Ankle Exercises

Ankle sprains are the bane of many a runner. The good news is that with proper conditioning, ankles can become incredibly resistant to injury. Unfortunately, most runners do little more than run, which does not necessarily lead to reduced risk of acute or chronic injury to this joint. Incorporating a few simple exercises will not only improve your ankle health, but it will also improve your confidence when running the steep, rocky trails of Montana.

Our world is flat... by that I mean unless you’re a trail runner, you run on a flat surface. Roads and sidewalks require mainly heel-to-toe motion, with little side-to-side motion. Range of motion is effectively reduced at the ankle joint, which leads to improved economy of motion on flat surfaces. However, limited mobility of the ankle can produce adverse effects in the entire lower extremity. You can mobilize this joint by performing the following exercise:

-Place both hands on the wall or another stable object.
-Assume a single-leg support with a slight bend at your knee.
-Swing your non-support leg behind your support leg and then in front of your support leg, maintaining a slightly bent knee on your supporting leg.

Repeat this swinging motion 25-40 times. You will be working on improving the mobility of the subtalar joint of your support leg.

During a run we often encounter potholes, loose rocks, or the occasional dead gopher. Our ankles are forced to stabilize our entire body weight—and often many times more—at a moment’s notice in order to prevent rolling of the foot. Our lower leg muscles constantly fire in a pattern that enables us to sway our center of mass above our base of support. This allows us to stay balanced. We can improve the dynamic stability of our ankles by standing on an unstable surface, such as a balance board or cushion. Simple exercises can be performed to manipulate our center of mass over our base of support. Try this one at home:

-Fold a towel in half twice so it is about three inches thick and place it on the floor.
-Stand on one leg and balance.
-Try to close your eyes. You will notice that your sway increases and you’ll probably have to put your other foot down.

Remember, we can only train balance by being off-balance.

Controlled Stress
According to Wolff’s Law, bones and soft tissue (connective tissue) will respond to the stress placed upon them, eliciting remodeling or realignment along the lines of tensile force. It is of utmost importance for all runners to understand that running places an extremely high demand on all of the joints of our lower extremities. The good news is that under proper conditions, our bodies will adapt to the stress. The take-home message here is that you must slowly incorporate this new type of stress into your routine. People new to running should attempt to run a number of minutes, not miles. A great joint-loading exercise is as follows:

-Assume a single-leg support on a block that is about 2-4 inches high.
-Forcefully tap your non-supported heel on the ground in front of the block.
-Return your foot to its position above the block.

Repeat this forward step-down 40 times for each leg and work up to three sets.

Steve Conant MS, HFI, CSCS is a partner in Advanced Training & Sport Conditioning, Inc. and will attempt to finish his sixth consecutive Ridge Run in August.