Unless you have ever suffered an ankle injury, chances are you probably haven’t given much thought to how your ankles move and how important they really are. You may not think about how almost all lower body movements (walking, squatting, running and even climbing up and down the stairs) require ankle mobility. Tension in the ankles can contribute to pain and injury in the knees, hips and lumbar spine because limited ankle mobility often results in compensation and compression in the joints above it.
The ankle is a hinge joint where the foot and lower leg meet. The ankles need to be able to move side to side, and up and down pain free. The primary actions of the ankle are plantar flexion and dorsiflexion. Plantar flexion occurs when you point the foot down like a ballerina. Dorsiflexion occurs when you pull the toes up towards your nose as shown below:
The muscles located primarily on the back of the lower leg, (commonly referred to as the calf) are responsible for plantar flexion. They include the gastrocnemius and soleus. The muscles located towards the front of the leg are responsible for dorsiflexion and consist of the tibialis anterior and other associated muscles. Another point to note about the ankle is the role of inversion and eversion. Inversion is when the foot and ankle roll out. Eversion is when the foot and ankle roll in. When ankle mobility is an issue, the ability to control or move through inversion and eversion also need to be considered.
When discussing ankle mobility, we are usually referring to how the ankle moves when the foot is connected to or pushing off the ground. For example, plantar flexion occurs when you roll onto your toes during a calf raise. Conversely, dorsiflexion happens when you lower into a squat. Additionally, every time you take a step your ankle goes through plantar and dorsiflexion. Ankle mobility can be limited in one or both directions. While you want to have good movement in all directions, limitations in dorsiflexion are usually the initial concern. This is because of its correlation with ankle and knee injuries (Chun-Man Fong, J. Troy Blackburn, Marc F. Norcross, Melanie McGrath and Darin A. Padua, 2011).
In a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training (2011), researchers tested passive range of motion in dorsiflexion on 35 healthy individuals and then analyzed their knee displacement and forces through the joints after jumping off a box. They found that those who had greater dorsiflexion experienced less impact through their joints upon landing, suggesting a correlation between ankle mobility and the risk of injury (Chun-Man Fong, J. Troy Blackburn, Marc F. Norcross, Melanie McGrath and Darin A. Padua, 2011).
For many of us, ankle mobility issues mainly stem from how we use our bodies daily. Wearing heeled shoes and primarily walking on flat, leveled surfaces can reduce ankle mobility, particularly with dorsiflexion, because we are not moving our ankles through their full range of motion, creating stiffness in the gastrocnemius.
There are other ways to also assess limited ankle mobility, for example, these two tests can indicate limited dorsiflexion:
• Feet that turn out and roll in (duck feet) when walking or squatting.
• Heels that lift off the ground early during a squat
Good ankle mobility promotes better strength training technique, more power when lifting and running, and decreased risk of pain and injury, especially as you age. There are several ways to address ankle mobility, depending on the underlying cause of restriction. A more severe soft tissue restriction may require manual therapy from a physiotherapist or massage therapist. If limitations are minimal and you don’t feel pain, stick or foam rolling and active isolated stretching (AIS) targeting the lower leg can improve ankle mobility.
Researchers from Memorial University compared the effects of static gastro stretching and self-massaging the calf muscles with a roller on ankle mobility. They found that while both methods improved range of motion in the ankle up to 10 minutes after the intervention was performed, the use of a roller led to significantly greater force production relative to static stretching. (Halperin I, Aboodarda SJ, Button DC, Andersen LL, Behm DG., 2014). This suggests that you could use foam rolling as a tool to help increase ankle range of motion and then use ankle mobility and strength exercises to train the body to use that new range of motion during movement.
Author: Megan Cook
Chun-Man Fong, J. Troy Blackburn, Marc F. Norcross, Melanie McGrath and Darin A. Padua. (2011). Ankle-Dorsiflexion Range of Motion and Landing Biomechanics . Journal of Athletic Therapy, 5-10.
Halperin I, Aboodarda SJ, Button DC, Andersen LL, Behm DG. (2014). Roller massager improves range of motion of plantar flexor muscles without subsequent decreases in force parameters. International Journal of Sports Physcial Therapy, 92-102.