Ankle mobility generally refers to the range of motion, or lack thereof, of the ankle joint. It is usually tested actively (the body performing its own movements) or passively (an outside force, such as a therapist, testing the movement on the test subject). Two major ranges that are often tested are dorsiflexion (when the foot and toes are flexed towards the head) and plantar flexion (when the foot and toes are pointed away from the body). When ankle mobility, especially dorsiflexion, is restricted, ankle stability is often affected and many exercises become limited. Without correction or improvement in mobility, your performance can be directly affected.
Limited mobility can reduce the power output during athletic activities, impacting your speed. The ankle works as a spring; it is designed to propel the body forward as the foot pushes off of the ground. The greater the ankle range, the greater the kinetic energy, the greater the power output, the greater the speed! Dorsiflexion can also influence ground contact time. Greater dorsiflexion = less ground contact time = increased speed. For runners, sprinters, and team sports that involve either or both, ankle mobility is crucial.
The repercussions of ankle restrictions are not isolated to your ankle – limited ankle mobility can also impact other joints when training. When weight lifting, for instance, ankle dorsiflexion allows for greater knee flexion (how far our knees can go over our toes in squats, lunges, box jumps, Olympic lifts, and so on). Sticking with the example of a squat, dorsiflexion is crucial in order to get into the bottom position of a squat without your heels coming off the ground. In being able to do so, proper form is easier to attain and maintain throughout the entire squat, reducing the risk of injury on compensating body parts – knees, hips, lower back.
Ankle mobility exercises are an excellent way to establish a muscle-brain connection, expose unknown ankle limitations, correct compound or isolated movements, improve range of motion, improve PR’s, and if needed, enhance ankle stability.
Drills to Improve Ankle Mobility:
1. Unilateral Eccentric Calf Raises
Stand on the edge of a step with the balls of your feet resting on the step, and your heels hanging over the edge. Use a railing or a wall for stability – or a calf raise machine if your gym of choice has one. If able, perform this exercise one foot at a time. Your other leg should have its knee bent and your foot should be out of the way. Take 2 seconds to do a calf raise, and 5 seconds to lower the calf, having the heel drop well beyond the step, and repeat.
Suggested guideline: Sets: 3. Reps: 10.
Add weight if this is too easy. Use both legs at once if too difficult.
2. Standing (or Kneeling) Knee to Wall
Place your foot close to the wall and drive your knee forward. Touch your knee to the wall while keeping your heel on the ground. If this is too simple, move your foot farther from the wall. Repeat this until you heel lifts off of this floor, and this becomes your working position, trying to get the heel on the floor.
Suggested guideline: Sets: 2-3. Reps: 15-20.
3. Rocking Goblet Squat
Sit deep into goblet squat (feet hip-width apart, bum as close to the floor as can be without falling over, and use a weight as a counterweight to stay upright). Rock back and forth to isolate each ankle, keeping your heels on the floor as you do so.
Suggested guideline: 1-2 minutes during a warm up or in between working sets.
4. Drive your knee forward on the front leg during lunges (as far as you can comfortably), keeping your heel on the floor.
Suggested guideline: Work into your regular lunge sets. Reduce the weight if the load on the quad becomes too intense.
5. Bent Knee Ankle Wrap-Arounds
This exercise will help build ankle stability. Stand on one leg with your knee bent to approximately 45 degrees, and use a kettlebell to pass between hands, travelling in front and behind the body in a circle (“wrap around” your body). Focus on moving the weight-bearing ankle as little as possible.
Suggested guideline: Sets: 3. Reps: 8.
Repeat on your other leg. Add weight to the kettlebell or stand on a bosu ball if this is too easy. If this is too difficult, stand on the ground with your knee only slightly bent.