Poor mobility is something that I feel is becoming more prevalent and is likely one of the main causes of postural imbalances, injuries, and even poor progression during exercises. Over time, faulty movement patterns, poor dynamic posture, and even footwear (high heels) can alter the body’s natural mechanics and cause the body to become extremely restricted. This restriction can make movements difficult and lead to injury because the body cannot get into proper positions to be effective.
One of the most common immobile joints that I encounter on a day-to-day basis is the foot and ankle. Now yes, the hip complex can be an indicator of poor ankle mobility as well, but for the purposes of this article we are looking at how poor ankle mobility contributes to these faulty movement patterns.
Why is it that the foot and ankle complex is one of the most ignored joints in terms of athletic performance, flexibility, and injury prevention? This area is what gives our body structural integrity, a base for which our body can stand on. The ankles are joints that provide stabilization and must absorb forces quickly, shift and then stabilize weight for the next movement. This action needs to take place more rapidly than we think, so what ends up happening is we rely on learned motor patterns, muscle memory, and reactions.
How To Identify
Let’s take a look at the squat and deadlift for instance, as these are two exercises that are building blocks to functional movement patterns. Some of the most common signs of poor ankle mobility are going to be having trouble getting to parallel on squats, heels rising during squatting, hamstring or lower back pain during deadlifting, and tightness in the calves. The latter is most likely caused by limited dorsiflexion seen at the foot and ankle, which causes pain up the kinetic chain and into the hamstrings and/or lumbar region of the spine.
The ankle does two main motions: plantar flexion (toes pointed to ground) and dorsiflexion (toes pointed upward) like mentioned above. Limited dorsiflexion is going to play the biggest role in this poor mobility. The body gets into dorsiflexion during movements where the angle between the shin and the foot decreases, much like during both squatting and deadlifting. Improving the body’s movement pattern at the foot and ankle can directly correlate to how your body will get into position during these key exercises.
How To Assess
One of the most common ankle mobility assessments is the half kneeling dorsiflexion test. In this test, you will be kneeling, barefoot, on the ground and getting into a position similar to stretching your hip flexors, with one knee on the floor (runners stretch). The foot in front should be lined up 5” from a wall.
From this position, kneel forward, keeping your heel on the ground. In this position, the tibial angle can be measured in relation to the ground, or measure the distance from the knee-cap to the wall when the heel begins to rise up off the ground. If you can touch the wall from 5”, then you have pretty good ankle mobility.
Ways To Increase Dorsiflexion
Increasing dorsiflexion is not a walk in the park. It will take time and petience to improve because this does not happen overnight. Below are my main recommendations for improving ankle dorsiflexion:
☐ Foam roll/self myofascial release of the calves and plantar fascia (inhibition)
☐ Stretching the calf (lengthening)
☐ Ankle mobility drills
Foam Rolling the Calf and Associated Areas
Foam rolling the calf is one of the simpler techniques for helping to mobilize the ankle joint. This technique will help to inhibit overactive tissues that are tense and overpowering the movement. Working with the soft tissue of the calf muscle will also lighten the tension that is being experienced in the Achilles tendon due to their connection with each other.
The foam roller is versatile enough to be turned to hit both the medial and lateral heads of the gastrocnemius. The proper way to foam roll is to roll until you find a point of tension, also known as a trigger point, and rest on that area with gentle pressure for 15-20 seconds. After this, move onto another area and repeat.
This should be done for roughly 2 minutes, as that is about the time it takes to create any sort of soft tissue change. You may also perform ankle movements during this time, such as active dorsiflexion, to help release the muscle as well. This pressure is helping to break up adhesions by sending signals to the receptors within the muscle, specifically the Golgi Tendon Organs, which responds more to both pressure and tension. Foam rolling also provides increased blood flood to the respected area.
The friction caused by the foam roller against the fascia will raise it away from the muscle allowing a better flow for the capillaries and blood vessels trying to reach the muscle. If the foam roller is not effective enough, a partner may also assist in massage, another type of roller (lacrosse ball, etc) can be used, or any apparatus that will give the maximum benefit. Other areas where rolling can be done is on the bottom of the foot in the plantar fascia. The plantar fascia can become restricted due to fascial restriction in the calves due to their relation and junction with the Achilles Tendon. Attacking the arches and areas around the heel bone are also crucial to the movement of the separate bones.
Stretches For The Calf
After rolling and inhibiting the overactive musculature of the calf, we need to lengthen the muscles to promote a much better range of motion. Isolated stretches like the wall stretch have been proven effective in stretching the calf. Placing the foot up onto the wall and leaning into the wall will not only stretch the tissues of the calf, but will also extend the toes and give a stretch to the plantar fascia as well.
This is effective as poor ankle mobility can lead to conditions like plantar fasciitis. The goal of stretching is to promote a much better movement pattern for the muscle and to allow for the muscle to be able to move in a full lengthening and shortening phase. Think of trying to put a steering wheel cover on in 20-degree weather. It can’t happen because it has no flexibility. If you try before it’s properly warmed up and able to be moved in that way, you risk tearing and ripping the cover.
Stretching and foam rolling can be a great way to recover from workouts and prevent future injury. You can better prepare your body for the workouts to come and even improve performance.
How To Improve Ankle Mobility
There are few key ankle mobilizations that I make sure to do before any workout. These all require an active movement and range in difficulty. We will talk about some simpler ones first. The first is simply standing with your toes on a small incline and bending at the knees to promote dorsiflexion. Perform this as reps by relaxing the knees and then bending the knees again.
This can be intensified by placing the foot up on the wall, like in the calf stretch explained above and bending at the knee until the knee touches the wall. This can be done in three planes of motion (neutral, inward, and outward), which I like to refer to as “attacking the corners”. This will help get at the associated ligaments that connect the tibia to the rest of the foot and ankle to help increase range of motion.
Take Home Message
Improving ankle mobility can lead to improved posture and increased performance in your training and reduce your risk of injury and future injury problems. The ankle is the base of the body when standing, so it is important to make sure your ankle is mobile.