Runners and ankles have been in a perpetual battle with one another for years much like the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s. Perhaps you’ve dealt with an ankle sprain while on a run before, or you may have put up with an ongoing bout of plantar fasciitis. It’s even possible someone told you your “calf muscles are tight and you need to do calf stretches”. (Slow eye roll)
Your foot and ankle are the closest to the ground during your run. By proxy, they take the most ground reaction force during the foot making contact, roughly 10-12x your body weight. This slowly dissipates as it moves up the body, but due to the forces involved, we need our feet and ankles to be strong and adapt to the loads involved with our training plan. A couple of studies from Steinacker in 2001 and Taunton in 2003 concluded that collectively, the foot and ankle make up over a quarter of running-related Injuries (RRIs) of the lower extremity.
We know how you get when you’re injured and running is sidelined for a bit (take cover!). Let’s break down ankle mobility in general and diver deeper into stretches or mobility you can do to ACTUALLY see results. More specifically, how and why we would want to progress towards strength and warm-up drills to keep them in mint condition.
Ankle Mobility – What Is It? Does It Matter or Not?
With many of our running clients, we believe education helps remove a lot of the doubt and scary stuff when it comes to an injury. After all, the more you know (say it with me) the more you growwww. We often see that ankle dorsiflexion and ankle plantarflexion are the two main range(s) of motion that runners need to work on and perhaps are limited. One rule of thumb is not necessarily searching for a magic number (this changes based on body type and age). Instead, it looks for congruency between your right and left sides.
An easy way to assess this is by simply using a door or wall to measure your dorsiflexion. This looks very much like a calf stretch, and we call this the Ankle Dorsiflexion test (duh). This range of motion test is a nice way of seeing if your problematic side needs some mobility attention. Many times with ankle sprains, dorsiflexion gets compromised the fastest and therefore needs immediate attention.
One of the ankle stretches (or motions) used during running is plantar flexion. Plantar flexion can be done in a couple of different ways. In an open-chain assessment (meaning your foot is not in contact with the ground and non-weight bearing), you can sit on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you. With your feet side by side, you can point your toes forward, both at the same time to notice any difference in tension, and independently to note any difference in mobility. You can do this in a closed chain position (weight-bearing) by simply doing a Calf Raise test (in double leg and single leg) to see if there is a difference there as well. Keep notes on what you find. This way you are able to trace your way back to what you need to work on.
Ankle dorsiflexion comes into play during the swing phase of the running gait the most on the stance leg. All that fancy terminology means is that the leg that is in the air is swinging forward during the run. As that occurs, the body is also moving over the foot that is on the ground and creating dorsiflexion. Plantar flexion happens during the toe-off phase of gait where the foot is pushing up and forward off the ground to keep you moving toward your next mile split.
In saying all this, we also want to consider the big toe, notably great toe extension. In that toe-off phase of gait, we also have the big toe bending to put tension along the plantar fascia and the bottom of the foot. This happens even more so if you are a forefoot runner. We want to measure this as well actively and passively on both sides making notes on both.
You may find some differences between the two. Let’s put our objective measures now to work.
Creating Ankle Mobility – Stretch or Strength? What If We Could Do Both?
For years, others tell runners everywhere they need to stretch not only before their run but after as well. What if I told you that you might be wasting your time? I’ll wait for the uproar to die down and I may have to dodge some rotten tomatoes but it’s possibly true. Before I explain why, let me say, that if you (yourself) like stretching or find a benefit with it, do it. If it is not aggravating your symptoms or taking up time you could dedicate to something else, then how is that hurting me? The rationale as to why I would suggest loading the area or doing more strength instead is simple.
Running injuries either involves a tendon or a bone or both. Since we can’t stretch a bone that just leaves tendons and tendons inherently don’t like to be stretched. They are highly innervated meaning there is good communication with the nervous system; Nerves DO NOT like to be stretched. We commonly find a lot of runners coming in frustrated either because other practitioners (physical therapists, chiropractors, trainers, massage therapists, etc.) tell them to stretch till the cows come home and haven’t seen any results OR have been told to and aggravate the area more.
Eccentric Strength Training
If this sounds familiar to you, let me present another option that will save you time and possibly a large hole in your drywall. The concept is called eccentric strength training. Without going too deep into physiology, this means strengthening the area as it is put under a stretch or elongation.
Another good example of ankle stretches to do before running would be a calf raise off a step as you drop below the level of the step. As a result, you are elongating the calf musculature and Achilles tendon under load. The body often responds well to this compared to just stretching alone. The reason being is the body adapts to the load or demand you place upon it. It’s why you might have previously been more flexible but now after running, are perhaps less flexible. The body prioritizes that flexibility is not a need considering running is a mid-range of motion sport and thus adapts to the demands with running, and not being flexible.
Take a deep breath because that was a lot of information! Watch this video and start trying out these movements if you feel ankle stretches before running has got you either nowhere or further in the “pain cave”.
We would be remiss if we didn’t take a quick second to why you might progress these too.
Progressing Your Ankle & Calf Work
In an ideal scenario, we want our training to be pretty sport-specific. In the context of running, running is a plyometric sport and therefore we should have our training work towards plyometrics. Read that carefully. Work “towards” meaning we don’t just jump (pun intended) right into plyometric training.
Plyometrics, by definition, is a form of training that involves a stretch and contraction sequence involving muscle and tendon fibers to generate strength at a high speed. Because of this, this creates a much higher load on these tissues. We want to work up to this otherwise, we could be compromising our running training.
A good example is how we do this with our runners at Modern Movement Clinic. We start with something like eccentric calf raises and isometric holds at the top of the calf raise. It is important to allow a couple of weeks to work on the body adapting to this. Not only to adapt but also to get your groove of feeling more confident with balance and coordination. We would then move to unilateral training meaning doing this on one foot compared to two feet. This emphasizes working on discrepancies between your right and left sides (remember how we measured both together and independently earlier?). Finally, we would move more towards pogo jumps (for reps initially then time) and jump rope (time-based).
Try It Out
The foot and ankle don’t have to be this mysterious area. In fact, with just a little explanation and concepts, you will see a vast improvement in your prevention of running injury and performance in running with a few simple ankle stretches before running.