Ankle strength and conditioning—it's not as sexy as ab workouts or sprint training, but it is just as important, as many of you have experienced first-hand.
There are three components to healthy ankles—stability, flexibility and mobility—and yoga can help to improve all three. As I try to demonstrate in all my articles, one of the primary reasons that yoga is so effective at addressing muscular imbalances and chronic pain, is that it isn’t reductionistic. We’re not extracting the proverbial omega-3 fish oil from the Wild Atlantic salmon, and then mega-dosing.
A word of caution
These poses are not designed to heal ankle injuries—please work with a really good physical therapist if you’re recovering from a sprain, strain or break. Stretching could make the injury worse and disrupt the healing process. And don’t be tempted to leave an ankle injury untreated as your whole body can end up tight and twisted as a result.
For the rest of you, if you practice these exercises consistently, you’re likely to be significantly less breakable on the bike.
Barefoot is best
Whenever you are in shoes, the bones and muscles in your feet are in large part immobilised—and that can’t be good. Shoes are like casts for your feet, under which your muscles atrophy and your range of motion wastes away. Your feet and ankles can become rigid, weak and might even start causing you pain. So, the first thing to do is take off your shoes as much as possible and walk on different types of terrain, like rocks, sand and grass, barefoot. This will strengthen the intrinsic muscles in your feet, giving you a more solid foundation on which to build strength, power and control.
And if you don’t like being barefoot very much, you can at least take off your shoes to do a few minutes of yoga.
Part One: Strong, Stable Ankles
Strengthening the ligaments in your ankles and the muscles surrounding the ankle joint is going to improve your control, allow you to generate more power and increase your resilience (decrease your risk of injury).
When you practice yoga, you strengthen your feet, ankles and lower legs in all of the standing poses and in the transitions between them. This is a great start but I’m also going to give you three poses to take it to the next level—a concentric and eccentric contraction, a one-legged balancing pose and an isometric, balancing hold.
1. Standing on tiptoes/calf raises
- Increases ankle stability and mobility. - Strengthens the arches, the intrinsic muscles of the feet, the Achilles tendon and the lower leg muscles. - Warms up the feet and ankles. - Improves balance.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. Rest your arms by your sides. - Distribute your weight evenly in your feet, between the ball of the big toe, the ball of the little toe and the heel. Try not to let your feet roll in (pronate) or out (supinate). - Look at a point at eye-line that isn't moving to help you keep your balance. - Inhale, slowly come up onto the balls of your feet, sweep your arms out and up overhead. Exhale, slowly lower your heels to the ground, bring your arms back down by your sides. - Breathe in and out through your nose. - Don’t rush it. - Repeat 10-15 times, with as much control as you can.
- Increases ankle strength and stability. - Strengthens the feet, legs, hips and core. - Opens up the hips. - Improves balance.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. Bring your hands to your hips. - Shift your weight into your right foot and bring the sole of your left foot to the inside of your right ankle, calf or inner thigh. Avoid pressing your foot into your knee as this joint is not designed to move laterally. Place it either above or below. - Try to keep your right foot flat on the ground—not rolling out or in. - You can keep your hands on your hips, bring them together at your chest or reach them up overhead. - Focus on a point at eye line that isn’t moving to help you keep your balance. - Hold the pose as still as you can for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - For an extra challenge, close your eyes. - Release the pose and switch sides.
3. Awkward Pose
- Increases ankle strength and stability. - Strengthens the feet, legs, hips and core. - Improves balance.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. - Look at a point at eye-line that isn’t moving to help you keep your balance. - Inhale, come up onto your tiptoes, lift your arms up in front of you to shoulder height. Exhale, bend your knees and lower down as slowly as you can until your thighs are almost parallel with the ground. - Keep your heels up and try not to lean too far forward. - Relax the muscles in your face. - Hold the pose for 3-5 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - Slowly come back up to standing and shake out your legs. - Repeat 2-3 times.
Part Two: Flexible, Supple Ankles
Your ankle moves in 4 primary directions:
- Dorsiflexion—feet flexed, toes pulled back towards the shins. - Plantar flexion—toes pointed. - Inversion—rolling onto the outer edge of the foot. - Eversion—rolling onto the inner edge of the foot.
There are several yoga poses that help to increase ankle flexibility, but for this article, I’ll just demonstrate one for each direction plus a bonus posture that I’ll come to at the end.
- Stretches the ankles, knees, groin and glutes. - Strengthens the feet, ankles and lower legs. - Opens up the hips.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and turn your toes out about 45 degrees. - Bend your knees and squat down as far as is comfortable. - Bring your upper body in between your thighs and touch your palms together. - Lengthen your spine and press your triceps against your knees to open up your hips. - Hold the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose.
- If you don’t have the flexibility in your ankles, calves and/or hips to keep your feet flat on the ground, don’t try to force it. You can support your heels on a rolled up mat or towel and keep practising the pose until you start to see an improvement.
- Stretches the feet, ankles, knees and quads.
- Sit back on your heels, bring your knees close together and rest your hands in your lap. - Check that your toes point straight back and that your feet don’t roll in or out. - Sit up tall, look straight ahead and hold the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - For an extra challenge, you can bring your fingertips behind you, lean back and lift your knees off the mat for a few breaths.
- If this pose is uncomfortable on your knees, you can put a rolled up mat or towel between the backs of your thighs and your calves. You can also sit on a block between your feet. Try to keep your knees pointing straight ahead.
3. Modified Reclining Spinal Twist
- Stretches the ankles, IT Band, outer hips, lower back, abs, obliques and neck. - Can help to relieve lower back pain.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the mat. - Bring both arms out at shoulder-height, palms facing down. - Straighten your left leg up to the sky and press through your heel. Bring your left ankle to your right knee and drop the inside of your right ankle to the mat. Gently lower your right knee down with the left foot still in place. - Look to the right and stay here for 5-10 breaths, or up to a few minutes if it feels good. - Come back to centre and switch sides.
4. Happy Baby
- Stretches the feet, ankles, groin and hamstrings. - Releases tension at the lower back.
- Lie on your back and hug your knees into your chest. - Keep your feet together and bring your knees out wide. Thread your hands through and take hold of the outsides of your feet. - Bring your ankles out over your knees, flex your feet and gently pull down on the outsides of your feet, turning the soles of your feet up to the sky. - If you can’t reach your feet, take hold of your ankles or lower legs and draw slow circles in each direction. - Stay in the pose for 5-10 breaths, or as long as you want.
5. Screaming Toe
- Stretches the toes, ankles and the soles of your feet. It’s the anti-shoe pose. - Increases your pain tolerance.
- Kneel with your knees and ankles together and your toes tucked under. Keep your heels aligned directly over your toes. Don’t let them fall out to the sides or in towards each other. - Try to relax. - Hold the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. Then deepen your breath and hold it for 5 more. Remember that you can always do more than you think. - If you need to, you can lean forward to take some of the weight off your toes.
- You can place a rolled up blanket between your calves and the backs of your thighs if this is too intense on your knees.
Part Three: Functional, Mobile Ankles
Functional mobility refers to much more than just range of motion. It encompasses flexibility, strength, stability, control, balance and coordination.
If we put some of these poses into a flow, you should find that it brings the spring back into your ankles and calves and gets your feet moving more fluidly in a variety of different directions and angles.
Try to stay focused on trying to make the movements in your feet and ankles as smooth and controlled as possible, throughout the sequence. Try to stretch, strengthen and gently push against your edges, steadily increasing your range of motion, building resilience and improving your control and coordination.
As always, stop if it hurts and don’t try to push through pain. If you start shaking, breathe and soften where you need to. Pain in yoga is never ok. Suffering, on the other hand, is fine.
This is a fairly advanced sequence designed to challenge your strength, mobility, flexibility and balance. If you can’t do all the poses initially, don’t be intimidated. You have something to work towards.
Finally, treat yourself to a foot massage. Your feet probably don’t get a lot of love, but they should—since their health and alignment affect the way your ankles, knees and hips function. And if that feels too indulgent, take a tennis or lacrosse ball to the soles, sides and tops of your feet, to your heels, all parts of your ankles and up your calves. In Tools of Titans, Amelia Boone, world champion obstacle racer, recommends rolling your feet on a golf ball to break up the fascia. Just remember to start slow.
Please let me know if you have any questions in the Comments below. And if you want to try more Balancing sequences to condition your feet, ankles and lower legs, you can download a progressive 15-video series here: vimeo.com/ondemand/yogabalancechallenge.