3 Mobility Exercises to Loosen Up Stiff Ankles

Article by Lucas Rockwood

Do you have tight ankles? When you squat down, do your heels pop up? Do your arches collapse when you run or walk? If so, you probably need to work on the dorsiflexion (upward bending and contracting) of your ankles.

If you’ve tried ankle stretches with rubber bands, slant boards, and elevated boxes, but nothing really worked – or worse, it made your knees hurt – then this article is for you.

The ankle joint is an amazing structure, offering tremendous range of motion, strength, and stability despite being bent and twisted every which way all in the course of a typical day. While running, for example, your ankle joints encounter hundreds of pounds of pressure with each stride. The fact that your ankles don’t collapse and hurt constantly speaks volumes about the genius of their design and architecture.

Anatomy of the Ankle Joint

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in this important area of your body.

The main bones involved are the tibia (shin bone), fibula, talus, and calcaneus. Your ankle is a mortise and tenon joint, like that used in carpentry, and this design is largely responsible for its resilience and dexterity. The ankle mortise is the ‘hinge’ that connects the ends of the tibia and fibula to the talus. It’s a synovial, hinge joint wrapped in strong ligaments on all sides. As the ankle dorsiflexes, the talus slides backward the mortise and tenon fits snugly into place.
The muscles that enable, or in this case limit, the dorsiflexion of your ankle are the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantaris muscles in your calf. These muscles come together above your heel, the first two attaching to the Achilles tendon and the plantaris running alongside it. They are responsible for flexing your foot at the ankle joint and your leg at the knee joint.

Problems and Risks of Tight Ankles

The calf muscles that limit the dorsiflexion of your ankle are tight and short in most people for two main reasons.

Firstly, almost all shoes on the market, whether running shoes or work shoes, are constructed with an elevated heel. With your heel elevated, your calf muscles shorten, and your body adapts over time to this position as ‘normal’. The second reason your ankles are so tight is because we don’t squat like our ancient ancestors would. In a more primitive setting, we’d squat to defecate, collect water, and even to relax for at least 30 minutes or more daily.

What Could Happen if Your Ankles are Tight?

You might be wondering if everyone has tight ankles, and it’s just the way most people’s bodies are today, does it matter? Yes, it does. Firstly, if you’re unable to fully dorsiflex, you miss out on the most stable position for your ankle. While fully dorsiflexed, that mortise and tenon slip snugly into place and the joint is rock solid. This means while squatting, for example, your ankle is in its strongest position. If you can’t reach this position, your ankle is always slightly compromised making you more prone to sprains and even fractures.

Secondly, if your ankles are tight, your body tries to find mobility downstream or upstream from your joint. As a result, you might overstrain the plantar fascia in your foot, your Achilles, or even the ligaments in your knee. Tight ankles have proven to be a greater risk factor for foot, ankle, and knee problems.

Why Stretches Don’t Always Work

While there are no shortage of ankle stretches to try, many common approaches are flawed and risk stretching other components of the foot and ankle. We do not want to stretch the Achilles tendon or the plantar fascia. Our main objective here is to stretch the three key calf muscles – the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantaris.

Static, passive stretching delivers the best results, so you should not bob in and out of poses. Instead, hold each pose for two minutes. The muscle spindles in your calves (and all muscles) communicate directly to your spinal cord when they sense you might be pushing too far in a stretch. The body responds by tensing up, and this is referred to as the stretch reflex. Long hold poses help you to overcome that stretch reflex and effectively create change in your tissues.

Please also remember that exercises like the ones I’m about to show you are for after a workout, never before. Deep stretching is aggressive and will destabilize your ankle for two to three hours afterwards. This is healthy and normal, but you should not do this before putting any weight demands on your joints.

3 of the Best Ankle Mobility Exercises

These poses are challenging. If your calf muscles are stiff and tight, it’s going to take some energy to loosen them up.

Please remember to keep your heel down at all times. To achieve leverage on your calf muscles most effectively, your heel should be planted. If the heel lifts, the plantar fascia and Achilles will take a significant portion of the stretch, which isn’t good.

Download PDF pose chart

Straight Leg Runner’s Lunge

  • Facing a wall, place your forearms on the wall, your back leg straight behind you and your heel down.
  • You don’t really use your front leg in this pose, so either turn your foot on its side, or pop up on your toes and take 90 percent of the weight into your back heel.
  • Try to relax your calf muscles and really drive the weight and pressure down into that back heel.
  • Inhale through your nose for 1-2-3-4, then exhale through your mouth for 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
  • Do this for two minutes, then switch sides.

Knee-to-Wall Lunge

  • Facing a wall for stability, drop your back foot and heel behind you in a Warrior-style pose and step your front foot a couple of inches from the wall.
  • Bend your front knee beyond your toe until it touches the wall. Keep your back heel down and drive the weight into that front heel.
  • Don’t let your knee lean to the inside and if your heel is popping up off the ground, move your feet closer towards the wall.
  • You should feel the tension in the soleus muscle at the back of your leg. If it feels too intense, drop your hand to the floor.
  • Hold and inhale through your nose for 1-2-3-4, then exhale through your mouth for 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
  • Do this for two minutes, then switch sides.

Banded Warrior Lunge

  • Place an exercise band around the lower ankle of one foot and across the arch of your back foot, then pull the band up to the top of your shoulder.
  • Separate your feet until you get some tension on your ankle.
  • Lunge forward with your knee moving directly over your big toe.
  • If you feel comfortable let it move further forward from your toe, just make sure it doesn’t lean to the inside.
  • Hold and inhale through your nose for 1-2-3-4, then exhale through your mouth for 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
  • Do this for two minutes, then switch sides.

Ankle Mobility Exercises & Pain

The purpose of these exercises is to reduce stiffness in your ankles and help to improve mobility. Keep the movements slow and controlled and if you feel pain, stop. Any ankle injuries should always be checked out by a medical practitioner before you begin any self-care routine.

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