Anatomy of a Spartan: Make Your Ankles Unbreakable

Anatomy of a Spartan: Make Your Ankles Unbreakable
Presented by Spartan Training®

In Anatomy of a Spartan, a Spartan Training series, we’re taking a joint-by-joint approach to prehab. The result: an unbreakable body. Below, we take a closer look at the ankles. 

About Your Ankles

Most athletes don’t think about their ankles until they twist, sprain, or otherwise piss them off, but ankle training comes down to more than just rehab — and even what we generally think of as “prehab.”

“Training your ankles and improving their mobility and function shouldn’t be about doing some remedial, lame, low-level moves,” says Kelly Starrett, DPT, a performance therapy specialist and the co-founder of The Ready State. (Read: A set or two of ankle rotations isn’t going to cut it.) “Instead, athletes need to focus on building hardy ankles that allow them to access their body’s full potential in high-level activities.”

improve ankle mobility

Here’s why: The ankles take and dole out large forces when running and jumping. As you descend into each foot strike, the tissues of the ankle are loaded with tension. Then, with each push-off, they transfer stored elastic energy to propel movement.

This “springiness,” as Starrett calls it, hinges on your ability to access your ankles’ various tissues through a full range of motion. 

Related: How to Heal a Sprained Ankle Fast

So, when it comes to your ankles, what’s a full range of motion?

For plantar flexion (pointing your toes) and dorsiflexion (pulling your toes toward your shin), 45 and 20 degrees, respectively, are commonly agreed upon “standards,” Starrett explains, noting that the vast majority of athletes aren’t hitting that dorsiflexion target. (Standing upright is 0 degrees.) Research links poor dorsiflexion with an increased risk to the knee (ACL injuries, in particular). 

And while they aren’t as instrumental in absorbing and generating power, other movements of the ankle include eversion and inversion (tilting onto the sides of the foot) and abduction and adduction (pointing the forefoot toward or away from your midline). These functions are crucial to your ability to maintain balance, especially in athletic events with uneven or difficult-to-predict terrain, Starrett says. In fact, research shows that improving ankle eversion range of motion can be an effective way to reduce injury risk in runners.

Five Exercises for Ankle Mobility

improve ankle mobility

Below, Starrett shares five essential exercises for improving ankle mobility and function. These will also provide enhanced power and boost performance.

1. Feet-Together Floor Squat

This exercise is first because, while it promotes mobility, it also tests it. If you have any trouble reaching the bottom of the squat with your weight properly distributed as described below, lackluster dorsiflexion is to blame, Starrett says.

Instructions: Stand with your bare feet together, with 50 percent of your weight in the balls of your feet and 50 percent in your heels. Squat down as low as you can while keeping your heels in place. The goal is to lower your hips all the way to your ankles without the distribution of weight changing between the balls and heels of your feet. Hold for a few seconds, then drive through your feet to return to standing position. Repeat, working up to 12 to 15 reps.

Related: Cluster Sets for Strength and Power

2. Jump Rope

Starrett programs jump roping into athletes’ workouts to train the ankle to perform— springing and stabilizing — in high-intensity, fatiguing situations like a Spartan race or trail run. The single-leg variations work eversion and inversion.

Instructions: As the cardio portion of your workout warm-up, grab a jump rope and do 200 jumps with your feet together, and your greater toes touching. Then, do 100 skips on one foot, followed by 100 on your right. If you don’t have a rope, pretend you do.

3. Prisoner Walking Lunge

This lower-body strength move is extra helpful for runners, training ankle flexion through its fullest available range of motion.

Instructions: Stand with your bare feet hip-width apart, your hands on the back of your head, and your core braced. Take a giant step forward with one foot and lower into a lunge, letting your back foot raise up onto its toes. Drive through your front leg to simultaneously stand up, swing your back leg forward, and lower back into a lunge to “walk” forward. That’s one rep. Do 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.

4. Band-Distracted Squat

Perform this prior to squats to access greater dorsiflexion during your sets.

Bonus: Greater dorsiflexion during squats means you can squat to greater depths.

Instructions: Secure a thick-looped resistance band to a low attachment point, in line with your thighs. With bare feet, step into the loop created by the band. Place it directly under your hip bones and step back until there’s tension in the band. Stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, grab the band in front of you with both hands for balance, and squat down as far as possible. Spend at least two minutes at the bottom of the squat, gently shifting your body weight over your ankles in all directions. Try adjusting the angle of your forefeet throughout the exercise.

5. Trail Run

On uneven, changing terrains, your ankle works overtime — in every movement pattern — to keep you upright and over your body’s center of gravity, Starrett says.

Instructions: If you’re new to trail running, start with less technical trails (even the grass or gravel on the side of a paved trail work) and progress as you feel confident in both your ankle and your brain’s ability to safely react and adapt. Increase run duration and intensity as your skills advance.