Improving Your Ankle Mobility
Ankle mobility can have a huge impact on your squats, lunges, or other lower body movements that require the knees to go over the toes. Dorsiflexion is the movement of bending at the ankle to pull the top of your foot towards your shin. This is what your foot does in the bottom of a squat. If you don't have enough dorsiflexion, then your body will find a way around it by compensating. These compensations could be the knees caving in (valgus collapse) and losing the foot arch, a forward trunk lean, or the hips and low back flexing (also called the "buttwink"). In this post we will go over how to assess your ankle mobility and how to address it.
Some Bone Anatomy
The ankle joint in it's simplest form is made up of three bones: the tibia (medial malleolus), fibula (lateral malleolus), and the talus (one of the foot bones). Joints typically follow a roll and glide rule to maintain good alignment with movement. In dorsiflexion the talus is going to roll forward on the shin bones and in order for it to not lose its articulation the talus also has to glide backwards. We will go over how we can use this principle later on.
Some Muscle Anatomy
The main muscles involved here are the calves, also known as the gastroc-soleus complex. The gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles share a common attachment point in the Achilles tendon and will be a main focus of this post. The gastrocs cross the knee joint and ankle joint. The classic stretch for the calf is the "runners stretch" where you go up to a wall and lean forward with the knee straight and bend the ankle until you feel a pull in the back of the lower leg. The gastroc is stretched with knee extension (straight knee) and ankle dorsiflexion to get that full elongation of the muscle. This will indirectly stretch the soleus muscle that runs under the gastroc as seen above, but it's most likely not going to be enough to address a limitation in mobility. The soleus does not cross the knee, it only crosses the ankle joint. So how do we stretch the soleus without also stretching the gastroc? Bend the knee. This is going to put slack on the gastroc and stretch the soleus muscle across the back of the ankle joint. Let's move into some assessment.
Ankle Mobility Assessment
The half kneeling ankle dorsiflexion test is a good way to test your dorsiflexion and even give it a more objective measurement. Get into a half kneel position against the wall or rig. Start with your toes close to the wall and drive the knee over the 2nd toe until it touches the wall. Inch your foot away from the wall and test again. Keep doing this until you can no longer reach the wall without the heel coming up. Make sure to take a mental note or measure the distance the toe is from the wall so that we can compare after trying these techniques. Getting about a fist width (top of thumb to side of pinky) or 4-5 inches from toe to wall is adequate mobility. Let's talk about how to address a limitation.
Roll Out the Calve
When used appropriately, soft tissue work or massage can be a useful tool to improve mobility. Grab a foam roller or small ball (lacrosse, tennis, golf, anything round and firm). Sit on the ground and place it under the calve. Roll the entire length of the calve slowly, start at the top and do 3-4 little oscillations in one spot then work your way down the leg. If you find a tender or tight spot, spend a little more time here and try pulling the foot into dorsiflexion to get a little deeper. Roll each calve for about 2 minutes each. This shouldn't be painful, it should just be a pretty firm pressure to give some input to the muscles. Foam rolling can be beneficial to reduce some muscle tension, but it should always be followed up with other techniques like active stretching and strengthening exercises.
Banded Ankle Mobilization
If you feel like there is some pinching in the front of the ankle when doing the assessment, then this one may be for you. Get a resistance band (here is an affiliate link for the bands I am using) and anchor it to the bottom of a rig. Set up a box or bench a few feet away, stand with your back to the rig, and put one foot on top of the box/bench. Wrap the band around the top of the foot (below the shin) so that it pulls down and back. Lunge forward and drive the knee over the toes in 3 different directions: over the big toe, over the middle of the foot, and over the pinky toe. Cycle through all three for 10 reps in each direction with a slow rock into and out of the movement. The pull of the band down and back is what helps to restore the backwards glide of the talus that we talked about.
After we improve the range of motion, we need to access that newfound mobility with a strengthening exercise. This is arguably the most important step to ingrain the new range of motion into our movement patterns. Stand with the toes elevated on a step. Come up on the toes and slowly lower the heels to the floor for a count of 4 seconds. The slow lowering is the most important part because it works the calf eccentrically, essentially stretching and strengthening at the same time. Another thing that can be added is to really hit that soleus muscle by bending the knee when you get to the bottom of the movement. Try 3 sets of 10 reps.
Go back to the knee to wall assessment and see if you made a change. Can you get the knee further away from the wall? This is one example of how we need to take a systematic approach at things like limited mobility. You can stretch away at things forever, but the results are usually only going to last a couple hours.
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Are you tire of being in pain or feeling like you aren't performing at 100%? Feel like you need help with your training? Do you think you have mobility issues in other areas? Reach out to me on any platform or check out our services page to learn more.
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Dr. Brett Dick, PT, DPT