When we think about exercise, our ankles aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. But you don’t have to be a ballerina or gymnast to appreciate the importance of having strong ankles. If you’ve ever experienced an ankle injury, you how painful and inconvenient they are, often taking quite a while to heal.
Ankle injuries occur on a frequent basis – 25,000 per day!1 – and are categorized into three grades. Grade 1 is minor and while painful, usually heals fairly quickly and has a low impact on your life. Grade 2 sprains involve moderate ligament damage. Grade 3 describes an injury where the ligaments are completely torn. Call a doctor if you can’t put any weight on the injured foot, or if there’s an obvious deformity. Otherwise, immediate treatment starts with rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Your best treatment, though, is prevention. Luckily, preventing ankle injuries is as simple as adding a few simple exercises to your routine.
1. Ankle circles. You probably know all about these, and for good reason: ankle circles are excellent or strengthening the muscles important to keep your ankles strong. Sitting down, rotate your feet in a complete circle. Think about drawing a circle with your big toe. Do 5-10 circles each direction, repeating 2 or 3 times throughout the day.
2. Trace the alphabet. Pretend your big toe is a pen and use it to write the entire alphabet – uppercase and lowercase – with each foot.
3. Toe lifts. Flex your big toe and ankle, as if you were trying to touch your toe to your shin. Hold for 10-15 seconds.
4. Heel raises. Standing, raise and lower your heels 10 times, holding at the “top” of the stretch (when your heels are as high as they go) for 15 seconds.
5. In and out. Turn your ankles as far inward as they can go; hold for 15 seconds. Then turn your ankles out as far as you can stretch them and hold for another 15 seconds.
6. Rolled ankle walk. Roll your feet outward and walk on just the outside edge of your foot for one minute. This will help strengthen your tendons.
7. Achilles heel stretches. In a standing position, step back with one leg (think lunge position). Keep the back leg straight, and bend your front leg until it’s at about a 45-degree angle. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds.
8. Balance training. Ankle injuries often happen in moments of instability and unexpected motion. The more you work on your overall balance, the better your reflexes become to protect your body from injury in those moments. Yoga, pilates, and tai chi are good practices that encourage a better sense of balance and increased core strength. A simple exercise you can do to start working on this is standing on one leg. Start at 30 seconds each foot, and up your time (or try doing it with your eyes closed for an added challenge!).
9. Overall ankle strength. Aside from target stretches, there are exercises that particularly lend themselves to preventing ankle injuries by strengthening the muscles and tendons in your feet and legs. Running, cycling, and swimming are common favorites that will help you take better care of your ankles.
And finally, a word about shoes. We would be remiss not to bring this point up. Wearing the right shoes while you exercise is critically important when it comes to preventing ankle injuries. First of all, make sure the shoes you’re wearing are right for the exercise you’re doing. This might seem unnecessary, but good shoes are specifically designed with a different sport in mind. Also take into account your foot’s shape and get shoes that will support your arch best. Once you have the right shoes, be sure to replace them often – about every 6 months or when the tread wears out.