Regular running brings loads of health benefits, like improved mental health and mortality, decreased cancer risk, and countless more. Yet, it also brings loads of impact onto your lower extremity.
It’s well known that your body must absorb up to six times its weight in force while running. With the statistics sitting at about 50% of runners getting injured each year, you’re likely headed down the road of pain yourself…unless you stay ahead of the game and give your ankles the respect they deserve!
In this post, we’ll review the most important exercises for runners to perform to help prevent injuries and stay healthy for miles to come.
Your ankle joint is your connection between body and foot. It’s an incredibly important pivot point when it comes to running. With every foot strike, your ankle must simultaneously absorb impact and control the motion of flexion, then seamlessly move into extension to provide you with a solid push-off.
It’s a lot to ask. And if you’re fatigued, those joint mechanics can be affected, leaving you at higher risk of injury. Furthermore, poor muscular stability can even increase the vertical forces running.
Strengthening your ankles has benefits that work their way up the chain. Ankle exercises will not only engage your lower leg and foot but also incorporate important stabilizers you need for quality running.
Use the exercises and drills listed below in your weekly routine to take care of your ankles so they can take care of you!
Strengthening Exercises = Running Performance!
Star Balance Drill
For this exercise, you will want to create the outline of a large Y on the ground (almost as big as your body). This can be done with chalk outside or masking tape indoors.
Stand on one foot at the central intersection of the Y. Maintain your balance while you reach your raised foot towards each point of the Y, one at a time. Move slowly and try to avoid letting your pelvis sag by keeping your hips in line with each other.
Complete 6 sets on each leg.
Advance this exercise:
- Add more to your Y! Draw more lines across the Y to create a star, like an asterisk *
- Add an ankle weight! Oh ya, it’s hard. You won’t just feel this in your ankle. That entire standing leg is going to light up!
Lateral Agility Exercises
Place a strap or belt on the ground and stand on one side, with your feet parallel to the strap. Balance on the foot further from the strap, then hop from that leg over the strap, to land on your opposite foot.
Complete 15 hops, and 3 sets.
Advance this exercise:
- Heighten your obstacle! Use a narrow box to jump over or a runner’s agility hurdle.
Just use one leg! Don’t switch feet when you jump. Complete a lateral single-leg hop instead.
Stretching Exercises: Recover!
The soleus is the unsung hero of the running push-off. Hidden underneath the more-showy gastrocnemius, this powerhouse muscle is part of the calf-trilogy that keeps that spring in your step.
Stand facing a wall and place your hands as if you were about to do a wall push-up. Move one leg forward so your knee is touching the wall. Ensure that your foot is flat on the ground. Begin scooting your foot away from the wall while keeping your knee in contact.
It will take some adjusting, but find the spot where it feels like you couldn’t move your foot further back without your heel lifting up. You’ll notice a strong stretch in your lower leg and ankle.
Hold 30 seconds and repeat 3x on each leg.
Deep Squat Ankle Stretch
Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip distance. Lower your hips into a deep squat rest position. Try your best to keep your heels on the ground.
You might need to widen your stance or slightly toe out your feet. It may help to place your hands together at the heart center and use your elbows to stabilize the inside of your knees.
Hold 1 min and repeat 3x or more. Try rocking slightly from side to side in your deep squat to adjust the stretch in your hips and ankles.
Mobility Exercises: Loosen up!
Foam Roll Your Calf
Sit on the ground and place a foam roller or small mobility ball (warning – these can be intense!) under your calf. Use your hands to slightly lift yourself from the ground while shifting your body back and forth to roll your calf. Rotate your leg as you roll to access different angles of your calf.
Roll for 30 seconds, repeat 3 sets on each leg.
This drill may seem juvenile, but once you get started you might be surprised at how quickly your ankle fatigues or how tight certain motions feel!
Sit on a chair and raise your foot slightly in front of you so it is not in contact with the ground. Keep your leg still, but move your ankle to air-draw the ABCs. All caps. No cursive.
Complete one set on each foot.
It’s no question that regular running has a significant impact on your health. But chances are, your ankles are feeling that impact in a not-so-best way. Taking care of your ankles now ensures that they can take care of you for miles and miles!
Arnold MJ, Moody AL. Common running injuries: evaluation and management. American Family Physician. 2018; 97(8):510-516.
Clark KP, Udofa AB, Ryan LJ, Weyand PG. Running impact forces: from half a leg to holistic understanding – comment on Nigg et al. Current Issues In Sport Science 3. 2018;3.
Martin RL, et al. Ankle stability and movement coordination impairements: lateral ankle ligament sprains revision. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. 2021; 51(4): CPG1-CPG80.
Pedisic Z, et al. Is running associated with a lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality and is the more the better? A systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2019; 54(15).
Yong JF, Dembia CL, Silder A, Jackson RW, Fredericton, Delp SL. Foot strike pattern during running alters muscle-tendon dynamics of the gastrocnemius and the Soleus. Scientific Reports. 2020; 10.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only. This is not a substitute for a medical appointment. Please refer to your physician before starting any exercise program.