At Functional Patterns, we are often asked how to increase ankle mobility in many different populations, from young, old, active and sedentary alike. Testing ankle mobility and then using ankle mobility exercises is a very common strategy used in the traditional fitness and rehab toolkit. This article will seek to break down the most important questions of how to improve ankle mobility and when to use particular ankle mobility exercises in your training and/or rehab.
What is ankle mobility?
Ankle mobility refers to the ability of the ankle joint to move through its full range of motion. The ankle joint is a complex joint made up of several bones, ligaments, and tendons that work together to allow for movement in multiple directions. The ankle joint is designed to provide stability and support to the body while also allowing for movement and flexibility. However, if the ankle joint is unable to move freely or is excessively mobile, it can cause issues elsewhere in the body.
Why is ankle mobility important?
Although ankle mobility is important, what I tend to find is people are more hyper mobile around their ankles. They may present with lower limb pain in the feet, ankles, shins, knees, hips or back and, having seen multiple practitioners, been given calf stretches, ankle mobilization drills, and calf raises in a generalized program.
Check out our blog on Stretching and Yoga to learn more.
Although some of these solutions could be relevant along the journey, they all fail to really address an ankle that is hypermobile. What we need to really ask is….
What is causing my ankle to become hypermobile?
In our experience at FP, we’ve noticed that a lot of our clients struggle to properly engage the deepest parts of their core, namely the Transversus Abdominus, or TVA for short. Although you may have encountered this muscle before, it’s the way that we address weakness in the TVA that makes FP stand out from the crowd. We’ll touch on this in the next section.
We’ve also noticed a lack of quality hip hyperextension can often cause tissue around the hips, thighs and lower limb to become restricted and weak, causing a sort of chain reaction that results in the ankle taking the majority of the force when landing on the floor during any activity, even standing. Oftentimes focussing on improving this function alone, especially in the context of walking and running, will go a long way towards addressing ankle mobility.
How do you mobilize a tight ankle or tighten a hypermobile ankle?
This is where we need to think deeper about the systems approach we use at FP compared to the symptoms approach most commonly used in the industry (Stretching, mobilizations etc.). When we see a client with a lack of/excessive ankle mobility, we will often see limitations in the core and hips as explained above. This leads us to draw the correlation that when we have a well functioning core and set of glutes, tension can be distributed evenly through the upper and lower limbs, which includes the ankle. An easy example of this is watching elite sprinters in slow motion. Watching them shoot off the blocks in a 100m race really highlights the importance of focussing on the largest muscles in the body, namely the core and the glutes, the pecs and the lats.
When we are successful in integrating these larger muscles into functional movements like walking, standing, running and throwing, we spend less time compressing into the joint, and more time transferring tension through a chain of muscles and connective tissue. With regard to the ankle, this means the calves, shins, and muscles of the foot can all perform their primary roles instead of trying to support your entire weight through a few small bones every step you take. If you’ve ever had to carry really heavy shopping bags inside from the car, you’ll know that it isn’t the fingers that do the heavy lifting, but rather the larger muscles around the spine and shoulders. If you’re training your ankle with mobilization drills but dismissing the importance of the biggest muscles in the body then the shopping bags are figuratively going to weigh you down until the fingers can’t hold anymore.
Do calf raises help ankle mobility?
I’ve known a lot of clients in the past who have begun calf raises on a regular basis, only to realize that they’re really just kicking a can down the road when it comes to ankle mobilization. Once again, we need to look at the overall body and in this case, isolating one set of muscles to solve a systemic issue may actually do more harm than good.
Is walking good for ankle stiffness?
By now you’re probably realizing there’s no simple answer or exercise here, but rather an overall look at how your body is dealing with the forces placed upon it when landing on the floor, whether that be squatting, walking, running or lunging. In this case, walking can actually be very beneficial as an ankle mobility drill; the caveat is that it's only the case if you walk technically well. Most often if you have limited ankle mobility to begin with, you need to address the root causes of that before trying to just ‘walk it off’. In saying all this, occasional walking as a means of transportation and leisure should definitely not be discouraged IF you’re trying to get to the bottom of why your ankles are restricted or tight in the first place.
If you’ve noticed that you’ve been searching for ankle mobility exercises and ankle mobility drills, but nothing has implemented addressing your core, glutes and spine, it’s probably best to start looking somewhere else. By incorporating a global systems approach to the body, you’ll notice that your ankles don’t need to be stretched and mobilized all the time, and when you do decide to go for a run or play some tennis, you don’t need to warm them up for hours beforehand. In order to improve ankle mobility, it takes an approach that accounts for how we were designed to move ie. Walking, Running, and Throwing.