Hips hurting? Knees clanking? Back screaming at you? The culprit could be a lack of ankle mobility.
What is it?
Mobility = strength + flexibility. Ankle mobility refers to whether that combo exists in your ankle joint and its surrounding muscles and tendons. When your ankle is flexible, you have a greater range of motion during your activities.
Strengthening your ankles will help you walk properly and prevent your knee and hip muscles from weakening. Strong, flexible ankles strengthen the base that holds you up. If ankle mobility is limited, your walking gait can go wonky. Then a chain reaction happens up your body that increases your risk of injury to the hips and knees. This can also lead to plantar fasciitis, Achilles’ tendinopathy, shin splints, and pulled low back muscles. They’re also key to improving activities like running and dancing. Strong ankles can improve your balance and stability, which is important for preventing falls.
Why do we have weak ankles?
These days, in general, people aren’t moving enough. We sit a lot for everything from work, to watching TV, sitting for meals, and driving. Those who do move more frequently are often doing the same motions each time (running, cycling, etc.) and aren’t moving the ankles through their full range of motion on the regular. Our shoes aren’t helping, either. Most shoes have a few inches of lift in the heel, meaning your foot is in a slightly flexed position all day long. Those super-duper cushioned shoes keep your muscles from strengthening as you walk. That means the muscles along the bottom of our feet are in a slightly shortened position all day. Long term, this can affect our ability to lengthen those muscles to bring the ankles in to dorsiflexion (toes up y’all).
6 Poses for Ankle Mobility
Vrksasana Tree Pose, variation
Standing on one leg improves balance and ankle stability, which means it’s a good idea to practice single-leg standing poses often. This Tree Pose variation promotes agility in your lower legs, ankles, and feet, while transforming your lifted foot into a sensor of sorts (which provides feedback on the wobble situation in your standing ankle). This modification is particularly great for those who have trouble balancing on one foot. How to Stand on your left foot and bring your right foot to the inside of the left ankle, so the right foot becomes a stabilizer and “sensor” to monitor the left ankle’s movement. If it’s wobbly, home in on the ankle while remaining connected to your core and breath. Stay here for 5–10 breaths, then switch sides.
Virasana Hero Pose, 2 Ways
When you improve the front-to-back range of motion in your ankles, their side-to-side abilities will also benefit. Wrapping a strap around your ankles in this pose encourages the stretch across multiple ankle joints.
How to Wrap a strap around your ankles and pull it taut like you would a bandage (don’t fasten or buckle the strap). Position your ankles in dorsiflexion so that the balls of your feet are on the ground and sit on your heels while pulling the strap as snug as possible. After 5 breaths, begin to actively point (plantar flexion) your ankles and toes by trying to push the floor behind you, as if your toes are like a falcon’s talons clutching a branch. Stay here for another 5 breaths. (If you are unable to manage the pressure on your feet and ankles, lean forward and place your hands on the floor to redistribute some of the weight.) Then, point your toes and actively press the tops of your feet and ankles into the ground (attempting dorsiflexion), pulling the strap snugly again if the inner ankle bones have drifted apart. Stay here for 5 breaths, then repeat all of these movements once more.
Namaste and Reverse Namaste for the feet
This exercise strengthens the side-to-side motion of your ankles by alternating between inversion and eversion without the added strain from your body weight that occurs when standing. These kinds of unloaded lateral ankle movements improve range of motion and deepen your understanding of how your ankles move—ultimately helping prevent injury should you turn your ankle.
How to Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your ankles pinned together and actively dorsiflexed. Turn the soles of your feet inward (inversion) as if to say Namaste with your feet. Then, reverse the action, turning the soles of your feet outward (eversion) as if attempting Reverse Namaste with your feet. Repeat both movements 10–20 times.
This dynamic move strengthens the front and back of your lower legs—the prime “mover” of the ankle. This seemingly simple motion builds strength in the Achilles tendon, which is where the gastrocnemius and soleus (two calf muscles that help you elevate your heel) converge, and then transition behind the ankle joint into connective tissues on the bottom of your feet.
How to Stand in Tadasana with your feet facing forward, and sense your body weight dispersing across your feet. Push your toes into the ground and raise onto the balls of your feet, attempting to keep weight and pressure evenly distributed across all of your toes. Slowly lower down to the ground and then immediately rise again. Keep in mind that the lowering portion of this move is just as important as the lifting motion, so don’t rush it. Repeat 10–20 times. If balancing is a challenge, hold a wall, a counter, or a chair with one hand.
Down Dog Pedal & Static Hold
I like to use this movement to begin with because the pedal makes it a little more active than a static stretch, while simultaneously allowing you to easily transition to the static version of the movement. This stretch will help elongate the gastrocnemius, and if you’re aiming for the soleus + hamstrings, then a slight knee bend can help facilitate that goal.
Come onto the floor on your hands and knees. Set your knees directly below your hips and your hands slightly forward of your shoulders. Spread your palms, index fingers parallel or slightly turned out, and turn your toes under. Draw your shoulders away from your ears and lift your sitting bones high. Straighten your knees but be sure not to lock them. Roll the upper thighs inward slightly. Begin to pedal through the feet to stretch into the calves. Then bend one knee and hold a few seconds, then the other.
Runner’s Stretch Gastrocnemius & Soleus
The next movement is a little more static, and can target both the gastrocnemius and the soleus. If your goal is stretching the gastrocnemius, then leave the leg straight(er), and for the soleus create a slight bend in the knee. A slightly bent knee will allow your ankle to go deeper into flexion. You can use a wall, or any surface for the bracing of the arms.
Stand near a wall with one foot in front of the other, front knee slightly bent. Keep your back leg straight, your heel on the ground and lean toward the wall. Hold for 30 seconds before switching to the other side.
Give these 6 yoga poses a go and let me know how you feel. What do you experience? Do them a few times and notice if it makes a difference to your body. I'd love to hear how it goes for you! Drop me a message!