The ankle is one of our most important and often overlooked joints. Poor movement patterns and pain "up the chain" (i.e. in your knees, hips and even lower back) can often be traced back to issues at the ankle joint. Think of how often and how many ways we use our ankles: walking, running, biking, squatting, yoga, balancing, dancing (you get the idea). If the muscles acting on your ankle are chronically tight or if the joint itself is jammed or lacks proper mobility the impact can be painful and damaging as the body will compensate at other joints to accommodate movement. Read on to learn more about the ankle joint and try some of my favorite ankle mobility drills that could lead to reduced pain and improved performance.
More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About the Ankle
I love to geek out about anatomy and kinesiology. So much that I actually enjoyed writing an entire paper and presentation on the ankle joint for my massage school including a video interview with my amazing physical therapist. Ankles aren't important? BEACH PLEASE. (Watch the video and that last comment will make sense.)
The talocrural joint (“the ankle joint”) is a synovial hinge joint formed by the bones of the tibia, fibula and talus. It permits dorsiflexion and plantarflexion of the foot in the sagittal plane. Plantarflexion is produced by posterior muscles of the lower leg including the gastrocnemius, soleus, plantaris and posterior tibialis. Dorsiflexion is produced by the anterior muscles of the lower leg including the tibialis anterior, extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus.
The tibia and fibula are bound together by the interosseous membrane and strong tibiofibular ligaments, producing a bracket shaped socket called the mortise which is covered in hyaline cartilage. The body of the talus bone fits “snugly” into the mortise and is stabilized by two sets of supporting ligaments of the medial and lateral malleoli. Zzzzzzzzzzz......
Ok, ok... Here's what matters. Important sensory input comes from the feet to the brain. When the joints of the feet get “jammed” (from wearing the wrong shoes, having unstable arches, repetitive stress or injury/trauma) the information flow from our surroundings to our bodies to our brains (and from our brains to our bodies in response) can get jammed. It’s like we’re stuck in traffic and the brain looks for whatever detour it can take to make movement happen. It will always try and find strength and mobility wherever it can to produce the movement requested of it. Until we unjam these joints and free up that highway we can be stuck with poor movement that can lead to pain, injury and less than optimal performance.
Because of the complex anatomy of the foot and how we move, it's easy for the talus bone that makes up the mortise to move out of place and inhibit full range of motion of the ankle joint, particularly dorsiflexion (flexion of the foot bringing the toes toward the head). This can come from tightness/pulling from the calves and the Achilles tendon, less than perfect form while doing a repetitive movement like running or from a trauma like an ankle roll.
If you have a current/recent ankle injury (sprain, roll, ligament tear, tendonitis, fracture, break, etc., etc..) do not attempt any of the drills below. Consult a medical professional such as a physical therapist (in San Francisco I recommend GSPORTS) or orthopedic specialist as soon as possible. Stretching a strain can lead to more damage. Mobilizing an acutely injured joint may make it worse. If you experience pain, stop and consult a doctor. The drills below are for those looking to increase ankle mobility in a generally healthy foot to prevent future injury and to improve performance such as squat depth.
Foam Roll Calves
Spend about 90s-2m on tight calves with a decent pressure on a foam roller to reduce tension in the calf muscles and to minimize pulling on the ankle joint from the Achilles tendon. Overly tight calves can pull the foot into plantarflexion making it hard to dorsiflex. They can also lead to Achilles tendonitis. Keep the pain or intensity level of the foam rolling to a 6 or 7 out of 10 (no greater). Try rolling each calf individually as shown using your upper body to create leverage. If that is too intense you can roll both at the same time. Be sure to work the full length of the muscle up and down and also rock side to side as shown.
Sit in a chair and imagine you are writing the entire alphabet from A-Z with your feet. Try to make each letter and sharp, pronounced and large as possible to help mobilize the talocrural and other joints of the foot. Do this after foam rolling as shown above.
Anchor a light or medium resistance Theraband slightly above the ankle joint and be sure it fits snugly underneath both your malleoli (the ankle bones on each side of your foot). This will help ensure it's securing the top of the talus bone. Elevate your toes and gently glide or lunge (breaking at the knee) so that the band puts gentle pressure on the talus helping to glide it back into place and allowing for better dorsiflexion. This also provides a nice stretch to the calves.