I wish I had a rupee for every time I hear my clients say “weak ankles". The ankles are built to support nearly 100% of the body’s load, and if you look at the role of the joint in any sport which involves being on your feet, you will see that it can take very high impacts. It is flexible, resilient and capable of generating some serious explosive movements. So why do I see so many ankle injuries?

Understanding how such a brilliantly designed joint can turn weak lies in studying its functional relationship and interaction with the body’s other weight–bearing joints—the hips, knees and shoulders. The human body is a structure with several load-bearing joints, all of which will function at their optimum only if they are engaged together as a single unit—much like a well-made chair. The sturdy chair will bear the weight of the guest sitting on it pretty efficiently for years, but if people keep tipping the chair back and forth on its rear and front legs alternately, the chair will start wobbling and may ultimately collapse altogether. In the same manner, the body’s load-bearing joints will lose the benefit of its combined strength if the load is not distributed evenly along the shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. If any one has to compensate regularly for the other, then that joint will deteriorate.

The ankle is particularly vulnerable as it bears the maximum load of the human body. This explains the high number of ankle-pain sufferers. The solution, however, does not lie in artificial support systems like taping, or special high-top shoes, or even surgery—it lies in spotting the deviant joint, understanding its relationship with the muscles around it, and aligning it with the rest of the load-bearing joints.

Calf muscles and ankles

The most common cause of ankle pain is dysfunctional and unusually shortened or tight calf muscles. For a human body to achieve proper locomotion, it is extremely important that the feet are able to dorsiflex. Dorsiflexion is the technical term used to describe the motion when the toes and feet move inwards towards the shin bone. While walking or running, when the foot hits the ground on impact, the shin has to move towards the feet in order to create the proper “give" or soft cushioning. This is only possible if the calf muscle is flexible and functional. If the calf muscle is tight, then the ankle abducts (moves outwards from the shin), unusually increasing its workload at impact. Moving away at impact takes it out of line to bear the body’s weight evenly, so there is too much load now acting on the inside of the ankle. Simple stretches to restore length back to the calf muscles, like the ones we will outline, sometimes take away chronic pain in the ankles, and make the joint more stable.

The Achilles tendon

Heel pain? Exercise to prevent musculoskeletal dysfunction and protect the Achilles tendon.

The constant friction produced by the opposing forces of the tendon may produce a painful callus on the back of the ankle. This is sometimes known as a heel spur. Many surgeons will scrape and remove the callus or spur but it does nothing to address the source of the problem. The best way to protect the Achilles tendon is to prevent musculoskeletal dysfunction through a proper set of exercises, described below.

The Downward Dog

The Downward Dog: Don’t curve your back.

Static Back

Lie on your back with both legs bent at right angles from the knees on a chair or box. Rest your hands next to you with the arms spread and the palms up. Let the back settle on to the floor. Breathe deeply from the diaphragm for 5-10 minutes, and feel your lower back and hips pushing into the floor. This exercise will release all compensating muscles that are interfering with the gait pattern of the foot and ankle.

Static Wall

Lie on your back and place your legs straight up against the wall, keeping them hip-width apart. Get your buttocks and hamstrings flush against the wall and curl your toes in towards your shin. Relax your upper body and hold for 3-5 minutes. This exercise releases the tightness in the posterior chain of the legs and engages all the anterior muscles of the thigh and lower legs.

The Static Back and Static Wall are exercises created by Peter Egoscue, a US-based postural therapy master who works with elite athletes.

Ranadeep Moitra is a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, and has worked with the Indian cricket team, the Bengal cricket team and the East Bengal Football Club. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.

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