Whether it is because a student wears high heeled shoes or is an avid runner, I see a fair amount of tight ankles. In all my training and years of experience as a yoga instructor, I have always been one to begin working from the ground up. Looking at foot placement and ankle movement, you can see how problems in the foundation implicate everything in the chain above it.
Here is a useful experiment if you are not sure if your ankles are tight. With no stretching or preparation, kick off your shoes and see if you can drop your squat with hips back to knee height without moving your feet. Check for rotation, changes in direction of your toes and knees, and/or movement downward in the arches of your feet. Did it all go a bit cattywompus?
Here are my favourite mobility exercises to get your ankles moving.
I like to start with what I call a 'hearty calf smash'. Most who know me and have spent any time training or yoga'ing with me will know that I am not a fan of foam rollers. Another post for another day. But, roll up a yoga mat nice and tight and you have a nice, squishy foam roller that has the ability to smoosh muscles without hardening or compacting adhesions in your muscles.
All that said, grab your tightly rolled yoga mat and place it behind your knees. Now, squat deep with your back against a wall and heels to the floor. Keeping your knees in line with your toes, hang for a minute or two. The heat and compression this generates within the calf muscles will help make otherwise hardened, plasticine tissue more like a soft taffy -- pliable and more stretchy.
From your squat, now move into a kneeling posture, keeping your rolled mat as close to the back of your knees as possible. Bonus? Those of us with meniscus issues may find the space the mat provides at the back of the knee will allow for a deeper knee bend and, by extension, a deeper stretch to the front of the knee and down the front of the shin. Check in with your feet and ankles. Keep your second toe aligned such that it is in a straight line to the center of your heel and shin. Keeping your ankles straight in this kneeling posture will encourage the shin and ankle to begin stretching. Pain at the front of your ankle? Place a rolled up towel across the front of your ankle to lessen the degree of extension at your ankles.
After a minute or two with your mat behind your knees, begin nudging your mat further down your calf muscles, away from the back of your knee. Hold each position for a few deep breaths before moving along to the next. Stop when you reach the narrowest section of calf muscle, being careful to avoid smashing your Achilles tendon.
Now, move that rolled up mat out in front of you and place the center of your shin right over the roll. The center of your shin is that portion that gets especially tender after you've been walking any distance in sand or after a long walk in flip flops. While resting that portion of your shin over the roll, begin to knead your shin into the mat. After a minute, place the same section of the opposite shin to the base of the calf muscle. Lean back into the mat. As long as the pain is not too severe, you may even begin to 'saw' the top leg into the bottom leg. While trying out that 'sawing' action, be mindful of your ankle to heel and shin alignment. Keep the second toe, center of heel and shin in line.
To up the ante in the ankle flexor and extensor muscles, grab two therapy balls or racquetballs, and place them into a tote or knee high stocking. Place the balls on a yoga bock, the nestle your shin between the two balls with your foot hanging off the back of your yoga block. Make sure your block is high enough that you are able to get some good ankle movement. From here, pin and spin the muscles to the front of your ankle by drawing circles with your toes, clockwise and counter-clockwise.
Next up, lose the block and balls and come into a low lunge with your back knee on the floor. Hold a dowel vertical in line with the tip of your big toe. Keeping your heel connected to the floor, rock your lunge forward. Direct your knee to the outer edge of the dowel while keeping your inner sole grounded. After a good ten to twenty rocks, move the dowel to the pinkie toe side of the foot. Begin rocking your lunge again, this time directing your knee to the inner edge of the dowel while keeping your foot grounded at the outer sole.
Finally, you are ready to really stretch the front of your ankles. Come into a kneeling position and lean back into your heels. Drive your shins into the floor and take as much weight as you can into your heels without knee or ankle pain. Again, be sure your second toe stays in line with the center of your heel and shin in this position to ensure a balanced stretch.
After you've done that last stretch for a couple minutes, come on back up to standing and check that squat out. Again, observe the movements of your toes, knees and arches.
Did it help?
Great! Add this to your training routine.
Yes, mobility work is part of an overall training routine!
Disclaimer: Fit Club is not a medical doctor and the information contained herein should not be taken as medical advice. These are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any health problem. Recommendations by Fit Club are not intended to replace the advice of a physician or health professional. Please consult your physician or a health professional before beginning any diet or exercise program.