As runners, we often focus our strengthening programs on our core and upper legs as they propel us to achieve the times and distances we are chasing. In many ways that are understandable, they are big muscle groups, the training can be fun, and improvements are visible and therefore rewarding.
However, there is one body part that we use more than any other when we are running, and yet we pay virtually no attention to except popping on the odd plaster – our feet and ankles. In fact, more often than not, the only time we pay any attention to that part of our body is when we are injured and feel that they have let us down.
Here’s the thing, our feet will carry us miles and our ankles will propel us on but only if we show them a little bit of love upfront.
In the rest of this article, we’ll explore why ankle strength is so important for runners.
Why Ankle Strength Matters
When you are running, you are always receiving and reacting to feedback. That means when you put your foot down and you sense that there is a pebble or a slant on the path or you didn’t notice a small step sensors in your foot send a message back to your brain to adjust your footstep and prevent injury.
These sensors are called proprioceptors, and they are present in your tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Proprioceptors are designed to tell your brain what position your body and limbs are in, and they do it all subconsciously. If you’ve ever nearly sprained your ankle, you will remember a feeling that you had ‘gone over’ on your ankle and then it corrected. This was able to happen because the proprioceptors in your ankle told your brain that the joint had gone too far, was no longer safe and that it should bring your ankle back to a more secure position. Your brain, in turn, tells the correct muscles to adjust. The muscles tighten and return your ankle to a safe position.
When you are fatigued either because it was the end of a run or the start of a new training program two things happen:
1) The messages sent by the proprioceptors travel a little bit slower giving your body less time to react and;
2) Your muscles are tired and find it a little bit harder to react and pull you back into a good position.
If your body isn’t able to send those messages in time or your muscles aren’t strong enough to pull you back into a good position you are at risk of damaging tendons and ligaments.
If you have sprained your ankle once, you are even more prone to repeating the injury. The sensors are not quite as sensitive as they used to be and don’t respond to stimuli in the same way. Running in the winter adds the extra challenge as slippery surfaces and paths covered in leaves cause even greater opportunity for injury.
How to Test Your Ankle Strength
To test how your proprioceptors are reacting and giving you feedback try this exercise: In front of a safe object like a surface or wash basin stand up, take one foot off the ground and close your eyes. If you immediately wobble and need to grab the surface or drop your foot to the floor to get your balance then your proprioceptors are not firing as well as would like and likely your muscles are not holding your position as we would hope.
Having healthy and strong ankle muscles are vital as they are the first responders to the signals. If your muscles aren’t strong enough, it doesn’t matter which signals you receive your body won’t be able to react and stop you from getting injured. While your balance and proprioception can be trained and improved, your strength can also be improved.
If you consider that every time you step when running you are doing a single leg calf raise, you are asking your muscles to do a whole lot of work, and without correct preparation and training it is no surprise that they sometimes struggle and injuries occur.
How to Strengthen your Ankles
Exercises don’t have to take a long time, a few minutes can go a long way but has the potential to transform your training and workouts exponentially.
Here a couple to start you off:
1) Calf Raises:
2) Balance board:
3.) Squat Jumps: