how to build ankle strength
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How to Build Ankle Strength to Avoid Injury

As weight-bearing joints, our ankles experience a lot of wear and tear during the course of our lives. Over time, routine physical activity can take a toll on the structures that give ankles flexibility, strength, and range of motion. However, you can take steps to build ankle strength and address tight or weak ankles before an injury occurs.

Here are several simple and effective exercises to build ankle strength and lower your risk of sprains and fractures.

What Are the Most Common Ankle Injuries?

The ankle joint bears up to five times your body weight while walking and up to 13 times your body weight when running. It is no wonder this complex structure is frequently impacted by these common injuries:

Sprains

An ankle sprain happens when the ankle twists, turns, or rolls in an awkward way, tearing or stretching the ligaments that support the ankle. Acute ankle sprains are among the most common musculoskeletal injuries reported in this country. They have a high recurrence rate and they increase the chance of developing chronic ankle instability.

Fractures

An ankle fracture is a break in one or more of the bones that form the ankle joint. A broken ankle can be minor and may not interfere walking and other movements. More severe fractures involve multiple bones and may require surgery.

Trauma to the body like in a car accident or sports injury can cause a broken ankle. They can also happen if the ankle twists in an unnatural position from a fall or misstep. Ankle fractures are the most common type of fracture of the lower extremities.

Strains

Ankle strains are not as common as sprains and fractures, but they do occur. An ankle strain is when the muscles and/or their connecting tendons overstretch or tear.

Acute ankle strains are the result of a single trauma or injury, like a fall or direct blow to the lower body. Chronic strains occur from overuse of the ankle, typically through repetitive hard landings—like from frequent long-distance runs or practicing your basketball layups every day.

How to Build Ankle Strength With Exercise

Strengthening and stretching the muscles that support the ankle, foot, and lower leg help stabilize the ankle joint and keep it from rolling. As you increase your flexibility through exercise, you improve range of motion in the ankle joint as well.

Targeting the muscles and tendons that control lower leg movement also improves ankle function, strength, and stability. These exercises can be part of a proactive regimen to prevent injuries, or for recovery from surgery or injury. Always consult your healthcare provider and physical therapist before starting a new exercise program.

1. Toe Pickups / Curls
For this exercise, you’ll need a few small objects like marbles or dice. A towel works too.

  • Stand up and place the items on the ground.
  • Now, use your toes to pick each item up and drop it into a cup or bowl.
  • If you’re using a towel, use your toes to pick up the towel and curl them scrunch the towel up.
  • Now, release it.
  • Do two sets of 10 on each foot.

2. Ankle Alphabet
This is good for increasing range of motion in the ankle joint.

  • Sit in a chair with your knees bent.
  • Lift one leg a few inches off the ground.
  • Draw all of the letters of the alphabet with your foot.
  • Repeat on the opposite foot.

3. Resistance Band Stretches
Incorporating a resistance band into your routine is another way to increase range of motion.

  • Begin seated on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you.
  • Hold the resistance band and wrap it around the ball of one foot.
  • Point your toes up and then point them forward away from you for 20 reps.
  • Next, pull your toes toward your shin for 20 reps.
  • Rotate your toes to the side for 20 reps.
  • Invert, or rotate your toes toward the midline of your body for 20 reps.
  • Place the resistance band on the opposite foot and repeat.

4. Heel Cord Stretch
You will feel these stretches through the calves and into the heels.

  • Stand up and face the wall.
  • Put one foot in front of the other and bend it slightly at the knee.
  • Bend the back leg slightly and point your toes inward.
  • With both heels flat on the floor, press your hips toward the wall.
  • Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and relax for another 30 seconds.
  • Do two sets of 10 and repeat with the opposite leg in front.

5. Calf Raises
Calf raises are an effective way to stretch the ankle and leg muscles.

  • Stand on a step or platform (only slightly off the ground.)
  • Place the balls of your feet on the flat surface and let your heels hang off the back.
  • Push up with your toes so to raise your heels above the surface of the step or platform.
  • Now, let the heels fall move slowly down to just below the surface.
  • Repeat this stretch 10 times.

6. Heel-Toe Walks
These short movements target the muscles that keep the ankle joint strong and stable.

  • Find a flat open space.
  • Walk forward only on your heels for five steps.
  • Now switch to walking only on your tip-toes for five steps.
  • Continue walking in this alternating pattern for 1-2 minutes.

Because these exercises and stretches are low-impact, you can do them daily or a few times per week for optimal results. If ankle pain and stiffness continue, discuss your symptoms with your physician and physical therapy team.

Athletes and Ankle Injuries

Rapid side-to-side motion and repetitive pounding on hard surfaces that come with certain sports and activities increase the risk of ankle injuries. According to a review of current data on the prevalence of ankle injuries, nearly one-quarter of all sports injuries treated in emergency rooms were ankle injuries. In 24 of all 70 sports studied, ankle injuries were reported most frequently.

Ankle injuries are commonly associated with soccer, football, basketball, baseball, tennis, and running. It is especially important for competitive athletes—and weekend warriors—to strengthen and protect the ankles to avoid injuries. If you run or play sports for fun or competition, add the exercises we’ve provided to your fitness routine. Also, work with your trainer and physical therapist for a sport-specific stretching and strengthening regimen to help you stay active and injury-free.

Physical Therapy for Ankle Pain

Learning how to build ankle strength is just one component of a comprehensive rehabilitative therapy plan to recover from injury and regain strength, function, and mobility in the ankle joint. Physical therapy helps you stand, walk, and stay active without pain. To schedule a screening for ankle pain, find a physical therapy clinic near you.

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