How can I improve strength and stability in my ankles?

What can I do to help improve the strength and stability in my ankles? I have been an avid hiker for over 14 years and have never had a problem with stability, regardless of the footwear worn. But a couple of years ago I noticed that my ankles felt weak and would twist far too easily, even on moderately uneven terrain. I've tried using footwear geared towards providing more stability but it seems to have a minimal impact on the problem. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Photo: Maridav via Shutterstock

Funny you should ask that question right now because one of my coaches, who is also a physical therapist, recently wrote an article on that very subject. I'll let CTS Senior Coach Phil Astrachan give you the latest information:

Steady As She Goes: Strengthen your ankles and build a solid foundation

By Phil Astrachan, CTS Senior Coach

 

We all know the dreaded feeling of taking a step on unstable ground and feeling an ankle buckle. We can be four weeks or four months into a marathon training plan, playing catch with our kids, or walking out the front door when it happens. And when it does, it painfully halts any grand ideas we had about taking another step.

Of the injuries faced by walkers, hikers, and runners, ankle tweaks and sprains account for a fat majority. But here's the good news: It's easy to diagnose whether you're at risk of this critical joint failingand it only takes a couple of basic exercises performed a few times a week to shore up the ligaments and muscles that support this crucial structure.

Loose Ligaments Sink the Fit
Three of the most common reasons for ankle sprains and pains are the following:

Abnormally Loose Ankles
Ligaments are the connective tissue that attaches one bone to another, and they help to support and stabilize our joints. Each of us are genetically predisposed to have a certain amount of tightness (or lack there of) in our ligaments. If you have a history of twisting your ankle from childhood to today, it could be an indication that you lack a sufficient support structure of ligaments around the joint.

One Sprain Leads to More Sprains
In addition to being born with loose ankles, you can also develop them due to a past ankle injury that never healed properly. When this happens, the ankle loses some of its original stability or soundness. The next time you land on it wrong and twist it, the joint snaps much easier than the first time it was injured. Compounding the problem is the healing process: When swelling occurs in a joint, the neural network that controls your muscles has a harder time doing its job. People often re-injure their ankle while tripping over something seemingly mundane, like stepping off a curb.

Poor Coordination A good number of ankle injuries occur to people with the bumbling coordination of Inspector Clouseau. This clumsiness is due to, of all things, lack of practice. All your joints are wired with receptors that help sense your ankle's position and rally the muscles that control the joint to hold it in place. If you don't use this wiring system on a regular basis through, say, a regular game of hoops or soccer that involves plenty of cuts, stops, and quick changes in direction, the systems grows weak and unstable.

Create a Firm and Lasting Foundation Fortunately, by fine-tuning your senses so they fire more rapidly and by strengthening the muscles that surround the ankle, you can reduce the chances of future or recurring ankle injuries. The following exercises are designed for this purpose and should only be performed if all movements are pain free. Try doing them two times per week to keep your ankles strong. Recovering from an ankle injury, or think you have loose ankles? Do them three times a week.

1. Single leg balance: Without any support, stand on one leg for 30 seconds. Repeat six times with each leg. Begin with your eyes open, then progress to standing with your eyes closed. Once your master that, move on to standing on a slightly bent knee.

2. Toe-Heel: Sit in a high chair so that your foot comfortably hangs approximately two inches off the ground (use a stack of books on a chair to get the height set). Rhythmically tap your toe and then heel on the ground, trying to isolate all movement in the ankle. Start slow and build up speed to produce a fast but rhythmical tapping. Do 3 sets of 50 reps.

3. Side-to-Side: In the same sitting position and rhythm as Toe-Heel above, touch the outside edge of your foot on the ground and then your foot's inside edge for one rep. Again, start slow and isolate the moment in the ankle as best your can. Speed up the rhythm as your coordination improves. Do three sets of 50 reps.

4. Wobble Board: Sit in a chair and place one foot in the center of a wobble board or Bosu platform with 360 degrees of rotation. Rotate the foot in a circle so the edge of the wobble board comes close to the floor but doesn't touch. As your balance and coordination improves try standing on the wobble board with one leg. Do two sets of ten of the following motions for each foot: a. Forward-Backward, b. Side-to-Side c. clock-wise and counter-clockwise.

 

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