Many runners neglect ankle strengthening exercises even ankle strength and stability are invaluable for running faster and longer. Long distance runners are hitting the ground on each step with force even three times their body weight, whereas sprinters hit the ground with force of up to five times their body weight. Stiffness of the ankles determines the force put into the ground. The more power the foot generates when hitting the ground, the longer the stride length, which correlates to speed.
World’s fastest man Usain Bolt’s ankle barely moves at all while hitting the ground. The ankle stiffness allows him to keep his posture and transfer power to the ground as efficiently as possible. When the ankle is weak, a lot of power is lost. In distance running, there is much greater and softer movement in the ankle, but the same applies, the runner needs to be in control of the movement, or the power is lost.
Good ankle pre-habilitation exercises are as simple as walking on toes and heels, and on both sides of the feet. This should be done without shoes on, and on different surfaces. It can be started on a floor, and moved to softer surfaces like grass and sand. The control of the ankle needs to be kept all the time. Exercise bands can be used to work on dorsiflexion and plantarflexion, pushing and pulling with toes, and again on both sides. This should be done slowly with full control of the movement, and not mindlessly, as the stability of the ankle will not increase with fast movements.
Bosu balance balls are also a great way to train ankle stability. They can be used for simply standing on the ball with one foot, for slow calf raises, for jumps using one foot and both feet, and for more advanced stability exercises. Jumping from two to three feet away and landing with one foot while holding balance for a few seconds is an exercise in all pro-athletes training programs. This works on stability and proprioception. You can also stand on the bosu with one foot, and slowly reach your toes while your other leg rises behind you. Single leg squat on the bosu requires your ankles and legs to be extremely strong, but even small movements will help to begin to strengthen the ankles. All of these exercises can be done many times a week, and only take a few minutes to do.
Ankle instability also increases the likelihood of injuries, not just ankle sprains and shin splints. As well as stability and strength, ankle mobility cannot be forgotten. Stiffer ankle does not mean it is stronger, and ankle mobility is needed to prevent injuries. Decreased mobility in ankles has been connected to multiple injuries, such as tendonitis in Achilles and plantar fasciitis. Ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries for runners. Proprioception is decreased after an ankle sprain, and a runner cannot stabilize the ankle as before. This may cause even recurrent injuries.
It is already well known that RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) might not be the best way to treat ankle injuries, as studies have shown ice may even slow down the recovery process. Usain Bolt is clearly not a fan of ice baths, so maybe it’s worth considering the new guidelines on how to treat ankle sprains and other injuries. Ankle injuries may have an effect on running form for years, so pre-habilitation and ankle strengthening are one of the most important parts of training, even for casual runners.