Progressing Ankle Mobility beyond SMR
Mobility is all the rage in the fitness industry - for good reason. If you can't move your body in the appropriate ways, then you'll constantly struggle to be your best when lifting, running, or even navigating the daily stress of your life. Being strong is great. Being lean is slick. But, being able to move through space without pain, tightness, or inability is best.
Mobility, in short, is the ability to move throughout a recommended, or optimal, range of motion at a joint in the body. You don't need to be a contortionist, but being able to do shoulder dislocation exercises with a PVC pipe is great.
One of the biggest problem areas in terms of mobility is the hips. Many people deadlift, squat, and lunge...but so many people don't have the requisite mobility to properly hinge, squat, and lunge. In my experience as a coach - most people have no idea how to separate their hips, or pelvis, from their lumbar spine/S.I. joint.
It takes proper coaching, adequate mobility training, and a conscious effort to strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and abdominals in an effort to make the hinge more natural. The process for developing hip mobility, much like shoulder mobility, is well documented with quality experience coming from the mouths and finger-tips of coaches across the world.
Now, this article is about the ankle, and I'm sure you are wondering where this is going with such a long-winded introduction and discussion about the hips. Well, my point is this...
There isn't nearly as much information regarding developing mobility in the ankle and foot, especially in terms of how you progress someone beyond your standard self-myofascial release, and unloaded range-of-motion training.
There are so many questions that exist in the minds of coaches, trainers, and the general population - many of which need to be answered in order for people to maximize their ankle health.
Why do we even care about the ankles?
How do we begin to fix our ankles if they are tight and immobile?
Where do we go once we have opened up the joints and freed up ranges of motion?
When are you clear to train normally?
All of these questions are valid and deserve answers. So, let's go ahead and do just that.
Why do we even care about the ankles
The ankles and feet are our most prominent points of contact with the world around us. They are designed to constantly transmit and absorb force and information. Everything you do in fitness, and even your daily life, relies on the health and wellness of the foot and ankle.
Beginning with the feet - I'll simplify our focus here since the article is about the ankle - we need to look at whether or not we "live" in a non-neutral state.
The foot can be pronated (big toe pulled towards ground, while the pinky toe is elevated) or supinated (pinky toe rotated down, big toe up). The arch can be collapsed or very prominent.
Now, some of these "non-neutrality" can be genetic and based upon the bony structure of your foot. However, many things are conditioned due to the shoes you wear, the way you walk and run, and how you leave your foot at rest.
Addressing the foot requires controlled myofascial release techniques to be done to the ball of the foot, below each toe, and throughout the arch. It's important to not address the heel due to the large number of sensitive nerves there. The process of rolling on a small ball, such as a golf ball, will cause some snap,crackle, and pops...but also lead to the release of trigger points, or bound nodules, that keep your foot from realizing its mobility.
A daily foot MFR routine, as well as barefoot walking in your home, and a retraining of your foot strike during runs can dramatically improve the health and mobility of your foot.
Now, to the ankles...
The ankles are capable of eversion (rotation to the outside), inversion (rotation towards the inside), dorsiflexion (bringing the toes closer to the knees), and plantar flexion (toes pointed downwards).
Each of these movements are important for allowing the feet to interact with ground safely and effectively. Moreover, these movements dictate much of what happens up-the-chain at other joints. Stiff ankles in a squat have been known to cause knee pain, limit depth, or compromise the health of the hips as you force yourself into a place your body doesn't want to go.
Doesn't sound right to skip the health of your ankles now does it?
I've seen clients with poor ankle mobility be unable to get into an optimal deadlift position without me elevating their toes.
I've seen clients unable to run or walk on an incline without pain due to stiff ankles.
There are a million reasons to make sure your ankles and feet are up to the challenge of life, but if you really need one, it's this...
The ankle may be the single greatest performance enhancer or detractor depending upon the attention you pay to its health, mobility, and stability.
How do you Begin to Fix your Ankles
Fixing your ankles begins with the aforementioned attention to your feet. You need to release pesky trigger points and activate the ranges of motion you've lost between your toes and within the arch of your foot.
Foot Health -
1. Myofascial release of balls of feet, toe pads, and arch of foot
Creating mobility by breaking down trigger points and negative tissue at the joints. This "space allows the room needed to improve long-term mobility.
2. Active "feeling" of toes, arch, and heel with the floor (relearn how it feels to make contact with specific portions of your foot).
Utilizing regions of the foot that are unfamiliar or previously "stuck" can unlock strength, power, and movement potential that can be trained.
Ankle Health -
Now, the feet have been addressed, which allows us to move up the chain towards the ankles. Opening up the needed mobility in your ankles depends upon your injury history and current capabilities, but on average, most people can begin in the following ways:
1. Myofascial release of the tibialis anterior (front of shin), and calves
This process, similar to the foot, opens up movement directions at the ankle by eliminating points of contention within the muscle systems of the shin.
2. Ankle Mobility Movements into Dorsiflexion, plantarflexion, eversion, and inversion\
Moving the ankle through its fullest range of motions, with assistance and without can be beneficial towards discovering lost ranges of motion.
Where do we go from here
Beginning to strengthen the weakest range of motion for many people, dorsiflexion, is critical to improving things such as squats, deadlifts, and even running. See, the quality of this subtle movement at the ankle joint is critical for anything in which the toes must move closer to the knees, which is just about anything involving the legs.
A move such as the toe-elevated Romanian deadlift is a great way to train the posterior chain while accounting for the need to improve the dorsiflexion.
Whether you utilize a footwork ladder, cones, or just some predetermined boundaries - it is imperative that you start using your newly found mobility. Ease into the drills and avoid the desire to go full bore right away. Our goal is to strengthen the tendons, ligaments and muscles that support the ankles movements - not thrash them.
So, three to five rounds of some basic agility that includes lateral cutting, shuffling, stopping and starting, and bounding can be a critical jump for someone in need of improving their ankle's performance and stability.
Loaded Movement in all 3 Planes
Like the agility drills - loaded movement in the 3 planes (transverse, frontal, and sagital) is critical to long term benefit. Sadly, most workouts occur in the frontal plane (think forwards and backwards), and so many critical muscles in the body are left untrained, or worse, weakened.
Thus, loaded training such as multi-directional lunges, rotational squat patterns, and a variety of carry patterns are important to improving the strength, stability, and movement capacity of the foot and ankle.
Getting the body to communicate from the ground up is an imperative step towards eliminating high risk of re-injury, or limited action due to prolonged soreness or discomfort.
Proper Gait Training
Many people, especially runners, do not understand how to move properly through their gait. Whether it is walking, jogging, running, or sprinting - there is often inefficient movement occurring that causes unneeded stress at the ankles, knees, or hips.
So, if you are going to run, then you need to have a desire to run better...
Thus, it is important to retrain these patterns to prevent re-injury or continued maladaptation. The last thing we want to do is fix someones ankles and get them back to, or better than, they were before...only for them to tear it apart with bad habits again.
Learning how to extend the foot and swipe the ground in your stride is a great first step (all puns intended) towards ensuring your gait is correct. Add in proper hip and knee extension/flexion, proper body lean and core activation, and lastly, but not least, correct arm drive - and you are destined to run better, feel better, and never deal with your ankles again.
How Do We Return to Normal Training
Integration of ankle/foot health and patterns for improvement
Once you feel as though you've successfully recovered, rehabbed, and strengthened the ankles/feet it is important to not just stop in your tracks.
Foot and ankle health should have a place in your daily and weekly routines.
You should conduct myofascial release on your feet and shin muscles at least 3 times a week in an effort to keep breaking down trigger points and retain optimal function.
You should strengthen your dorsiflexion as well as train your optimal ranges of motion at least once a week.
You should conduct 3D movements, loaded and unloaded, at least two to three times a week to keep your patterns, strength, and capability at their peak.
You should revisit the mechanics of your gait when you feel it is off, or before any long run or interval workout. Much like a hitter in baseball uses a batting cage to groove their swing - a runner can groove their stride prior to performance.
The ankle joint is not as insignificant as it may seem to those of us that like to train our muscles, break out in a hard sweat, and push ourselves to new bests. In fact, it could be the exact issue that keeps you from ever realizing your true potential.
Take care of your feet and ankles and watch as your movements, strength, and accomplishments stack up over time.