Did you sprain your ankle recently?
Are you struggling with getting low on defense or a squat?
If you answered yes to any of those two questions, then you are likely lacking in ankle mobility. If you are having trouble getting low on defense, sometimes it’s not the hips and it’s actually the ankles.
This easy 4-step approach will address the common issues, which athletes have when it comes to ankle mobility, specifically dorsiflexion mobility. These common issues include muscular limitations, joint restrictions, and motor control deficits.
Test Your Ankle Mobility
Before we get started with the 4-step approach, you must assess your ankle mobility and compare it with the other side! The test we use is the knee-to-wall test to assess your dorsiflexion range of motion. The test only requires a tape measure/ruler and a wall. The video below demonstrates the technique. The main thing is to go as far as you can while keeping your heel down. Make sure you write down the measurement because we will get back to this after the 4 steps to see if you improved!
Step 1: Soft Tissue Mobilization
First, we like to first take a look at muscular restrictions that could contribute to decreased dorsiflexion range of motion. When it comes to muscular restrictions, the muscle we are taking a look at is the calf, which is composed of two primary muscles: gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. The difference between the two muscles is where they start on the leg; the soleus starts below the knee, while the gastroc above the knee. The reason we look at the calf is because if the muscles have flexibility limitations, it will limit the ankle from being able to move into dorsiflexion. Those muscles primarily perform plantarflexion; therefore, if they are tight, it will limit dorsiflexion. The image below shows the two different motions of dorsiflexion and plantarflexion.
That being said, we like to use soft tissue mobilization; in other words, self massage to address these restrictions. The way we perform a self-massage is by using a foam roller. We use this self-massage technique, explained in the video below, to help decrease the tone of the muscle to be able to do the next step. We would normally perform this self-massage technique with the foam roller for around 2 minutes.
Step 2: Stretching
After you are done performing self massage with the foam roller, the next step is to stretch. Before we stretch, we have to remember the calf has two primary muscles: gastrocnemius and soleus. As we mentioned before the main difference is that one starts above the knee (gastrocnemius) the other starts below (soleus), which will affect how we stretch each. In the picture below we show the two different muscles.
Now that you understand the difference, you will have to stretch them accordingly. The first stretch we’ll focus on is the gastrocnemius muscle. The key thing with this stretch which is shown in the video below is that the heel must stay down and the knee has to be straight. We recommend doing this for 1 minute on each side. Furthermore, we like to do the stretch in a more dynamic motion and in 3 different directions to really get the different fibers of the gastrocnemius.
The next muscle is the soleus muscle, which starts below the knee; as a result, it must be stretched with a knee bent. Just like the previous stretch, we will do the stretch dynamically and in different directions. The main coaching cue from the video below is to keep the heel down and drive the knee as far out as you can. We recommend doing this for 1 minute on each side.
Once we have dynamically stretched the muscle we then will go into the joint!
Step 3: Joint Mobilization
You have just finished mobilizing the muscles, now it’s time to focus on the ankle joint itself. The specific joint we will be mobilizing is called the talocrural joint. The talus has to move backwards, or towards the heel, that is why we will use a strength band. The video below demonstrates the set up for this mobility exercise. The main thing is to keep the strength band slightly below the crease of the ankle and keep the heel down while performing the drill.
If you do not have a strength band here is another option to do the same mobility exercise with your hands. We recommend doing this drill for one minute for 2 sets.
Step 4: Use Your New Available Range of Motion!
The final step is to use that new range of motion you worked so hard to gain. This component taps into the motor control, or mind-muscle connection. This is critical because you learn how to use and maintain that range of motion. Our favorite way to do this is in a functional position. We recommend doing this drill for 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions
Re-Test Your Ankle Mobility
Once you have finished doing these 4-steps it is now time to retest your ankle mobility! You will re test our ankle mobility the same way we first tested it at the beginning of the blog.
In conclusion this 4-step approach for ankle mobility can be done as a warm up or on an off day. The main goal is to improve your ankle mobility to decrease your risk for injury and also improve the way you move. If you are dealing with an ankle sprain check out our new 12-week online ankle sprain rehab program.
Need More Help?
Early Rehab Exercises:
Here is a video of exercises you can be doing early on in your ankle rehab.
12-Week Online Program to Return to Sport & Optimize Your Foot & Ankle
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Dabadghaw, Rachana Rehabilitation of lateral ankle sprains in sports
Mattacola et al Rehabilitation of the ankle after acute sprain or chronic instability
Vuurberg et al. Diagnosis, treatment and prevention of ankle sprains: update of an evidence based clinical guideline
O’Donnell, Michael. Education and Intervention for Musculoskeletal Injuries: A biomechanics Approach. Understanding Injury, Health, and adaptations of the musculoskeletal system. 2012
Lloyd Jacob Evans, Angela Clough. Prevention of ankle sprains: A systematic Review 2011
Terada Masufmi, Pietrosime Brian and Gribble Phillip. Therapeutic Interventions for Increasing ankle dorsiflexion after ankle sprain: A systematic review. 2013
Dr. Gabriel Ignacio PT, DPT, OCS, TPI
Dr. Marco Lopez PT, DPT, CSCS
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