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How To Improve Ankle Mobility in Less Than 20 Minutes.

body insights Feb 24, 2020

Our ankles are designed to transfer force from our wide and highly adaptable foot, up vertically through the narrow leg bones into the knee and beyond. 

Ankles act as a bridge between the feet, which have 26 bones and 33 joints, and the knee, which features three bones coming together to make one joint. As such, they need to be highly adaptable in order to work well with the feet, but also highly stable in order to work well with the knees. 

Ankles are adaptable in the sense that they have a wide range of potential movement. They can point the foot (plantar flex), draw the top of the foot up towards the shin (dorsiflex), roll to inside (invert) and roll to the outside (evert). Rolling side to side is much more limited than flexing up and down, which adds a layer of stability for the knee above. 

When our ankles are working at their best, they are developed to move easily through their entire range of motion. This means that the calf muscles are developed enough to point the toes and push the toes off from the ground when walking or running. It also means our shin muscles are developed to draw the top of the foot towards the leg. It also means that muscles on the inner and outer lower leg are developed to roll the ankle left and right. 

Not only do all these muscles need to be strong enough to control and stabilize these joint actions, but they must also be limber enough to permit opposite joint actions. For example, the calves must be strong enough to plantar-flex the ankle, but they also must be open enough to allow the shin muscles to dorsiflex the ankle. Try this out for yourself now: Lift the top of your foot towards your shin. You may feel your shin muscles contract to create the joint action, but you’ll also probably feel the calves stretch to allow this joint action to happen to the skeleton’s capacity. 

In order to improve ankle mobility, we must practice the ankle’s key joint actions--plantar flexion, dorsiflexion, inverting and everting. We must practice holding joint positions as time-under-tension is what helps our tissues adapt. We must also practice loading our joint positions with different forces so that the ankles can build up stability in different arrangements. This will ensure that the ankles are adaptable enough to support the feet and stable enough to support the knees. 

How To Improve Ankle Mobility

Dorsiflexion

We can achieve ankle dorsiflexion in two ways: By drawing the top of the foot toward the shin or by driving the knee past the toes. Practicing both variations will help our tissues adapt optimally to perform this action. 

There are many ways to practice ankle dorsiflexion. One way is to simply sit in a chair and use your shin muscles to draw the foot toward the shin. This is called active range of motion, which means the range of motion we can generate using the force of our muscle contractions. 

We can also stretch our ankle passively by lifting the top of the foot and placing the ball of the foot on an object like a book to hold the stretch. We call this passive as we apply outside force to help our joint hold a position. We often have a greater range of motion passively than we do actively, which means that part of our work is to try and minimize the gap between what we’re able to do passively and what we’re able to do actively. To bridge this gap, try practicing lifting your foot off support and holding it actively. 

There are many other ways to develop ankle dorsiflexion, some of which I’ve included in a free online ankle mobility practice below.

Plantar Flexion

We achieve plantar flexion when we point the toes. 

We can load this position passively by kneeling on our shins with the tops of the feet resting on the ground. Before applying load to the joint position, it’s important to place the joint well in order to load it properly. In this case, try laying the top of the foot on the ground evenly with the second toe drawing straight back from the center ankle. Look to the two ankle bones--on the inside and outside--and see that they are also placed evenly. To start applying force to the joint, simply begin to sit the hips down to the heels. 

If this is too much load, there are many ways to modify. One way is to de-load the ankle by rolling up a blanket and placing it underneath the ankle joint. This will give the ankle joint something to rest into as plantar flexion develops. Over time, you can decrease the size of the blanket or remove all together. 

I have other tips for developing plantar flexion, including more positions and active exercises, in my ankle mobility practice below.

Inverting/Everting

The best way I’ve found to develop the ankle’s ability to invert and evert is to get the ankles dynamic tasks to do. 

My favorite way is to head to the hills where there are rocks and uneven ground and train the ankles to stabilize left to right and right to left as I walk over uneven surfaces. As the ankles become more adept, we can add more load by adding ankle weights or by picking up the pace to a jog or a run. 

Takeaways

Ankle mobility is directly related to the health of the feet, knees and beyond. In order to develop ankle mobility, we must understand what ranges of motion are possible, and then we must practice those ranges of motion intelligently so that the ankle is adaptable to new requests. 

 

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