One of the most common problems that we encounter on a daily basis with our athletes is the sheer lack of ankle mobility. Outside of someone having a true medical issue, i.e. surgical hardware (screws/plates etc), you should have no legitimate reasons preventing you from having great mobility through your ankle joint. With a little dedication and some patience, no matter how poor your ankle mobility is, we can improve it. FACT!
We all at one point in our lives we could easily squat “ass to grass” without any issues and stay there for minutes on end. Granted we were little kids at the time, but we could do it. So what happened to our mobility? Well a lot of things happen. You could be an active duty soldier that is stuck in boots all day like the majority of your members, you could avoid squatting down and instead bend over at the waist to pick something up, you could have enormous heels in your running shoes to cushion your feet better, you could have injured your lower body at some point and instinctively started to limp to protect the injured area not knowing you were hurting your ankle mobility. But no matter the cause of the limited mobility our bodies will always adapt to what we do. The muscles will shorten, the tendons will tighten, the joints will get stiffer and this will cause us to go through less and less of a full range of motion.
Good ankle flexibility is a baseline requirement for almost any physical movement we as humans would do in or out of the gym. Typically if you have poor ankle mobility it can lead to a whole mess of other physical ailments like knee, back and/or hip pain. This is why it is imperative to maximize it at all cost. Most people don’t think of the whole body being connected by one kinetic chain but poor ankle mobility can affect way more that just your feet. All of our movements start from our interaction with the ground, hence why this is the first area you should always look at; we call this the ground up approach. All of our bodies would prefer to take the path of least resistance, so if our ankle becomes restricted we will find a way to negotiate around it, but this is where the problems can really start and lead to other issues up the kinetic chain.
Now on to the meat and potatoes. The calf is very a dense group of two muscles (gastroc and soleous) and the achilles tendon, which is the largest and strongest tendon in the body, and attaches the muscles to the calcaneus (heel). When the calf muscles flex (plantar flexion, pointing your toes away from the shin), the achilles tendon pulls on the heel and points our toes away. Think about how many times you do this throughout the day just walking around. Our constant demand on this complex of muscles and tendons are the reason the muscles are so dense and so strong in nature. The negative is that they can become overly stiff and immobile without a proactive plan to maintain/regain the full mobility they have/had. Dorsiflexion (pulling toes up toward the shin) is the issue. This is exactly what you want to maximize when squatting down. It might not seem like a lot but 20 degrees of dorsiflexion is awesome, 10 degrees or less in my opinion is terrible.
I’m sure we all have stretched our ankles at some point by dropping our heel down off of a curb or sidewalk to stretch out. But rarely has anyone ever utilized a slant board outside of someone who has been to physical therapy. Being an Athletic Trainer who has rehabbed plenty of ankle injuries I have seen the slant board work wonders. I would argue it is the single most effective piece of mobility equipment out there, but with its simplicity and unfancy nature it is often over looked and not prescribed. If you want to improve your ankle mobility, stand on a slant board for 5 minutes a day. If you don’t have a slant board at your disposal you can always just elevate a piece of wood on something and stand on that. By using a slant board you are better able to protect the arch of the foot and this allows you to put more weight into the stretch. Plus it allows for full foot contact, which is how we want to squat.
There are two ways I like to show people how to use the slant board. The variations are simple, one is with your knee locked out straight and the other is with your knee bent. The straight leg stretch will focus the stretching deeper into the gastrocnemius (meat of the calf), and the bent knee stretch puts more of the stretch through the actual ankle joint and almost isolates the achilles exclusively while still hitting a little bit of the soleus. The bent knee stretch is by far the most effective in loosening up the achilles and the entire ankle complex..
Now listen up, the only way to actually improve your ankle mobility will require the constant effort on your part. The calf/Achilles needs a lot of pressure and a lot of time to show results. Your minimum goal should be 2 minutes on each leg, 1 minute with the knee straight and 1 minute with the knee bent. Personally I prefer to spend 4 minutes on each leg and perform 2 minute holds in each position. Yes it will be boring and yes it will be uncomfortable, but it also works. Plus you have a cell phone so send a few text messages or look for some Pokémon.
Before you go and jump on the slant board here are some additional tips to help make you more successful in your quest for improved ankle mobility. Myofascial work, aka self massage, is very helpful in the lower leg and foot to increase blood flow, break up underlying adhesions and loosen up some of that tension in your plantar fascia, calf and achilles that has accumulated from years of wear and tear.
Using a foam roller, massage stick, lacrosse ball won’t make you more flexible, but it will allow you to feel less tight and lengthens the window of opportunity to stretch beyond where you could’ve had you not prepped the tissues. The stretch will and should always remain uncomfortable. Note I did not say painful, there is a big difference. Painful is hitting your thumb with a hammer, uncomfortable is someone helping you stretch your hamstrings and feeling the tension through the back of your thigh. Without that feeling you are doing nothing. I repeat, with out the feeling of discomfort you are doing nothing. Don’t force it to happen, but you must apply enough pressure to effect change.
If you have a lacrosse or tennis ball we’ll start at the foot. Work the ball along the contours of the bones and feel the small muscles in the bottom of your feet. Basically roll the bottom of your foot all over the ball. A tight plantar fascia can really hold back your ankle mobility. Keep the pressure light at first then gradually increase the pressure. If you are doing it correctly you’ll notice an easing off of tension in the muscles. You can then add more pressure and continue working out the kinks. People often neglect their feet so don’t rush through this part.
From there you can move on to the lower leg, into the calf and the front of your shin. The calf can be especially sore to massage deeply, so be aware of this and go gradually until you get accustomed to the pressure. You can also use a ball to change the pressure and get into the muscles from a different angle. But remember, if it isn’t uncomfortable you are literally doing nothing. And if you feel the foam roller or tennis ball isn’t enough, get a PVC pipe. You’ll thank me later. Just don’t over do it and spend 20 minutes rolling your foot and calf, 3-5 minutes maximum will do the job. Time to start stretching. Try it daily for two weeks and if it isn’t better, well you probably did something wrong…