The Ankle as a Stabilizer
The foot and ankle are critical in mitigating forces through the body. The way your foot hits the ground determines how you initially absorb ground reaction forces. How your ankle reacts to your foot hitting the ground determines how that force is managed up the kinetic chain; through your knee, hip, low back and torso.
The ankle is composed of two joints: the talocrural joint and the subtalar joint. Both of these joints move in multiple planes and directions simultaneously in a process called coupled motion. But to simplify, the talocrural joint grossly moves forward and backwards in line with the running motion while the subtalar joint grossly moves side to side perpendicular to the plane of running.
Both joints are important for running! If your talocrural joint is not moving well you will have less forward movement of the shin bone which could result in pain at the achilles tendon or at the knee.
If you sprain your ankle, you have likely sprained the ligaments holding the subtalar joint together and have excessive motion in the side to side plane. This can lead to recurrent sprains if not treated properly.
The objective of the exercises that follow are to mobilize the talocrural and subtalar joints and the muscles that surround them and then strengthen the joint and muscles so you are more resilient to injuries over time.
Mobility at the ankle and Shin
Mobilizing the muscles of the shin are important because every muscle of the shin crosses and supports the ankle joints. Determining which muscles to mobilize are partially the job of your therapist; however, here are some general guidelines that you can apply at home:
Superficial and Deep Posterior Compartments (Gastrocnemius, Soleus, Posterior Tibialis): This forms the back-side of your shin. Most runners will benefit from some mobility of the posterior compartment of the shin as these muscles are heavily relied upon for running.
Anterior Compartment (Anterior tibialis, Extensor Digitorum) These muscles form the front of the shin and work as opposing muscles to the posterior compartments.
Lateral Compartment (Peroneal Longus, Peroneal Brevis) These muscles form the outside of the shin and have important implications in preventing ankle sprains.
Gastroc Tac N Stretch
Place the back side of your shin across a lacrosse ball. Slowly move your lower limb back and forth until you find a tender area. Hold the ball at this position and pump your ankle.
Tac n Stretch Peroneals
Place a lacrosse ball on the outside of your shin. Slowly move the ball up and down your foot until you find a tender area. Hold the ball at this position and pump your ankle.
Anterior Compartment Tac n Stretch
Place a lacrosse ball on the front side of your inner shin. Slowly move the ball up and down your foot until you find a tender area. Hold the ball at this position and pump your ankle.
Tac N Stretch Posterior Tibialis
Place a lacrosse ball on the inside of your shin. Slowly move the ball up and down your foot until you find a tender area. Hold the ball at this position and pump your ankle.
Do I Need to Be Stretching My Calves?
The majority of runners complain of stiff calves. At Golden Endurance we hear all the time, “my calves are so tight, my calves won’t loosen up no matter what I do” Often, the stiffness in calves runners are experiencing isn’t actually stiffness. The stiffness people are experiencing could actually be poor joint mobility at the ankle, muscles recovering from a workout, or neural tension referred from the back. It’s up to your therapist to help differentiate this perceived tension.
Strength at the ankle and Shin
The gastrocneumus and soleus muscles descend the backside of the leg to form the achilles tendon. The achilles tendon is pivotal in generating the push off force required to propel a runner forward. Often the achilles and calf muscles are weak and subsequently get overworked to the point where they feel restricted.
The single leg heel raise is a good way to test your gastrocnemius strength. Standing at a wall for balance, raise your heel up and down going through the full range of motion- it doesn’t count if you cannot reach the top of the motion! A good way to check to see if your reaching the top is performing the exercise while looking at a mirror. Runners who perform less than 20 heel raises are more susceptible to injury.
Below are exercises for the gastrocnemius.
Double Leg Heel Raise
Using a wall for support, come up and down on your toes. Make sure to place equal pressure through both your feet evenly.
Single Leg Heel Raise
Using a wall for support, come up and down on your toes one foot at a time.
The soleus muscle sits under the gastrocnemius and is pivotal in generating force and power for runners. The best way to isolate the soleus is to perform heel raises in a bent knee position with weights or body weights. Ideally progress the use of weights over time to really get good bang for your buck!
Below are exercises for the soleus.
Double Leg Squat with ISOmetric Heel Raise
Using a wall for support, come up on your toes. Keeping your heels raised high perform a squat.
Isometric Lunge with Heel raise
Hold a lunge position. While holding this position raise and lower your front heel. Can also be performed with your front leg on a block.
Peroneals & Posterior Tibialis
Having strength in the forward and backward plane is important for running; however, don’t neglect the side to side motion! The peroneal muscles are located on the outside of the shin and are important for providing outside stability particularly for preventing ankle rolls. The posterior tibialis is located on the inside of the shin and is important for supporting the arch of the foot. Both muscles work together to stabilize the foot in the side to side plane.
Below are exercises for the peroneal muscles and posterior tibialis.
Double Leg Heel Raise with Band
Wrap a therapy band around your ankles. Using a wall for support, come up and down on your toes. Make sure to place equal pressure through both your feet evenly.
Double Leg Heel Raise with Band Side Step
Wrap a therapy band around your ankles. Using a wall for support, come up and down on your toes. Sidestep to the left and and the right maintaining your heel height.
Single Leg Heel Raise with Band-Lateral Bias
Wrap a therapy band around one ankle and anchor the other end of the band to the outside of your foot. Using a wall for support, come up and down on your toes.
Single Leg Heel Raise with Band-Medial Bias
Wrap a therapy band around one ankle and anchor the other end of the band to the inside of your foot. Using a wall for support, come up and down on your toes.
Power at the ankle and Shin
Having some kind of explosive power at your foot and ankle is important for mitigating forces through the foot and ankle. When you run, your body absorbs three to six times its weight every foot strike. That being said, it is important to condition your body to be able to absorb plyometric forces and make you more resilient over time.
Double Leg Pogos
Keeping your knees relatively straight, jump up and down. Keep the pressure on your toes and do not take a break as you spring off the ground.
Double Leg Lateral Hop
Jump side to side over an imaginary line. Keep your knees relatively straight and try to stay on your toes.