Ankles are sensitive joints. Although they can support a significant amount of your body weight, injuries are still frequent due to the amount of soft tissue in the lower leg.
Athletes — especially distance runners — can see a massive performance improvement by strengthening their ankles, not to mention preventing a host of injuries. These seven tips will help you boost your ankles and offer them more support.
1. Perform Ankle-Strengthening Exercises
You should also start a weightlifting routine that includes plenty of ankle-strengthening exercises. Weightlifting improves running performance by strengthening muscles, bettering coordination, and preventing age-related decline. One study of long-distance runners saw an 8% increase in efficiency after they started regularly lifting weights.
Your weightlifting routine should improve your lower body’s strength and endurance, which translates to better running performance. Try to train your legs twice a week and include these exercises for your ankles, shins, calves and feet:
- Ankle Circles: Stand on one leg and rotate your opposite ankle clockwise and counterclockwise for 10-15 reps each. Repeat with the other leg. This exercise will improve your ankle stability and help you avoid those painful twisted ankle injuries.
- Tibialis Raises: This exercise targets the often-neglected tibialis anterior muscle. Stand with your back against a wall with your knees and feet pointed straight out. Raise your feet upward as high as possible without your heels leaving the floor. You should feel muscle activation in your front lower leg. Make the exercise more challenging by moving your feet farther away from the wall.
- Negative Calf Raise: Stand on an elevated surface and slowly lower your heels to the floor. Make this “negative” portion of the rep as slow as possible. Once you reach full extension, explode your heels back upward. The goal is to generate muscle tension and unleash it with a sudden burst of power, improving your explosiveness.
- Single-Leg Balance: Stand up straight, bend over at the waist and raise one leg behind you. This position forces you to balance all your weight on the other leg. Keep both legs straight and hold the position for as long as possible. Use your arms to help with the balancing act if you need to.
- Towel Toe Curls: Sit down and put a towel on the floor. Put your bare foot on the towel and pick it up by curling your toes. Repeat until failure for each foot. This exercise improves your overall foot strength and supports the natural arches of your feet.
Compound movements like the squat and lunge are also fantastic for improving ankle strength and mobility. They will help you increase your ankles’ maximum weight resistance while developing a better mind-muscle connection with the rest of your lower body.
2. Correct Your Running Form
First, you must evaluate your running form and make the necessary adjustments. Improper running form leads to ankle overuse, which is one of the main causes of common running ankle injuries such as plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and stress fractures. A balanced running gait will help you run with minimal discomfort.
Everyone’s ideal running form looks slightly different, but there are certain physical cues you can leverage to help maximize your running performance:
- Keep your back straight and your eyes forward.
- Broaden your chest.
- Engage your core muscles.
- Keep your hands loose and your arms relaxed.
- Land on your midfoot with each step, not on the heel or toe.
It will take lots of practice to eliminate bad habits like hunched shoulders and heel strikes. Jog at a moderate pace and focus on improving your fundamentals before picking up the speed.
3. Stretch, Stretch, Stretch
Stretching is one of the best ways to improve muscle and joint flexibility and prevent injuries. You should do dynamic stretches before exercising and static ones afterward. Dynamic stretching involves more complex, fast-twitch movements, while static movements are slow and deliberate.
Some common dynamic stretches for runners include high knees, butt kicks, and walking lunges. These certainly help with lower body mobility, but you can target your ankles more closely with these three static stretches:
- Ankle rolls: Sit in a chair and roll your ankles clockwise and counterclockwise. One direction is usually less flexible than the other. Do this stretch until you can comfortably roll your ankles in each direction.
- Calf drops: Stand on an elevated platform with your heels hanging off the edge. Slowly lower your heels. You should feel a deep stretch in your calves and Achilles tendons.
- Seated plantar fascia stretch: Sit in a chair and pull back on your toes until you feel a stretch in your plantar fascia, or the arch of your foot.
Static stretching should be a vital part of any athlete’s recovery routine. You need to relieve your muscles and joints after stressing them out from exercise. Start doing these stretches after your daily run and see if you notice any changes!
4. Run on Undulating Terrain
Running and walking on rugged undulating terrain is another effective way to strengthen your ankles. This training method originates from an ancient therapeutic practice called reflexology — applying pressure to specific points on your feet. To stimulate those areas, you must expose your feet and ankles to uneven surfaces.
Walking on uneven ground continuously shifts your center of gravity and forces you to work harder to stay balanced. More effort leads to better muscular and skeletal engagement throughout the body, especially the lower legs. Every step will be a challenge and your ankle strength will slowly improve as you grow accustomed to the ground’s peaks and valleys.
5. Wear the Right Shoes
You need to pay closer attention to your footwear. Running shoes should have cushioned soles and wide toe boxes to maximize foot and ankle support. It’s much easier to run with proper form when your toes are spaced out instead of scrunched together. You’ll be less likely to lose balance and sprain an ankle.
Although your running shoes are supposed to have a soft underfoot cushion, they also need torsional stability. They shouldn’t bend or fold easily — rather, they should have a fair amount of stiffness to reinforce your ankles and plantar fascia. The goal is to find a running shoe that supports your foot’s natural alignment and minimizes the risk of injury.
6. Incorporate Other Cardio Activities
If you’re struggling with ankle soreness or instability while running, it might be because you have an unbalanced routine. Running is a strong foundation for a fitness lifestyle, but it shouldn’t be your only activity. Incorporating other cardiovascular exercises such as speed walking, swimming, and cycling can address your body’s imbalances and weaknesses in your ankles.
You should also try running on treadmills and elliptical machines. Running on these machines takes some pressure off your joints which is why they’re popular among older adults. You can build up your lower leg strength and slowly increase the difficulty until you’re 100% confident in your ankle stability.
7. Develop Your Spatial Awareness
Developing your spatial awareness won’t directly strengthen your ankles, but it will decrease the likelihood of an injury. When someone rolls an ankle, it’s usually because they weren’t watching their step and they walked on an uneven surface. The ankle wasn’t the problem, but the person put themselves in a vulnerable position and couldn’t react fast enough to avoid the injury.
Better spatial awareness will help you become a more coordinated runner and avoid small obstacles that cause ankle injuries. Activities like drawing, photography, puzzles, and video games are great ways to improve spatial awareness. One study also found resistance exercise may improve visual reactions, cognitive function, and decision-making in older adults — more reason to add weight training to your routine.
Ankle Support Comes in Many Forms
Runners can strengthen their ankles and give them more support in many ways. Improving your running fundamentals should be the top priority. Then, you can add more stretches and weightlifting exercises to your training routine. You also need to focus on your running surface and footwear. All these factors can work together to give your ankles maximum support and minimal risk of injury.
Regular product tester and frequent contributor to Better Triathlete, Jack Shaw is a senior writer for Modded, a men's lifestyle brand focused on fitness, sports training, and overall wellness. Jack specializes in various facets of athletic training, sports nutrition, and recovery, and he enjoys immersing himself in nature via camping and other outdoor activities.