Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Ankle mobility is an area many people struggle with
Most of the exercises we see to develop ankle mobility are targeting the soft tissues usually in the saggital plane only
But what if it was both more complex yet also much simpler than this?
There's been a trend over the last decade to refer to the shoulder as the "shoulder complex"
This is a nod to the fact that the shoulder isn't just where the "arm bone meets the body bone"
But it is in fact a communication between three bones, the clavicle, the scapula and the humerus.
With a multitude of muscles that affect the movement in the shoulder complex
I'd very much like to extend the nomenclature to include the foot and ankle complex.
This complex includes:
The 26 bones of the foot AND the two bones of the lower leg.
Just thinking of the ankle as the talocrural joint is about as useful as thinking of the shoulder only in terms of the glenohumeral joint.
The talocrural joint is the joint most ankle mobility exercises focus on.
With the majority of them focusing on flexing and extending this joint, ie pointing the toes (plantar flexion) pulling the toes towards the shin (dorsiflexion)
This works perfectly fine if the Talus bone (the "talo" part of talocrural" is sitting pretty and wearing the shin bones like headphones.
In the hundreds of pairs of feet I've had my hands on, very very few have this optimal alignment.
Myself usually included.
Here's an interesting little fact about the Talus bone:
It has NO muscular attachments.
Yet it is the "transmission" between the foot and the leg. It's almost like the clutch in your car.
In front of the Talus are the tarsal bones of the foot proper
Underneath the Talus is the heel or Calcaneus bone.
Because we talk about the foot as a tripod, you can imagine the Talus as the capstone atop that tripod.
This is a lot to take in, so have a look at this gorgeous animation:
That gold bar shows you the motion of the Talus and Calcaneous as the foot changes shape. Don't worry about the narration in the video, unless you're an anatomy geek, just watch the pretty shapes...
Where the talus moves affects the entire tripod as it moves the calcaneus and the tarsals, the tarsals move the metatarsals, which move the toes.
Of course, if we have our foot on the floor, as it's meant to be, then the foot shape is determined by both the ground shape and the loading placed on it. There are 2 key foot shapes. Pronated and Supinated
Pronated is the flattened, spread out "pancake" foot shape Supinated is the arched up, short or banana foot shape
In most common media, pronation is regarded as bad and supination doesn't get much press at all. Instead they talk about a so called "neutral" foot.
Neutral, be it neutral foot, neutral spine, neutral anything, is static. Our bodies aren't designed to be static, they are designed (via millennia of evolution) to be the most efficient ambulator in the planet.
Neutral is merely a place we pass through as we move from one end to the other.
As we are talking about ankle mobility in this post, we're thinking in terms of the Talus bone being able to track cleanly with the foot as it moves from supinated to pronated and back again.
And we're talking about the bones "below" the talus, the rest of the foot, to be able to move in an appropriate fashion.
A huge amount of people have a foot shape and Talus position that is "stuck" on the side of pronation, the flattened arch shape. The reasons for this can be many, in the case of my left foot, it's an severe ankle sprain from a Fell Running injury years ago, the left foot "falls" into pronation, sending the right foot towards a supinated (arched) position as a response. Some people simply never really develop the arches as the feet are under stimulated through the use of overengineered footwear or a sedentary lifestyle.
So what's the answer?
"Short Foot" exercises have been very popular over the years do have some efficacy. The problem with short foot exercises are that they don't take into account the foot mechanics (watch that animation again), instead they focus on the musculature.
The muscles are made to contract from where they are into a shortened position. This is partial range, concentric only training, which if you suggested that for any other bodypart, would raise eyebrows!
"So, to train your biceps, we'll start with the arm as it is right now and contract the bicep hard to bend the elbow. Then just let the arm come back down by itself....."
That just wouldn't happen. I HOPE that wouldn't happen......
No, we try to move the muscle through it's greatest range of motion, a full eccentric to stretch the muscle followed by a full concentric to contract the muscle. The stretch is an eccentric contraction, the muscle is pulling in an effort to decelerate the joint action, slowing to a halt so that he concentric action can occur in the opposite direction.
Can we do the same thing in the feet?
We find a way to go as far into a pronation as possible, under load. This INCLUDES the talocrural movement most people think they need. But it is more of a spiral motion that it is a forwards and backwards movement.
Enter the "Banana Pancake"
This is a bit of a catch all movement. If you struggle with an element of this movement, work just that segment, see if it improves. As you go into the "Pancake" or pronation shape, you are eccentrically loading up the muscles that will shorten as you come out of it into the "Banana" or Supination shape. In the Supination shape, you are "showing" the bones how to form the arch, you're screwing that Talus bone into an external rotation, which couples with a dorsiflexion of that bone relative to the ground and the bones in front of it.
The key to success is to keep the sole of the foot on the floor, to maintain that foot tripod as you go from one extreme to the other.
The foot tripod is shown in the image above by the red lines. It consists of the Heel, the Big Toe Knuckle (1st Met head) and the Pinky Toe Knuckle (5th Met head) If you cannot manage to keep these points on the floor, then we can adjust the floor to help. If you've seen the pictures I've shared on social media that have the AiM Wedges in them, this is what they're for.
This is a photo of a lad working on the "Pancake" or pronation side of the movement:
Here's a break down of what we're looking for in the performance of the exercise specific to this photo:
Wedge placed under the 1st Met (big toe knuckle) to a) offer the sensation of ground contact and b) encourage it to dorsiflex as we load into it
Wedges placed under 5th Met (pinky toe knuckle) as this knuckle likes to lift off as we load the 1st Met, so we lift the ground up to ensure we maintain contact with the the met head.
Wedge placed under the inside of the heel, this is an unusual and potentially controversial wedge placement, it's put here because this particular athlete needs to slow down or reduce the motion in the heel/Talus in order to get the forefoot bones to move adequately.
Standing on the block to allow space for the pelvis to hike as the free leg moves down, and s o that we can remove the option for the toes to grip the floor which would prevent the eccentric loading we are aiming to create.
You don't need the little green wedges, anything will do, I've used thin books, the cuffs of boxing gloves, and whatever is handy as we're simply trying to keep the three points of the tripod in contact with the ground so that they get the best stimulus to move.
Now for a less "sophisticated" foot ankle mobility drill, we can take this standard exercise and upgrade it. This video was simply the first one to pop up in a google search for "wall ankle mobility drill" I don't know the guy and I am confident he is doing great work. But lets take the exercise he shows, which is a very standard ankle (read talocrural) drill and add in some sub-talar (read foot joints) action.
What we'll do is track the knee forward and back along each toe. So, out and back following the pinky toe, out and back following the fourth toe, out and back following the 3rd, then the 2nd and then the big toe and finally, out and back coming INSIDE the big toe. All the while maintaining that tripod.
You are now moving the bones, much like the animation above, which will load the soft tissue far far better than if you just go forwards and back along a single track. The trick is to not force these motions. You want to "ask permission" from the nervous system to go into these positions. So until you feel the tightness, and come back out. You can hold it for a few seconds before returning, but don't push through that tightness. There are exceptions to this rule, I just can't trust you with them just yet.....
I hope this post was easy enough to follow.
Ankle mobility is better thought of as Foot & Ankle mobility
The ankle doesn't operate alone
Use wedges or similar to help establish the tripod
Load the muscles eccentrically so that they learn to contract concentrically
Ditch the overbearingly supportive footwear!
And if you have questions, just shout, I'm here to help!