Ankle care for runners

In order to prevent injuries, strengthen your lower leg muscles to help stabilize your ankles
Complete recovery from ankle injuries is difficult unless you tackle an aggressive rehabilitation program as soon as you are pain free and recover a reasonable range of motion. Here are the principal exercises for the lower leg muscles of runners which can help strengthen and stabilize ankles after injury, and help reduce risk of injury for all runners.

Heel or calf raises

The heel raise (sometimes called the calf raise) works the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Stand upright on the end of a platform or stair with the balls of your feet on the edge and your heel free. In the simplest form of this exercise, raise your heel as far as you can with your weight supported on the balls of your feet. Then slowly lower your foot until your heel is below the level of the stair.

To double the load on your calf muscles perform the exercise with your weight supported on one foot by placing the other foot behind your heel. There are two ways to add extra weight during heel raises. You can exercise both calves carrying a barbell on your shoulders behind your neck while you rise on the balls of your feet. If you prefer the single leg version of the exercise you can hold a dumbbell (arm held straight down) on the side you're working on.

Toe raises

Your front lower leg muscles are small but are vulnerable to injury, especially the notorious shin splints; you need to work them to help balance the development of your calf muscles. Toe raises will do the trick. Sit on a table, or some suitable support with your heel supported on a platform or box. Now put some weight across your toes. You can tie on a dumbbell or barbell or wrap on an ankle-weight. Raise the front of your foot through its full range of motion.

Seated calf raises

You should include seated calf raises in your routine because this loads the soleus muscle more than the gastrocnemius, according to Michael Yessis, Ph.D., author of The Kinesiology of Exercise. This is important for distance runners because the soleus has mostly slow-twitch fibers which means this is mainly an endurance muscle.

Sit down on the edge of a table or exercise bench with the balls of your feet on a surface two to four inches high. Place a barbell across your thighs and raise your heels as high as you can.

Range of motion exercises

You should also include range of motion without resistance by sitting down and turning your foot in and out so that your toes describe the widest possible circle, 30 or 40 times. Then stand with your feet 12 to 18 inches apart and rock your foot slowly sideways, raising the inside and outside of your feet 20 or 30 times, with your knees slightly bent.

Peroneal muscle exercises

For your peroneal muscles, place a large band cut from a tube (or you can buy a tube exerciser from sports supply stores for less than $5) over the front of your feet, about four to six inches apart. Sit and stretch the band by moving your toes outward horizontally, and then point your toes back inward to relax the band. Keep your heels as still as you can while your feet move. Try 20 to 30 cycles.

Additional exercises

Additional simple exercises include toe walking with shoes on for up to five minutes, followed by heel walking. Many therapists now include balance exercises, such as standing on one foot, first with eyes open and then with eyes closed. You can also give your ankles a workout on a balance board, or by balancing on a medicine ball (try these first sitting down, then gradually put more weight on your feet until you can balance without support).

Strengthening your lower leg muscles will help stabilize your ankles and reduce your risk of running injuries.

Work your way up through these exercises until you can achieve three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions two or three times a week. If you work out at a health club or gym you may find effective machines designed specifically for these lower leg exercises.


(Exercises adapted from The Kinesiology of Exercise, by Michael Yessis, Ph.D.)

Copyright The American Running Association.


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