A small but mighty construction, the ankle joint is formed by the articulation of the talus bone of the foot, and the tibia and fibula bones of the lower legs. It is more specifically a hinged synovial joint, giving us the ability to flex (dorsiflexion), point (plantarflexion), wing our foot so the sole faces away from our midline (evert), and scoop our foot so the sole faces toward the midline (invert). This multidirectional ability means a properly functioning, fully mobile ankle joint can make minute and major adjustments to the surfaces underfoot, keeping us grounded, stable, and moving, no matter the terrain.
What is Mobility, and What Causes Limited Ankle Mobility?
Mobility—our ability to move—reflects a range of neurophysiological and biomechanical capacities, which include inherited anatomical structures, strength, flexibility, range of motion, proprioception and other perceptual abilities, and the neuromuscular control of movement. Like all the joints of our body, mobility at our ankles can be hampered by genetics, diseases like osteoarthritis, dysfunctional movement patterning, relative strength and flexibility (or lack thereof) of surrounding muscles, bone spurs, scar tissue, inflammation, and overtraining.
The ability to move and support our ankle through its full range of anatomically possible movements is crucial to stability and injury prevention. It supports the efficient alignment and functioning of our knees, hips, back, and more. A typical range for ankle dorsiflexion is between 10 and 20 degrees, while plantarflexion is 40 to 55 degrees. A typical range for eversion and inversion is around 10 and 20 degrees, respectively.
There are a couple of ways to test if you have limited ankle mobility. If your heels come up when performing a traditional squat, this can be a sign of impeded mobility. You can also try standing two inches away from a wall and then bend your knees and try to touch the wall. If your heels come up or you experience pain, pinching, or tension in your ankle or calf, this can be another sign that it’s time to address your ankle mobility.
How to Improve Ankle Mobility
Developing our ankle mobility can improve our gait by strengthening leg muscles, increasing flexibility, and relieving pain and tension. Working on ankle mobility can also improve proprioception – the awareness of the location, movement, and action of our body parts – helping us manage trips and missteps before they become sprains, strains, or falls.
Another way to enhance your mobility, along with the rest of your walking biomechanics, is through innovative technology that measures the quality of your gait based on your unique profile. Baliston is pioneering this type of service through revolutionary gait-analysis AI which offers users personalized insights and recommendations to help reduce fatigue, pain, and injury risk, while increasing mobility and range of motion.
While our tech-augmented footwear can greatly enhance the quality of our walking and well-being, you can still benefit from additional exercises for improved ankle mobility. Here are some barefoot exercises to get started:
Ankle Circles or Alphabets
You can complete this exercise sitting with a blanket, towel, or foam roller under your ankle or lying down. Moving only your foot and ankle—not your leg—rotate your ankle in a slow circle. Go clockwise 10 times and then switch to counterclockwise. Then try writing the alphabet. Remember to stabilize your leg—the action only happens at your foot and ankle.
From a standing position with your feet parallel to one another and organized under your hips, rise onto the balls of your feet. Keep your focus up and stand tall with your shoulders back, down and relaxed, and your pelvis in a neutral positions. Slowly lower your heels back to the floor. Repeat 10 times for 2-3 sets.
Add free weights if you want to up the challenge or complete the same exercise standing on the edge of a stair, letting your heels lower below the stair ledge before rising again.
Walk about 30 feet in one direction, standing on your toes. Return to your starting place, walking on your heels. Repeat a few times.
Side-to-Side Knee Swings
Sitting on a chair with your feet flat on the floor, slowly move your knees from side to side. Keep your legs parallel and your feet planted. Keep this slow action going for a couple of minutes.
These exercises are a bit more advanced and involve quick jumping movements designed to challenge your muscles to reach their maximum force fast. A good plyometric exercise to start with is ankle jumps. With your feet in parallel under your hips, try jumping straight up without bending your knees. Dorsiflex through your ankles when you jump and plantarflex just before you return to the floor.
Resistance Band Exercises
Working with a resistance band can be an excellent way to increase the challenge by upping the demand on the muscles around your ankle.
Sitting on the floor with one leg bent and one leg straight, loop the resistance band around the front of your foot. Slowly point your ankle and toes forward into the resistance of the band and then slowly release back. Repeat 8-12 times.
Secure your band around a chair or table leg, and then wrap the other end over the top of the foot and toes. Dorsiflex your ankles, flex your toes toward your body, against the band, and then release away. Repeat 8-12 times.
Sitting on the floor, cross one leg over the other. Loop your band around the inside of the underneath leg and stand the top foot into the band. Slowly push the underneath foot into the band to move away from the top foot, then release. Repeat 8-12 times.
Sitting on the floor with your legs straight, loop the band around the outside of one foot. Holding the band with both hands, stand the other foot into the band. Slowly push your looped foot outward against the band and release. Repeat 8-12 times.
By optimizing ankle mobility, we can support the joint’s ability to support us in turn. Try incorporating these exercises into your workout routine, or integrate them into daily activities, like doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, or walking the dog. It’s never the wrong time to address mobility. Your ankles—and the rest of your body—will thank you.