Are there exercises I can do to strengthen my weak ankles and prevent sprains?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I tend to sprain my ankle fairly often. Are there any exercises that could help me strengthen my ankles and prevent future sprains?

DEAR READER:

Your ankles are remarkable joints. They must bear the full weight of your body, yet stay nimble and flexible. Every step, every jump, every move puts your ankles through a surprising range of motion. Even when you stand quietly, your ankles are constantly making minute adjustments to help you stay balanced.

Your central ankle bone is called the talus. Your shin bone, the large bone in your lower leg, connects to the talus. A second, smaller bone in the lower leg ends alongside the talus. Bracketed by two bony bumps (each called a malleolus) on either side of the ankle, the talus acts as a hinge that allows you to point and flex your foot.

Two other joints on the talus permit sideways movements. Two ligaments (the strong, usually inelastic, tissue that bind joints) link the inner malleolus to the ankle bones. Three more ligaments bind the outer malleolus to the talus and heel bone. Ligaments play an important role in ankle anatomy — and ankle sprains.

Ankle sprains occur when you roll your foot inward or outward, or turn or twist an ankle. Probably the most common cause of an ankle sprain is when your foot comes down on the floor or ground, and instead of landing on the sole of the foot you land on the outer edge of the foot. The force of your weight on the outer edge puts a great strain on the ligaments of the outer part of your ankle.

That stretches, or even tears, the ligaments that keep the bones and joints properly positioned. Depending on the force applied as you land, the sprain can be mild, moderate or severe.

The same injuries that cause ankle sprains can also cause ankle fractures. It can be hard even for your doctor to determine if you’ve broken a bone just by examining your ankle; an X-ray often is needed. Weak ankles not only have a tendency toward repeated sprains; they also are more easily fractured.

Weak ankles often can be traced to repeated sprains that loosen the ligaments — and loose ligaments increase the risk of future ankle sprains. It’s a vicious cycle.

However, loose ligaments are not the only reason ankles have a tendency to suffer from sprains. Weakness of muscles that support the ankle also make sprains more likely. That’s where exercises come in.

You’re likely to benefit from an ankle workout that incorporates strength exercises and stretches. These exercises will help you increase flexibility in your ankles and build up ankle-supporting muscles.

If possible, work with a physical therapist. He or she can design an individualized program to meet your needs. In the meantime, I’ve put a few ankle-strengthening exercises below.

Ankle strengthening exercises

Single leg stance

JPR0412-8

Reps: 1 per leg

Sets: 1–3

Intensity: Moderate to hard

Hold: 60 seconds

Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart.

Movement: Lift your right foot a few inches off the floor, bending your knee slightly, and balancing on your left leg. Hold for 60 seconds, then lower your foot to the starting position. Repeat with your left leg. This completes one set

Tips and techniques:

  • Maintain neutral posture with your shoulders down and back.
  • Tighten the muscles around your hips and buttocks for stability.
  • Keep your abdominal muscles contracted.
Too hard? Hold on to a chair or counter for support, or perform for less than 60 seconds.

Too easy? Stand on a soft mat to make it more difficult to balance.

 

Heel raises

JPR0412-9

 

Reps: 10

Sets: 1–3

Intensity: Light to moderate

Tempo: 3-1-3

Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart and your hands at your sides.

Movement: Slowly lift up on your toes so that your heels rise off the floor as high as possible. Pause, then slowly return to the starting position.

Tips and techniques:

  • Maintain neutral posture with your shoulders down and back.
  • Stand evenly on your toes and heels before lifting and when returning to the starting position.
  • Exhale as you lift.
Too hard? Hold on to a chair or counter for support.

Too easy? Hold weights (3 to 5 pounds) in your hands while doing the exercise.

 

Toe taps

JPR0412-12

Reps: 10 front, 10 side-to-side

Sets: 1–3

Intensity: Light to moderate

Tempo: 1-1

Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your hands on your hips and your feet hip-width apart. Move your right foot forward so the right heel is in line with the toes of your left foot.

Movement: This is a two-step exercise.

Step 1: While keeping your heel grounded on the floor, lift the toes of your right foot as high as you can and tap them on the floor 10 times.

Step 2: Still keeping your heel grounded, lift up the toes of your right foot, then tap in and out (to the left and right) 10 times. Repeat both steps with your left foot. This completes one set.

Tips and techniques:

  • Maintain neutral posture with your shoulders down and back.
  • Keep toe taps smooth and controlled.
Too hard? Perform the exercise while seated in a chair with both feet on the floor.

Too easy? Secure a 1- to 3-pound ankle weight around your foot behind the toes.