle to move on. Adding these up over a lifetime, it is no wonder stepping off a curb can result in ankle injuries. You can check out a post about trail running here, but let’s look at a few more ways we can reduce the risk of these injuries.
The ankle is made to move in many different directions and stabilize in many different foot and body positions. The direction we tend to lose most often as a result of high heeled shoes is dorsiflexion, or the ability to bring your knee over your toe. This range is important to maintain, and can result in more stress at the knee as you compensate. Stretching can help, but I think that performing weighted exercise in that range can help more, and here is an exercise I use. Split squat position with the toes of one foot touching the heel of the other. The back foot is bearing most of the weight as you lower into dorsiflexion at the ankle. You should feel tension in the Achilles or back of that ankle. Be sure to use your foot to push yourself up! It will be a bit uncomfortable, but it will help to create lasting mobility gains!
Lateral ankle sprains are the most common injury at the ankle. This happens when the bottom of your foot turns inward under a lot of force, like landing on someone’s foot rebounding in basketball, or stepping off a curb. In order to reinforce the lateral ankle ligaments, you have to stress those structures! This is what I call an Inversion Squat. It forces your body to reinforce the stressed ankle structures, but also to learn to control the ankle while near a range that is “risky” but without the injurious force. Support yourself with one arm on a surface and with the acting foot/ankle in inversion. Perform a one-legged squat, being sure to put as much force as you can on the ankle. If you have a history of sprains, go slow! You need it the most, but remember adaptation takes time.
While we tend to train in gyms in specific ranges of motion, this is not how the world works. Injuries happen when something we were not expecting happens, like stepping strangely off a curb. Normally, in a world where ankles experience this force frequently, reflexes take over and you avoid injury. However, if you have not experienced those forces since the Bush administration, it is likely you will be less likely to tolerate and adapt your movement quickly enough to avoid injury. The best way of doing that is by getting some minimalist shoes, or removing shoes all together, and hitting the trails, walking on the rocks, and experiencing those ranges in real time. If you can’t do that for time reasons, here is another idea: take all the old landscaping rocks in your yard and set them up in a circle and walk along them. Use a pole for balance of you need it. Be sure to hit different sides of your feet. Try to remain in control, and if you lose balance, do your best to recover without giving up. This is a great way to supplement your training with learning to control your ankle in unknown situations.
This video is two weeks after the injury picture above. You can heal from injury quickly, but you have to put the work in beforehand!