If you work out frequently, it is common to have tight ankles. Exercises such as running, cycling, and rowing can increase the resting muscle tone in your calf muscles and can cause ankle tightness.
Strength training exercises that target the lower body can also cause the musculotendinous and ligamentous structures around your ankle to tighten up, limiting ankle mobility and range of motion.
But what causes tight ankles, and more importantly, how can you improve ankle mobility? And, what are the best ankle mobility exercises?
In this article, we will discuss ankle mobility, common causes of tight ankles, and the best exercises to increase ankle mobility.
We will cover:
- What Causes Tight Ankles?
- How to Improve Ankle Mobility: 12 Ankle Mobility Exercises
Let’s dive in!
What Causes Tight Ankles?
Before we discuss how to improve ankle mobility, it’s important to cover not only what causes tight ankles but how to know if your ankles are tight in the first place.
The ankle joint is capable of quite a few movements.
Dorsiflexion of the ankle involves lifting the toes up towards the ceiling, while plantarflexion is the opposite motion, involving pointing the toes as if pressing the gas pedal on a car.
The ankle is also capable of eversion and inversion.
Inversion involves turning the sole of your foot inward toward the midline of your body, sort of facing upward so that you can see the bottom of the sole of your foot between your legs.
Eversion, the opposite motion, involves turning the sole of the foot away from the midline of the body.
The ankle can also permit rotation of the foot to some degree.
When we discuss having “tight“ ankles, it means that your range of motion (ROM), is less than normal.
There can be different causes of tight ankles. The ankle is a complex joint involving musculotendinous attachments as well as ligaments, cartilage, a joint capsule, the bones themselves, fascia, nerves, and blood vessels.
Aside from the bones, if any of these tissues are tight, meaning that they have reduced elasticity or stretch, the permissible range of motion across the ankle joint will be limited, and your ankles will feel tight and will functionally perform with poor mobility.
There are different root causes for tightness in the structures of the ankle.
Oftentimes, poor ankle mobility is caused by having tight calf muscles because the calf muscle group attaches to the heel bone, spanning the distance from the back of the knee through the ankle to the bottom of the foot. If the Achilles tendon or calf muscles are tight, you will have a limited range of motion in dorsiflexion.
On the other hand, if the muscles in the anterior compartment of your shin, such as the tibialis anterior, are tight, you can have a limited range of motion and plantarflexion. The shin muscles are often particularly tight in runners and cyclists.
Because the joints in the lower body are connected together in a kinetic chain, it is also common to have tight ankles if you have tight hips or knees.
How to Improve Ankle Mobility: 12 Ankle Mobility Exercises
The best ways to improve your ankle mobility are to stretch the muscles and tendons controlling the ankles, namely the calves, Achilles tendons, and shins, and to do ankle mobility exercises a few days a week to condition the neuromuscular system to maintain normal ROM and keep all structures in the ankle joint healthy, elastic, and mobile.
#1: Ankle Stretches
There are several different ways to stretch the calf muscles and Achilles tendons. You can use a wedge or slant board, drop your heels on a step, or lean into a wall, pressing your legs behind you so that you feel a good stretch in the calves.
To specifically target the soleus muscle and Achilles tendon, you can bend your knee slightly as you lean into the wall, which will better target these tissues.
#2: Ankle Circles
One of the most basic ankle mobility exercises is ankle circles. You can perform this ankle mobility exercise seated, standing, or lying down.
Just lift one foot off of the ground at a time, and perform small circles with your foot in both the clockwise and counterclockwise directions. Aim for 30 seconds in each direction and then switch sides.
#3: Ankle Alphabets
A variation on ankle circles is tracing the alphabet with your foot. You can use cursive or standard letters.
Perform the entire alphabet 2 to 3 times per ankle.
#4: Single-Leg Balance
Although we tend to think of the single-leg balance exercise as an ankle stability exercise rather than an ankle mobility exercise, all of the micro-movements that your ankle has to make while trying to balance actually stretch and mobilize the structures in the joint capsule and the smaller ligaments and tendons in the ankle.
Additionally, by improving ankle stability, you will be less likely to twist or roll an ankle, which will prevent inflammatory sequelae that can certainly reduce ankle mobility.
To do this simple ankle mobility and stability exercise, stand upright with good posture, with your core and glutes engaged. Lift one leg off of the ground and try to balance on a single leg for 30 to 60 seconds.
Beginners can make this exercise easier by holding their arms out to the sides like a giant T, and those who are advanced can close their eyes during the exercise, which decreases visual feedback and makes it much more difficult to balance.
You can also progress the exercise by standing on an unstable surface, such as a pillow, rolled-up towel, or wobble board.
#5: Calf Raises on a Step
Performing calf raises with your heels hanging off of the step allows you to move up into plantarflexion and also get a good stretch with dorsiflexion when you hang your heels down.
Raise up onto your toes as high as you can go and then sink down, dropping your heels towards the stair below as deep as possible.
Increase the difficulty of this ankle exercise by performing single-leg calf raises. As you get stronger, you can add additional weight by holding onto a dumbbell.
#6: Heel Walks and Toe Walks
Heel walks strengthen the muscles in the shin and improve range of motion and dorsiflexion, and toe walks strengthen the posterior muscles (calves).
With your hands on your hips, take 50 to 100 paces forward while walking on your toes, and then come back walking on your heels. Perform 2 to 3 sets.
#7: Walking Lunges
Static and walking lunges can both increase ankle strength, stability, and mobility.
The key is to keep your entire front foot planted on the ground.
Feel the stretch in the Achilles tendon and calf muscle on the rear foot by pressing the ball of your foot into the ground and letting your heel come upward.
#8: Wobble Board Tilts
Wobble boards are planks of wood with a small strip of wood down the bottom of the center of the board, lifting the platform of the board off of the ground. You have to balance to stay on the board without falling over.
You can improve ankle mobility by placing one foot atop the board with the balance strip running perpendicular to your foot. Try to stay balanced on the board without holding on.
If this is too advanced, you can simply place your foot on top of the board and tilt back and forth to work through the full range of motion of your ankle. Tilting the board forward will stretch your shins, and then tilting your foot backward will stretch your calves.
#9: Resisted Ankle Plantarflexion and Dorsiflexion
You can strengthen the muscles that control plantarflexion and dorsiflexion of the ankles while also stretching these tissues by using a resistance band.
To strengthen the muscles in your shin, tether a resistance band to a stable support and then loop the band over the top of your foot. Pull your toes towards your shin. Perform three sets of 12 to 20 reps per foot.
To strengthen your plantarflexion muscles, loop the band around the bottom of the ball of your foot and pull the handles towards your body. Then, point your toes away from you as if pressing down the gas pedal on a car. Perform three sets of 12 to 20 reps per foot.
Bounding can be thought of as exaggerated skipping. This plyometric ankle exercise will not only stretch and strengthen your ankles but also improve the ability of these muscles to generate force rapidly.
Perform a basic skipping motion, but explode powerfully off each foot, using your arms to drive your body upward into the air. Aim for maximizing your vertical height rather than your horizontal motion.
#11: Single-Leg Lateral Hops
This is an advanced ankle mobility, stability, and strengthening exercise.
Put down a rope or use a line between two tiles. Keeping your core muscles tight, lift one leg off of the ground and hop back and forth across the line from side to side as fast as possible with the other leg for 30 to 60 seconds. Then switch sides.
#12: Foam Rolling
Finally, foam rolling or using a lacrosse ball to work the tissues in the front, back, and lateral compartments of the lower leg provides a form of self-myofascial release, which can help increase circulation, range of motion, and mobilize tight tissues. You can also use a massage gun with a soft foam ball tip to work the tissues surrounding your ankle in a 360° manner.
Like muscular strength, mobility can be a matter of “use it or lose it,” so it is important to consistently perform ankle mobility exercises in your workout routine to optimize your ankle range of motion and functional movement.
For more information on ranges of motion for all of your joints, check out our guide: Normal Range of Motion By Joint Explained.