Weak Ankles And Poor Ankle Mobility

Weak Ankles And Poor Ankle Mobility

Weak ankles and poor ankle mobility can be a serious hindrance for mountain bikers. Luckily for you guys, yoga can help to improve ankle stability, flexibility and mobility. As I aim to demonstrate in all my articles, one of the primary reasons that yoga is so effective at addressing muscular imbalances and chronic pain, is that it takes a holistic, integrated approach.

BAREFOOT BENEFITS FOR WEAK ANKLES

Leonardo Da Vinci described the foot as “a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” and as such, I think it deserves more respect and attention than we typically give it. When you wear shoes, the bones and muscles in your feet are in large part immobilised. Shoes are like casts for your feet, under which your muscles atrophy and your range of motion wastes away. Your feet and ankles can become rigid, weak and even painful.

So, the first thing to do is take off your shoes as much as possible and walk on different types of terrain, like rocks, sand and grass, barefoot. This will strengthen the intrinsic muscles in your feet, giving you a more solid foundation on which to build strength, power and control. And if you don’t like being barefoot very much, you can at least take off your shoes to do a few minutes of yoga.

QUICK WORD OF WARNING

These poses are not designed to heal ankle injuries—please find a good physical therapist if you’re recovering from a sprain, strain or break. Stretching could make an injury worse, by disrupting the healing process. And don’t be tempted to leave an ankle injury untreated, as your whole body can end up tight and twisted as a result.

For the rest of you, if you practice these exercises consistently, you ankles are likely to be significantly less breakable.

PART ONE: STRENGTHEN WEAK ANKLES

Strengthening the ligaments in your ankles and the muscles surrounding the ankle joint is going to improve your control, allow you to generate more power and increase your resilience (decrease your risk of injury). When you practice yoga, you strengthen your feet, ankles and lower legs in all of the standing poses and in the transitions between them. This is a great start but I’m also going to give you three balancing poses to take it to the next level—a concentric and eccentric contraction, a one-legged standing pose, and an isometric hold.

1. Standing on tiptoes

Standing On Tiptoes

Objectives
  • Strengthens and stabilises weak ankles.
  • Strengthens the arches, the intrinsic muscles of the feet, the Achilles tendon and the lower leg muscles.
  • Warms up the feet and ankles.
  • Improves balance.
Instructions
  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. Rest your arms by your sides.
  • Try not to let your feet roll in (pronate) or out (supinate).
  • Look at a point at eye-line that isn’t moving to help you keep your balance.
  • Inhale, slowly come up onto the balls of your feet, sweep your arms out and up overhead. Exhale, slowly lower your heels to the ground and bring your arms back down by your sides.
  • Breathe in and out through your nose.
  • Don’t rush it.
  • Repeat 10-15 times, with as much control as you can.

2. Tree

Tree Pose

Objectives
  • Strengthens and stabilises weak ankles.
  • Strengthens the feet, legs, hips and core.
  • Opens up the hips.
  • Improves balance.
Instructions
  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. Bring your hands to your hips.
  • Shift your weight into your right foot and bring the sole of your left foot to the inside of your right ankle, calf or inner thigh. Avoid pressing your foot into your knee as this joint is not designed to move laterally. Place it either above or below.
  • Try to keep your right foot flat on the ground—not rolling out or in.
  • You can keep your hands on your hips or reach them up overhead.
  • Focus on a point at eye line that isn’t moving to help you keep your balance.
  • Hold the pose as still as you can for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose.
  • For an extra challenge, try closing your eyes.
  • Release the pose and switch sides.

3. Awkward Pose

Awkward Pose

Objectives
  • Strengthens and stabilises weak ankles.
  • Strengthens the feet, legs, hips and lower back.
  • Improves balance.
Instructions
  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead.
  • Look at a point at eye-line that isn’t moving to help you keep your balance.
  • Inhale, come up onto your tiptoes, lift your arms up in front of you to shoulder height. Exhale, bend your knees and lower down as slowly as you can until your thighs are almost parallel with the mat.
  • Keep your heels up and try not to lean forward.
  • Relax the muscles in your face.
  • Hold the pose for 3-5 deep breaths, in and out through your nose.
  • Slowly come back up to standing and shake out your legs.
  • Repeat 2-3 times.

PART TWO: STRETCH TIGHT ANKLES

Your ankle moves in 4 basic directions:

  • Dorsiflexion—feet flexed, toes pulled back towards the shins.
  • Plantar flexion—toes pointed.
  • Inversion—rolling onto the outer edge of the foot.
  • Eversion—rolling onto the inner edge of the foot.

There are several yoga poses that help to increase ankle flexibility, but for this article, I’ll just demonstrate one for each direction plus a bonus posture that I’ll come to at the end.

1. Squat

Yoga Squat

Objectives
  • Stretches tight ankles, knees, groin and glutes.
  • Strengthens the feet, ankles and lower legs.
  • Opens up the hips.
Instructions
  • Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and turn your toes out about 45 degrees.
  • Bend your knees and squat down as low as is comfortable.
  • Bring your upper body in between your thighs and touch your palms together.
  • Lengthen your spine and press your triceps against your knees to open up your hips.
  • Hold the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose.
Modification
  • If you don’t have the flexibility in your ankles, calves and/or hips to get your feet flat on the ground, don’t try to force it. You can support your heels on a rolled up mat or towel and keep practising the pose until you see an improvement.

2. Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt Pose

Objectives
  • Stretches tight feet, ankles and knees and quads.
Instructions
  • Sit back on your heels, bring your knees close together and rest your hands in your lap.
  • Check that your toes point straight back and that your feet don’t roll in or out.
  • Sit up tall, look straight ahead and hold the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose.
  • For an extra challenge, you can bring your fingertips behind you, lean back and lift your knees off the mat for a few breaths.
Modification
  • If this pose is painful for your knees, you can put a rolled up mat or towel between the backs of your thighs and your calves. You can also sit on a block between your feet. Try to keep your knees pointing straight ahead.

3. Knee-Down Twist

Knee-Down Twist

Objectives
  • Stretches tight ankles, IT Band, outer hips, lower back, abs and obliques.
  • Can help to relieve lower back pain.
Instructions
  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the mat.
  • Bring both arms out in a T, palms facing down.
  • Straighten your left leg up to the sky and press through your heel. Bring your left ankle to your right knee and drop the inside of your right ankle to the mat. Gently lower your right knee down with the left foot still in place.
  • Look to the right and stay here for 5-10 breaths, or up to a few minutes if it feels good.
  • Come back to centre and switch sides.

4. Happy Baby

Happy Baby

Objectives
  • Stretches tight feet, ankles, groin and hamstrings.
  • Releases tension in the lower back.
Instructions
  • Lie on your back and hug your knees into your chest.
  • Keep your feet together and bring your knees out wide. Thread your hands through and take hold of the outsides of your feet.
  • Bring your ankles out over your knees, flex your feet and gently pull down on the outsides of your feet, turning the soles of your feet up to the sky.
  • If you can’t reach your feet, take hold of your ankles or lower legs and circle your feet slowly in both directions.
  • Stay in the pose for 5-10 breaths, or as long as feels good.

5. Screaming Toe

Screaming Toe Pose

Objectives
  • Stretches the toes, ankles and the soles of your feet. This is the anti-shoe pose.
  • Increases your pain tolerance.
Instructions
  • Kneel with your knees and ankles together and your toes tucked under. Keep your heels aligned directly over your toes. Don’t let them fall out to the sides or in towards each other.
  • Try to relax.
  • Hold the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. Then deepen your breath and hold it for 5 more. Remember that you can always do more than you think.
  • If you need to, you can lean forward to take some of the weight off your toes.
Modification
  • You can place a rolled up blanket between your calves and the backs of your thighs if this is too intense on your knees.

PART THREE: IMPROVE ANKLE MOBILITY

Practicing yoga consistently will bring the spring back into your ankles and calves. And as you’re moving your feet through full range of motion, in a variety of different directions and angles, you don’t have set aside specific time to work on your ankle strength and conditioning. It’s all part of the service.

Try focussing on making the movements in your feet and ankles as smooth and controlled as possible. Stretch, strengthen and gently push against your edges, steadily increasing your range of motion, building resilience and improving your coordination and control.

Here are some videos for you to try this out with:

SOFT-TISSUE WORK

Finally, treat yourself to a foot massage. Your feet probably don’t get a lot of love, but they should—since their health and alignment affect the way your ankles, knees and hips function. And if that feels too indulgent, take a tennis or lacrosse ball to the soles, sides and tops of your feet, to your heels, all parts of your ankles and up your calves. In Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans, Amelia Boone, world champion obstacle racer, recommends rolling your feet on a golf ball to break up the fascia. Just remember to start slow.

GET INVOLVED

Please let me know if you have any thoughts or questions on how to strengthen weak ankles and increase ankle flexibility.

Photo credit: Graham Mattock

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