We all know the importance of good mobility. But stretching your ankles could be one of the best ways to improve your overall mobility and quality of movement when doing strength exercises.
When it comes to stretching and improving mobility, you probably tend to think about the bigger areas of the body, like your hips, legs and shoulders. But in doing so, you might fail to mobilise some of the smaller but equally important muscles and joints.
Ankle mobility is something a lot of us let slide. In fact, you might not have realised that stretching and mobilising your ankles is something you should be doing at all. But they’re crucial in almost every movement our bodies make, from everyday activities like walking and even sitting down at a desk, to more strenuous exercises like squats, lunges, running and cycling.
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Improving your ankle mobility can not only help you progress with many of the exercises you do at the gym, especially strengthening movements, but it can also help to prevent injuries too.
Here, Helen O’Leary, physiotherapist and pilates instructor at Complete Pilates, shares some tips and exercises for improving your ankle mobility…
Why do people lack ankle mobility?
In order to understand why you might have bad ankle mobility, O’Leary stresses that it’s important to understand how the ankle is built. Specifically, she says the ankle has two important movements known as plantarflexion (the movement you do when you point your foot down) and dorsiflexion (the movement you do when you flex your foot upwards towards your knee).
“The ankle is a hinge joint which means it primarily goes in two directions: up and down,” she says. Most people who struggle with ankle mobility will have a strong preference towards one of these directions in their everyday movements and at the gym, which could cause stiffness in the ankle when you try to move it in other directions.
This is something you might be able to figure out by simply moving your ankle up and down and figuring out which one feels more comfortable. But if you’re unsure, you could also get this analysed by a physiotherapist or via a gait analysis, which is offered in many sports shops that sell running shoes.
The main reason people lack ankle mobility is that they leave this area of the body out of their stretching routines. This means that they probably lack flexibility around the muscles of the calf such as the gastrocnemius and soleus (two of the biggest muscles in your calves). “These can be tight for lots of reasons, including too much exercise, wearing heeled shoes regularly, cramps and previous injuries,” O’Leary says.
A lack of ankle mobility might also be down to a restriction at the joint because of previous injury, surgery or degenerative changes. It can also be caused by other injuries in the back or in the lower body, according to O’Leary.
Why is good ankle mobility important?
Good ankle mobility is important whether you’re a gym-bunny or not. “In everyday life, walking, going up and down the stairs, running for the bus, being able to sit on your heels, being on all fours and even getting up from a chair with your heels down requires ankle mobility,” O’Leary says.
But if you do train regularly, having good mobility in your ankles is even more important. “Having good ankle range of motion is important when you are doing exercises like a squat, high step-up or lunges to name a few,” O’Leary says. “To get depth or height in these movements you need to be able to get your knee forwards over the ankle joint.”
If you struggle to reach full depth while doing exercises like squats or lunges, a lack of ankle mobility might be why. “There are ways around [a lack of ankle mobility] and you will see people squatting with plates or blocks under their heels. This is to allow for more range at the ankle, but ideally, you want to be able to have your feet on the ground,” O’Leary says, adding: “You may also find that because your ankle is limited you have reduced force production in things such as a ski erg, jumping and running.”
As well as decreasing the quality of movements, a lack of ankle mobility could also lead to injury, as other parts of your body during movements like these ones overcompensate for your lack of ankle movement. As the ankle is the first major joint that touches the floor when we move, this means that if the ankles lack mobility and land in the wrong way, the shock might be absorbed in a different part of the body, like the knees.
“Having the freedom in your ankle ensures that you do not compensate for the movement elsewhere and put undue strain on your hips and knees,” explains O’Leary.
How to improve your ankle mobility
As with improving mobility in other areas of your body, such as your hips and shoulders, it’s all about getting into a regular routine with stretching, especially before and after exercise. However, O’Leary stresses that if you are stretching your ankle muscles often and things aren’t changing, or you have any pain, you should visit your GP or a physiotherapist to ensure there are no underlying issues.
Otherwise, here are five exercises you can try to mobilise your ankles. “Try to complete these exercises little and often rather than completing specific set of reps,” O’Leary recommends. “General things such as massage, using fascial release balls or a foam roller and general calf and hamstring stretches can also help improve ankle mobility.”
Knee to wall
According to O’Leary, this is a common stretch but many people do it with poor form, which doesn’t isolate the ankle. Here’s how to do it properly:
1. Face a wall and put your toes near it.
2. Keeping your body facing forwards towards the wall (particularly your pelvis), bend your knee so that it goes towards the wall. If you can touch the wall move backwards.
“You should be able to keep your ankle on the floor doing this and using something like a pen under your foot will give you feedback as to whether you are. Aim for your knee to go over your second and third toes,” O’Leary says.
Wonky knee to wall
This is the same exercise as the knee to wall but it’s altered slightly to target a different part of your ankle.
1. Face a wall and put your toes near it.
2. Keeping your body facing forwards towards the wall bend your knee but instead of trying to go down the middle of your foot, aim for your big toe, then back off and come back over your little toe.
“When you are doing this you still want to keep the body and pelvis square to the wall but you also want to try to keep the opposite side of the foot down. Your foot is like a tripod so contact between big toe, little toe and heel at all times so you don’t fall over,” O’Leary explains.
Banded knee to wall
This is another variation of the knee-to-wall exercise but with a band to help you get a deeper stretch.
1. Grab a belt or dressing gown cord and place it over your ankle joint.
2. Tie the other end to something that won’t move and step forwards so that the band has no give.
3. Face the wall with your toes facing it and move your knee forwards – you may find you can go further forwards with your knee.
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Body weight squat with support
Squats are one of the best exercises you can do for ankle mobility, especially with some support so you can focus in on the ankle. This exercise is also great for hip mobility, which often goes hand in hand with ankle mobility (or lack of it).
1. Hold onto a bannister, someone else or even the side of a squat rack.
2. Take your feet a bit wider and turn them out slightly.
3. Squat down so that your arms are out straight and try to keep your body upright.
4. Pause at the point your heels feel like they will lift off and slowly and gently sway side to side.
Quadruped to heel sit
According to O’Leary, we often miss out the front of our ankles when it comes to stretching, but this is an important area to mobilise.
1. Start on all fours with the top of your feet on the floor so your toes are bent under.
2. Slowly press yourself backwards so that you are in a child’s pose. If this is OK then keep your bottom on your heels and try and make your way upright.
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