There is nothing more frustrating (and painful) than an ankle sprain. You’re cruising along in peak condition and then, with just a slight misstep, you’re writhing on the ground in total agony. You see all of your hard work slipping away as you envisage months of inactivity ahead.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In this article, we present the best ankle sprain exercises to get you back on your feet and into the game in record time.
Some Ankle Sprain Statistics
Ankle problems are reported to be the most common sports-related injury. It is also the number one injury for lost game time. Sprains are the most commonly reported ankle injury in sports.
The game injury ankle sprain rate has been reported to be 3.85 per 1000 exposures in recreational basketball. In selected high school sports there is roughly one ankle injury for every 17 participants per season. It is estimated that collegiate athletes suffer over 11,000 ankle sprains per year. The average medical care cost of an ankle sprain is between $250 and $749.
The most common type of ankle injury is a lateral sprain. Medial and high ankle sprains do occur but at a much lower rate. Besides the pain, swelling, and loss of function associated with ankle sprains, there are also long-term consequences. It is estimated that between 47-73% of people who suffer an ankle sprain will re-sprain their ankle.
Inside a Lateral Ankle Sprain
During a lateral ankle sprain, any of the lateral ligaments, including the anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL), calcaneofibular ligament (CFL), and posterior talofibular ligament (PTFL) may be injured. The ATFL is the most commonly injured of the lateral ligaments, followed by the CFL and PTFL.
Injury is most likely to occur as a result of forced plantar flexion and inversion of the ankle during landing on an unstable or uneven surface. Inversion may cause a sprain if the ankle is too inverted. This may happen as a result of tripping.
The most common risk factor for lateral ankle sprains is a history of prior sprain. Other risk factors include shoes with air cells in the heels and not stretching before a game.
11 Ankle Sprain Exercises for Prevention and Rehab
Ankle sprain prevention and rehabilitation programs have proved to be effective in decreasing the incidence of ankle sprains and improving ankle function. We have culled through the data and identified the eleven most effective moves to a quick recovery.
We start with a series of intrinsic muscle movements designed to strengthen the small muscles inside the foot and ankle area. These exercises require subtle movement. Take it slowly and focus on holding the contracted position.
#1: Foot Shortening Exercise
Sit in a chair with your injured foot firmly planted on the floor in front of you. Your goal is to shorten the foot. You do this by pretending that there is a small ball underneath your foot. Keeping all of your toes on the ground, shorten the foot by scrunching up the midfoot. Hold for 5 seconds and then let go. You may find it easier to do this subtle movement with a towel running laterally under the midfoot.
- Repeat this move for 12 repetitions.
#2: Toe Taps
Toe Taps will work the deep inner muscles of the ankle joint. Sit in a chair with your injured foot firmly planted on the floor. Now lift all of your toes up. Now imagine that you are playing piano with your toes. Bring one toe down to the floor at a time, starting with your little toe. Stretch and extend the toes to the maximum extent possible to really feel the tarsal muscles.
- Do 12 toe taps to complete a set.
#3: Towel Scrunches
Sit in a chair with your injured foot firmly planted on the floor. Place a folded towel under your foot. Now scrunch your toes up to pick up the towel. Your goal is to get every single toe to wrap around the towel. You will be flexing the plantar fascia at the bottom of the foot. Hold that position for 5-10 seconds and then release the towel to return to the start position.
- A set of towel scrunches consists of 12 repetitions.
We’re now ready to move on to some extrinsic exercises, which focus on the muscles that surround the bones of the ankle.
#4: Drawing the Alphabet
Sit in a chair with your injured foot in front of you on the ground. Now use your toes to draw the letters of the alphabet. Move slowly and deliberately, keeping your heel fixed to the floor at all times.
- Go right through the 26 letters of the alphabet to complete a set.
#5: Dorsiflexion and Plantar flexion
Sit in a chair with your injured foot in front of you on the ground. Plant your heel on the ground and lift the toes to a 45-degree angle. Alternate extending the plantar and dorsal parts of the foot by extending the toes down and forming a curve in the sole of your foot and then pulling the toes back up toward your leg. Hold each extended position for 5 seconds.
- A set will involve doing a dozen dorsal and plantar flexions for a total of 24 reps.
#6: Ankle Eversion and Inversion
This move involves side to side mobility for the ankle joint. Sit in a chair with your injured foot in front of you on the ground. Plant your heel firmly on the ground. Now rotate from the heel to rotate your foot outwards (eversion). Then move the foot inwards as far as you can without moving the heel (inversion). Move slowly and deliberately.
- Perform 12 reps per set for a total of 3 sets.
#7: Heel Raises
Stand behind a chair, placing your hands on it for support. Now balance on your injured foot. Perform heel raises by lifting your heel off the ground. You will now be balancing on your toes and the balls of your foot. Hold the fully contracted position for 2-3 seconds before slowly lowering to the ground.
- Perform 15 reps on each set for a total of 3 sets.
After a week of heel raises performed in the above manner, place a thick book or similar object under your foot to allow you to stretch down below parallel.
#8: Dorsiflexion and Plantar Flexion Against Resistance
For this one, you’ll need a towel or an exercise band to provide a form of resistance. Sit in a chair with your injured foot in front of you on the ground. Plant your heel on the ground and lift the toes to a 45-degree angle. Now place the towel or band around the foot, and pull it tight. You now have a resistance for your ankle to work against.
Alternate extending the plantar and dorsal parts of the foot by extending the toes down and forming a curve in the sole of your foot and then pulling the toes back up toward your leg. Work against the resistance as you feel the muscles in your foot being tested. Hold each extended position for 5 seconds.
- A set will involve doing a dozen dorsal and plantar flexions for a total of 24 reps. Work up to three sets of this movement.
#9: Band Eversion and Inversion
Once again you’ll be using a towel or a band. This time, you will be moving from side to side as you perform eversion and inversion movements against a resistance. Sit in a chair with your injured foot in front of you on the ground. Place the towel or resistance band around the top of the foot and place your other foot over the end of the band or towel to keep it taut.
Rotate your foot outward (eversion) by pulling against the band. This will strengthen all the muscles on the outer side of your foot. Perform 12 repetitions.
Now, switch the towel or resistance band to the other side and hold your arm out to keep the resistance taut. Rotate your foot inward (inversion) by pulling against the band. Perform 12 repetitions.
- A set consists of 3 sets of 24 reps (12 on each side).
#10: One Leg Balance
This move simply involves balancing on one leg. Do not use any type of support to help you to balance. Try to hold the balance on your injured foot for 30 seconds.
- Perform three sets of 30-second holds.
After 3 days of one leg balances as described above, add a level of challenge by closing your eyes as you balance. This involves developing your proprioceptive ability, or your brain’s ability to know where your body is in space. When you close your eyes, you have to work a lot harder to maintain your balance.
- Work up to balancing for 60 seconds with your eyes closed.
Once you’re able to balance for a minute with your eyes closed, you’ll be ready to use blocks to balance. As you balance on one foot, hold three light blocks, or similar objects in your hand. Slowly lower yourself down to place a block on the floor in front of you. Try not to lose your balance. Now rise back to a standing position. Then place the second, and then the third block on the floor, all the while maintaining your balance.
You now need to pick the blocks back up, repeating your actions in reverse. Move slowly and deliberately as you maintain your center of gravity and complete the task without losing your balance.
You have now advanced through a graduated ankle strengthening program that has dramatically improved the strength of your sprained ankle. You are ready to take your ankle recovery to the next level with balance board training.
Training on a balance board is a challenge for anyone. For those who are coming back from ankle injury, it is more demanding still. It is important to pace yourself when training on the board, performing the exercises at your own level. Don’t rush yourself and if you feel dizziness or pain, stop immediately.
#11: Wobble Board Training
The Wobble Board is a key ankle recovery workout tool. Not only will it help to strengthen the ankle joint, it will also help with your joint position sense.
Once the swelling has reduced and you are able to walk around on the ankle, you are ready to begin using a wobble board.
Start by positioning the wobble board behind a chair. Place both feet on the board, with your ankles together. Hold onto the chair for support. Without bending your knees, rock forward and backward.
- Do this for 30 seconds.
Next, work the ankle laterally by bringing the board down to the right and then to the left.
- Continue this lateral rocking for a further 30 seconds.
The third phase involves making circles by swiveling the hips and bending the knees.
- Continue doing this for another 30 seconds, going in a clockwise direction for 15 seconds and then reversing the direction.
The next advance is to attempt to balance on the wobble board without using your hands to support yourself on the chair. Once you are able to balance for 15 seconds without using your hands for support, you will be ready for the next phase, which is going through the above sequence of moves without support.
By now your ankle is markedly stronger. You will now go through the same sequence of moves that you began with, but this time, you will do it with just the injured leg. You will lift the other leg by bending at the knee. If you feel pain in the ankle, back off and go back to two feet until you develop more strength.
Your Strengthened Ankle
The eleven ankle sprain exercises presented above have laid out for you a graduated progression of movements that will bring your ankle back to full strength. Remember, though, to be patient with your ankle. You don’t want to be another re-injury statistic. Progress through the program over a period of 12 weeks in order to allow your body the time to heal and regain its vital strength.
Image credits: Screenshots taken from a video from FlexWell.