5 Essential Exercises That Improve Ankle Mobility
Updated: May 4
Good ankle mobility, specifically dorsi-flexion is incredibly important for performing any activity that involves running, squatting, landing from a jump, and even simply walking. From a sport performance perspective, the deeper the squatting action required, the greater the dorsi flexion that is needed. In fact, lack of dorsi-flexion is often one of the of key causes of poor squatting biomechanics.
Lack of dorsi flexion is often associated with knee injuries (ACL injuries and osteoarthritis) and in increased foot pronation (hyper-pronation) which in turn is often a factor in cases of Plantar Fasciitis (and other foot problems). We lose our ability to dorsi flex from injuries such as ankle sprains (ATFL injuries), surgeries, or anything that forces us to immobilize the ankle for a long period of time (casting).
There are two factors we consider when assessing dorsi flexion: first is your ability to perform the action, second is the differences between the right and left ankles.
This is a rather subtle test, with changes being measured in very small increments (you will need a measuring tape for this test). Be sure to watch the video first!
1. Getting Started:
Tape a measuring tape to the floor, making sure the end of the tape is perpendicular to the wall.
2. Drop down into a kneeling position (as illustrated) with the end of your big toe about 12.5 cm (or 5 inches) from the wall (one hand width).
Lunge forward and try to touch your knee to the wall. While performing this action, keep your heel down, and drive straight forward over your second toe.
If you have trouble keeping your heel on the ground, then you may have a problem with dorsi flexion.
If you can touch the wall with your knee, then this would generally be considered a pass. This distance of 12.5 cm or 5 inches is considered to be within the normal range-of-motion for most people.
If you cannot reach the wall at 12.5 cm (5 inches), inch closer until you can reach the wall with your knee.
Write down this initial distance.
3. Repeat this test for the other foot, and then compare the two measurements.
Results for Ankle Dorsiflexion Test: If you have limited dorsi flexion or you have a difference of more than two (2) cm between the two ankles, then it indicates a restriction or imbalance that should be addressed.
Stretching Your Calf Muscles: Calf stretches for both your calf muscles the gastrocnemius and soleus. Minor changes in technique can make a huge difference in increasing your calf flexibility.
Myofascial Release of the Calf Muscles: This video covers several ways to release myofascial restrictions in your calf muscles using a variety of tools including foam rollers, a baseball, and a tiger tail. Tight calf muscles affect many activities related to locomotion, and commonly occur in runners, walkers, or other activities that require a lot of time spent standing. These muscles help you to push off with your foot (plantar flex).
Exercise to Increasing Dorsi Flexion: Dorsi-flexion of the ankle is essential for a normal gait pattern. A decrease in dorsi-flexion causes excessive pronation of the foot, the knee to move in (knee valgus), and internal rotation of the the leg (femur).
Myofascial Release of the Shins: Great exercise for all runners, or anyone with shin splits. This video covers several ways to release myofascial restrictions in your shin muscles using foam rollers, and a tiger tail or rolling pin.
The Tibialis Anterior Stretch: This specific stretch for the Tibialis Anterior combines dynamic (with movement) and static (no movement) stretching techniques, and can be used for both prevention and treatment of injuries such as shin splints and plantar fasciitis.
The Tibialis Anterior (TA) muscle allows you to lift (dorsiflex) your foot and toes so that you can clear the ground when walking and running. It also helps you to control the lowering of your foot and toes at the beginning of the stance phase of running or walking.
WHEN EXERCISE IS NOT ENOUGH
If you find that exercise alone has not addressed your dorsi flexion issues you may want to consider obtaining some manual therapy from trained professional. The following two videos demonstrate techniques that address both joint and soft tissue restrictions.
Caution: These videos are provided for demonstration purposes only. MSR protocols should only be performed by a trained and qualified medical practitioner.
4 Point Dorsi Flexion Protocol: In this video we demonstrate some of the MSR protocols we use to release the dorsi flexors. Dorsiflexion is the movement at the ankle joint where the toes are brought closer to the shin. The muscles of the shins help your foot to clear the ground during the Swing Phase (concentric contraction) of your stride, and absorb much of the impact shock during running.
7 Point Ankle & Foot Mobilization - MSR: Improving joint mobility is critical if you are going to effectively address the body's full kinetic chain. In fact, we greatly reduce the effectiveness of any myofascial treatment if we don’t also address restrictions in joint mobility. The objective of joint mobilization is to reverse adverse physiological changes by promoting movement between capsular fibers.
Calf Muscle + Tom, Dick, and Harry Release - MSR: This video is about releasing both your superficial calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) and the deeper muscles Tom, Dick, and Harry (TDH). Tom, Dick, and Harry stands for: T=Tibialis posterior, D= Flexor digitorum longus, an=posterior tibial artery and tibial nerve, and H=Flexor hallucis longus.
Strong calf muscles play a crucial role in the support of your lower body’s kinetic chain. Your calf muscles are your foot’s plantar‐flexors and act to propel you forward. Any type of restrictions in the calf muscles will directly reduce the efficiency of the shins (their antagonists), in addition to your ankle and foot.
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Witvrouw E, Lysens R, Bellemans J, Cambier D, Vanderstraeten G. Intrinsic risk factors for the development of anterior knee pain in an athletic population. Am J Sports Med. 2000;28(4):480–489.
Rabin A, Kozol Z. Weightbearing and nonweightbearing ankle dorsiflexion range of motion: are we measuring the same thing? J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 2012;102(5):406–411.
Konor MM, Morton S, Eckerson JM, Grindstaff TL. Reliability of three measures of ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012;7(3):279–287.
DR. BRIAN ABELSON DC.
Dr. Abelson believes in running an Evidence Based Practice (EBP). EBP's strive to adhere to the best research evidence available, while combining their clinical expertise with the specific values of each patient.
Dr. Abelson is the developer of Motion Specific Release (MSR) Treatment Systems. His clinical practice in is located in Calgary, Alberta (Kinetic Health). He has recently authored his 10th publications which will be available later this year.
Make an appointment with our incredible team at Kinetic Health in NW Calgary. Just scan the QR code with your phones camera and click the link, or call Kinetic Health at 403-241-3772 to make an appointment today!