Mobility for Runners & Fitness Enthusiasts: Ankles

By Veronica Dilzer

Mobility is one of the most overlooked and underrated components of a successful training program. It is often haphazardly thrown in at the beginning of a training session under the pretense that we should incorporate it into our workout because it is “good for us” but rarely is mobility programmed or performed with its proper intention.

In my September Series: Mobility for Runners and Fitness Enthusiasts, I will help you understand the definition and importance of mobility and teach you how to integrate some mobility techniques into a training regimen. This series will primarily focus on the commonly injured joints that plague runners and disrupt the natural gait cycle like the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine region; however most of these exercises are applicable across the board for anyone who participates in any type of physical activity.


What is mobility and flexibility?

To understand proper mobility programming, it is essential to understand the current definitions of mobility and flexibility.

Progressive movement professionals such as Dr. Andreo Spina (@drandreospina) have begun to separate  the ideas of mobility and flexibility, terms that have traditionally and mistakenly been used interchangeably in training programs for years.

Flexibility implies the capability to passively obtain a range of motion (ROM). Think about kicking your foot up as high and as fast as possible. The range of motion might be great (you may be able to kick your foot all the way up to your head), however the ability to control that range (stop your foot at your head) is nonexistent.  

In contrast, mobility is the capacity to go through that same ROM with the neuromuscular aptitude to control every inch of that range (moving your leg slowly from the ground to your head under absolute cognitive and muscular command). The strength and neurological ability to control the ROM separates mobility from flexibility, and furthermore leads to the development of joint stability.

It is important to take the time during training sessions, which happen in controlled environments, to explore and develop new joint ROM, so when variables in real life (such as falling off the side of a curb or an unexpected tug from a leashed dog) occur, your body has developed the resiliency to absorb the impact and lessen, if not prevent, injury. Joints that move well also receive more nutrients which is very important to the tissues that surround joint capsules and add to the integrity of the joint. Finally, joints that move well don’t hurt!


Break records, not ankles.

The first of the joints we are going to discuss is the ankle. 

Increased ankle range of motion can lead to better cross-­training sessions because greater mobility in the ankle leads to better shin and hip placement when squatting and can increase the power/ground force production which will make you run faster. Ankle mobility will also help absorb the impact of a misstep and prevent ankle sprains.

The following are a series of exercises that will help increase mobility to the ankle.


The Exercise: Soft Tissue Work on Great Toe and Plantar Fascia

Rolling the bottom of your feet and creating a free motion in the Great Toe joint is the first step in developing and maintaining a healthy foot and ankle. The plantar fascia extends up the back of the ankle to the Achilles tendon. If there is too much tension within the fascia it may lead to chronic overuse injuries such as plantar fasciitis and Achilles Tendonitis.

The Set Up: Place the ball (in this case a lacrosse ball), behind the ball of the foot for the first part and then generally on the bottom of your foot for the second part.

The Execution: Extend and grasp through the range of motion of the Great Toe. Remember that the Great Toe also has the ability to go from side to side so hit that ROM as well. The second part of the rolling is across the arch of the foot. Take your time to explore the sore regions of this area.

The Feeling: The Great Toe joint and the bottom of the foot may be sensitive if the tissue is tight. Use common sense and take it easy to begin with until you know how your body will react to it. This should not be a painful experience.


The Exercise: Toe Mobility

Technically this exercise is not part of the ankle however the ability to control one's toes allows for better surface contact, force absorption, and power production based upon the alignment of the first ray (the big toe). Toe mobility and proper foot strikes are also very important in running mechanics. Check out Dr. Emily Splichal (@dremilydpm) for more on this.

The Set Up: Place even pressure on the heel, the ball of the foot, and right behind the little toe.

The Execution: While maintaining even pressure, lift the toes off of the ground and splay them as far as possible. Placed splayed toes back on the ground and squeeze the toes towards the heels.

The Feeling: This exercise’s primary objective is to elicit a response from your nervous system (read a perceived change in texture or temperature). It is the introductory exercise in a series known as short foot which Dr. Emily talks about extensively across her social media platforms.


The Exercise: Half Kneeling Banded Ankle Distractions

Banded distractions are a great way to quickly create the capacity for a joint to move through a more extensive ROM. Once we have the capacity to move more freely by obtaining space in the joint through distraction we can move onto controlling the new ROM. If you stop at this step you are temporarily creating a new and unstable range. If you made it to this step, keep on going! The payoff in performance is worth your time.

The Set Up: Place a securely anchored band around the ankle joint and walk out to a reasonable amount of tension. Like rolling the ball on the bottom of your foot, you can also overdue this one. Make sure you begin with light tension and see how your body reacts.

The Execution: Squeeze your back butt cheek (the leg that’s in back) and engage your core. Make sure the heel is in firm contact with the ground and begin to slide the knee forward to create a narrowing angle within the ankle joint. Make sure that the knee tracks inline with the ankle the entire way through the motion and your hips stay square. When you can no longer maintain firm contact with the ground the rep is over.

The Feeling: The banded ankle should feel a slight tug from the band. This tug is the distraction being placed of the ankle joint, which should oppose the force of the knee that is being driven forward. Again, start slow and progress accordingly. If you wake up the next day and your ankle joint is sore then you might have overdone it.


The Exercise: Open Chain Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs)

CARs are the introductory step into Dr. Andreo Spina’s system of Functional Range Conditioning. By definition, CARs is “active, rotational movement at the outermost limits of articular (joint) motion.” The active part of the definition is very important. Active in this case refers to tension and tension is what makes this exercise so powerful. The goal of CARs is to trace the biggest circle possible while maintaining the most amount of specific joint and total body tension as you can. Don't be fooled by the seemingly simplistic nature of this exercise. This is hard work that creates a clear line of communication from your joint to your brain to allow you to gain strength, control, range of motion,
and joint health.

The Set Up: Sit with your legs out in front. Begin by creating tension in your core (tighten your stomach muscles), actively pull one knee into your chest, and wrap your arms around your knee to “lock” the knee joint. (Remember we want to create total body tension while concentrating on training motion in one particular joint; in this case the ankle.) Once the knee is locked in place push out against your hands. This should create tension in the elevated leg. Finally press the extended leg down into the floor. You should now feel a sensation of totally body tension.

The Execution: While maintaining total body tension, focus on drawing the biggest circle you can with the big toe. It is important to go slow through the motion and explore every degree. It is also important to remember that CARs also requires local resistance to movement. (Imagine moving your ankle through very thick mud.)

The Feeling: CARs are hard work. If your brain and muscles are tired by the end of 4 reps you've done a really nice job. You will cramp if you challenge your range of motion! In this respect, cramping is not a bad thing. It is a neurological response to an uncomfortable joint position which your body perceives as a threat but because the motion is controlled you are perfectly safe to work through the cramp and improve your ROM. The greater the range of motion you obtain through CARs, the less you will cramp.


The Exercise: Half Kneeling Isometric Ankle Dorsiflexion

Isometric contractions are a safe and effective way to gain strength and control of new ranges of motion at the end of current joint mobility, while teaching the central nervous system how to obtain and keep that new ROM. Isometric contractions also enable your body to override the nervous system’s stretch reflex safeguard, meaning this exercise will allow us to immediately “stretch” into a new range of motion. This fact coupled with the input of a neurological load (contraction of muscles) will allow you to maintain new ROM and create better movement.

The Set Up: The setup for this exercise is much like the CARs and in fact belongs to the same FRC system. Create totally body tension in the half kneeling position by tightening the core, squeezing your fists and punching the ground, and actively pushing both feet into the ground like you are going to stand up (just remember the goal is to create tension and not actually stand up).

The Execution: Drive your knee over your ankle until you can no longer maintain the tension in your hamstring and simultaneously  keep your heel firmly on the ground. Once in this position, try to pull your toes up off the ground and hold this dorsiflexed position for about ten seconds. Immediately return your toes to the ground and create as much force into the ground as you can. Hold this position for 20 seconds.  Repeat 3­4 times, reevaluating your ankle position before each dorsiflexion.

The Feeling: Again this exercise is taxing on your nervous and muscular systems. You may cramp. Try to work through the entire cycle before resting.


The Exercise: Heel Raises with Ball Squeeze

This exercise does a great job at activating and stabilizing certain muscles that control the motion of our foot that are very important for absorbing the impact of our step and redistributing that in the form of power production to drive through the next stride. The act of running generates two times the amount of your bodyweight of force so it is important that the muscles that support your arch and stabilize your foot are strong enough to absorb and redistribute that energy.

The Set Up: Grab your lacrosse ball or tennis ball and place it directly near the heel under the medial malleolus (inside ankle bones) and squeeze.

The Execution: Begin by adding stability by contracting your core and gluteal muscles. While maintaining contraction, push up through the foot without bending the knee onto the toes. Make sure to maintain a stacked position stemming from your foot, through your hips, shoulders, and head. In other words, try not to lean forward.

The Feeling: This exercise may turn out to be the most difficult one on the list if your feet have been “lazy” for a while. Just like any other muscles, the intrinsic muscles of the foot can become atrophied. This is an important exercise to rebuild strength and arch support. Try to begin with the movement of just driving through the foot and if that becomes easy add a hold at the top.


Disclaimer: We all have a starting point. This blog post is intended to provide runners and fitness enthusiasts that function within the range of normal capacity with ideas surrounding the incorporation of mobility into their programs. There are great resources in this blog and on other sites! (Check out @FloFitness and @theMovementMaestro)  If you are in chronic pain, have pre­existing orthopedic issues, are currently under the care of a medical professional, or know that you need specific help, let's talk about it. This may not be your starting point. Email me at tug23321@temple.edu or DM me on Instagram @vdilzer, and we’ll figure out the right direction for you.

Just remember, it is your responsibility to evaluate your own medical and physical condition and independently determine whether to perform, use, or adapt any of the information in this blog post. Even though these exercises are safe, there is always a risk associated with any generally prescribed movement program. By voluntarily undertaking in any exercise displayed in this blog, you assume all risk.