More than likely, you've experienced some sort of ankle injury or sprain. Estimates suggest that nearly 23,000 people report ankle injuries daily. Although ankle sprains are usually manageable when it comes to athletics—sometimes you can even play with a sprain—there are ankle exercises you can perform to help prevent them from occurring.
Ankle Injury Mechanisms
Ankle sprains occur when ligaments in the foot and ankle are stretched beyond their capacity. Unlike muscles, ligaments don't like to stretch. When stretched, ligaments become loose, which explains the feeling of instability common with ankle sprains. Keep this in mind when progressing through the ankle exercises. There's a difference between stretching the ankle and guiding it through a range of motion movement. When performing the ankle exercises below, actively guide the movements. Don't stay stretchy and loose.
There are two main mechanisms for spraining an ankle. The first is ankle inversion (supination). Due to where the long bones in the lower leg end, the ankle is more likely to roll outward, making this type of sprain more common—and usually less severe.
The second type is eversion (pronation). These are less common but usually more severe—a frequent cause of high ankle sprains.
Ankle Injury Environments
Like most joints, the ankle lives in two environments—controlled and uncontrolled. Controlled environments are safe and stable. Think calculated movement on flat ground. Uncontrolled environments, however, are chaotic and unpredictable. Think walking blindfold on an uneven surface.
Although dangerous, uncontrolled environments are inherent in all sports. A basketball player stepping on someone else's foot and rolling an ankle is an unfortunate testament to the chaos.
Ankle Exercises to Prevent Sprains
The goal of training to prevent ankle sprains is achieved by maximizing strength through range of motion exercises and increasing overall balance. Because inversion sprains occur more often, focus on training to prevent this compromised position. Just note that if training in this position isn't controlled, the chance of injury increases, since it replicates an uncontrolled environment. It's like jamming on the brakes in a speeding car. The aim is to bring control to what is normally uncontrolled.
To fully strengthen the ankle, do the following ankle exercises barefoot. Many tendons and muscles that cross the ankle joint intertwine with the muscles and structures of the feet. So a fully functioning ankle also depends on having strong feet.
Before any activity, ankle training specifically, you must do a quality warm-up. This vital part of the workout activates the muscles involved and helps prevent injury. Do a warm-up before any activity. (Head over to STACK TV for great warm-up routines.)
Assume athletic position and lift leg into air. Rotate ankle to create five small, five medium and five large circles. Perform clockwise and counterclockwise.
Sets/Reps: 1x15 each leg
Assume athletic position and lift leg into air. Simulate drawing each letter of the alphabet with toes.
Sets/Reps: 1xalphabet each leg
Assume athletic stance with feet shoulder-width apart. Rise onto toes and hold for one to two seconds. Slowly lower and repeat for specified reps.
Assume athletic stance with feet shoulder-width apart. Lift toes off floor and hold position for one second. Then lift front half of foot off ground and hold for one to two seconds. Slowly return foot to floor and repeat for specified reps.
Assume athletic stance with feet shoulder-width apart. Shift weight to inside of feet so outside of feet are off the ground; hold for one to two seconds. Shift weight to outside of feet so inside of feet are off the ground; hold for one to two seconds. Repeat for specified reps.
Sets/Reps: 2x20 each way
Ankle Strength Work
Applying resistance to the ankle without equipment is a tough task; however, if you have a resistance band, it can easily be done. In the video below, Dick Hartzell—the man who created FlexBand and who can break a table with his ankle—provides a strengthening protocol that trains the ankle in various positions and ranges of motions.
Without the band, the strengthening process is cruder. Since the ankle is bound to roll to the outside at some point, the main goal is to strengthen the ankle in the inverted position while bearing a load. To do this, walk on the knife-edge (outside) of the foot. Make each step slow and controlled to stabilize the normally uncontrolled environment. Do three or four sets of 10 to 20 yards every other day if possible.
Not much else can be done to strengthen the ankle in extreme inverted range of motion. Instead, focus on balance. Better ankle balance means less chance of rolling to the inverted position. Balance also adds a chaotic element to training, because weight distribution varies and the ankles must work to support the body.
Assume athletic position with feet shoulder-width apart. Rise onto toes, stopping halfway to full extension. Settle into position and close eyes. If balance is lost, reset position and repeat until specified time is reached.
Sets/Duration: 1x2 minutes total
Assume athletic position near wall, chair or table and lift one leg into air. Rise onto toes, stopping halfway to full extension. Settle into position and close eyes. If balance is lost, reset position and repeat until specified time is reached. Use wall for support if necessary. Perform set on opposite leg.
Sets/Duration: 1x2 minutes each leg
Ankle sprains, while common, can be avoided if you train smartly and consistently. By doing the above ankle exercises and striving to control normally chaotic environments, you can improve your ankles' chances of surviving freak accidents.
Anthony Mychal is a writer, athlete consultant, teacher and coach. He has a B.S. in health and physical activity and an M.S. in health and physical education; and he studied under James Smith and Buddy Morris at the University of Pittsburgh. In his free time, he publishes a blog with his musings on athletic preparation at anthonymychal.com.