Monday, January 14, 2013

Exercises for Weak Ankles and a Reminder About Improving Your Proprioception

It was bound to happen.  I've enjoyed several successful trail runs lately without twisting, spraining, bruising, or breaking anything, so it was inevitable that my luck would run out. This past Saturday I went for a run on the Potomac Heritage Trail with a friend of mine.  It was a gorgeous day and we hadn't been out on the trail for awhile.

Then, at mile 5.6, with a little less than a mile to go, it happened...the dreaded slip off the side of a tree root and the familiar crunching sounds in tendons and muscles as my left ankle rolled to the outside.  Down in a squat position I went, screaming "F*#K, F*#K, F*#K!!"  Deers, squirrels, and beavers stood up in fear....

I think I have probably the weakest ankles of anyone on Earth...seriously.  It's been a problem for years as I've sprained my ankles on countless runs doing something so minor as stepping in between the pavement and grass.  Yet, do I do anything about it? Of course not...that'd be too easy.

Two days later...Not too bad and just some mild bruising, but still fairly swollen...
This certainly is not the worst sprain I've ever had and now, 2 days later, I'm walking more normally.  But have I been good about keeping it iced and staying off of it...Of course not.  And the other kicker is that I think I messed up my left calf a little bit too when I rolled the ankle because it's bothering me... And yes, this is the same calf that was eff-d up in the Calf Injury of 2011.  My acupuncturist Mr. Miaggi will not be happy with me...

Umm, the left one is supposed to look just as boney as the right one, so apparently there's still some swelling...
So do you think I'll finally pull my head outta me arse and start doing some ankle strengthening?  You'd think I'd wise up, especially if I want to make trail running part of my regular training and racing...

Here are my recommendations (for you and for me) for ankle strengthening exercises, which include exercises for improving your proprioception - your body's ability to know its place in space.  If you have good proprioception and balance, you're less likely to sprain your ankle, trip, etc., because you'll be better able to sense the danger below your feet.

1.  One-leg balance:  Stand on one leg for 30 seconds, then switch legs.  Work up to 1 minute on each leg.  Focus on one spot to help you balance. If you get really good at this, try to close your eyes.

2.  One-leg squat:  Stand on your right leg, hold your left leg up at a 90-degree angle, and do a half-squat.  Make sure your right knee doesn't go over your toe.  Start with 1 set of 10 on each leg and work your way up.

3.  Inversion with exercise band:  Sit on a couch or chair so your leg is hanging off and not touching the ground.  Place an exercise band around the top part of your foot, under your toes, and hold the ends taught so you get resistance in the bands.  Move your foot toward the inside (to about 10:00 for your right leg, or 2:00 for your left leg). Curl your toes toward the end to work the muscles in your foot.  Move your foot back to the starting position. Do this slowly, 10 times on each foot and start with 2 reps. Note, make sure to isolate your foot and don't move your leg. Also, your foot shouldn't move like a windshield wiper; it's going to curve down and in a bit.  You may also want to position the band to the opposite direction of where your foot is pulling so you get a bit more resistance.

4.  Eversion with exercise band:  Wrap the band around the top of your foot as described above and this time, move your foot to the outside.  Do 2 sets of 10 reps on each leg.

Ankle Inversion with Exercise Band
Ankle Eversion with Exercise Band

5.  Dorsiflexion with exercise band:  Sit on a table or chair, wrap the band around the top part of your foot/toes, and tie the band to something directly in front of you.  Start with your foot pointed out in front of you and flex it back to 90 degrees.  Return to the starting position and do 2 sets of 10 reps on each foot.

6.  Plantar Flexion with exercise band:  Sitting on the table or chair again, wrap the band around the top part of your foot/toes and pull the ends toward you, taught.  Start with your foot flexed and then point it forward.  Return to starting position and do 2 sets of 10 reps on each foot.

7.  Toe/heel walking:  Stand with your feet together.  Raise up on your toes onto the balls of your feet and walk across the room or about 15-20 steps.  Make sure your feet do not wobble.  Lower your feel and raise your toes up to come onto your heels and walk back.

8.  Calf raises:  Stand on a step (use a wall or handrail for balance if you need to). Place the balls of your feel on the step and raise up.  Lower back down.  Most articles recommend to lower just below the top of the step; however, I feel that this can hurt my achilles and have been advised by some people that this is bad for your achilles.  To be safe, I lower back down to the step level.  Start with 2 sets of 10 reps and work your way up.  

This shouldn't take more than 10 minutes a day and hopefully the payoff will be less time spent on the ground yelling "f*#k!"  

This recent ankle sprain has reminded me of something:  If you don't work on your weaknesses, they will eventually come back to bite you in the ass.  I ignore my ankles because in the priority list of muscles to work out - glutes, quads, hips, core - they've always fallen at the bottom.  Our feet and ankles, however, are what connect us with the ground.  If they become weak and unstable, so too will our connection with what's beneath us.  Our feet and ankles provide the foundation for the rest of our body to be steady.  Weak ankles equal, simply, weak foundation and, consequently, more time spent on your ass.  

We all have weaknesses - physical, mental, emotional - and some more important to focus on than others.  But in your laundry list of weaknesses that you're trying to improve, it's worth figuring out which ones form a foundation for the rest of you and your life.  Which weakness can you focus on to improve your daily proprioception, not just on the ground, but in the world:  what will help you improve your sense of place in the world around you?  If I have stronger ankles, other muscles won't have to work as hard to stabilize my run.  Similarly, if I have a strong faith, strong confidence in myself, or other strong foundations, other things will come more easily so that, for example, I won't get so wrapped up in worrying about the future or what's happened in the past. Often, however, it's those foundational blocks that we ignore the most...and believe me, if you continue to ignore them, you'll end up on your ass...  

You need to have a strong, rooted connection - be it physically, mentally, or emotionally - to yourself, to your family and friends, and to the Earth beneath you.  We have to work on not only our physical proprioception, but also our mental and emotion proprioception - the sense of where we are in life.  So start strengthening not only your ankles, but any other weakness that will improve those important connections so that you can have a stronger foundation and better sense of your place in the world around you....

Do you have weak ankles?  Any exercises you recommend?  What other foundational weaknesses can you work on?   


Jen said...

Oh my. I could probably give you a run for your money with the weak ankles. I printed this out so I could attempt these exercises. I'm also still working on my PF issue from last year, doing all the stretches and exercises my chiro recommended I do. It's helping, I'm getting better. Adding in the swim and biking and cutting mileage is also a big part of the helping.

Life Through Endurance said...

Ha! Jen I think even if I wore roller skates you could leave me in the dust! Lemme know if you do the exercises....I'm glad that your PF is getting's very frustrating!