Your body is like an elaborate domino setup. If one thing is off, chances are the whole thing's going down.
As much as we love to target specific areas of our body during workouts (hey there, abs and booty), it's worth remembering that your body isn't a bunch of separate sections. Like that giant Jenga set at your fave bar, everything is connected. While you can pull out a piece here and there, the tower won't stand (or withstand a drunken table bump) if it isn't solid.
In case you couldn't tell, that Jenga tower is your body. And guess what's the base? Your feet and ankles. (Mind-blowing, we know.) Mess with those babies, and you can bet it's all going to be crumbling down.
"Your body is a kinetic chain," says Jason Barone, regional clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy in Wilton, CT. Everything works together to create movement. Why that matters: Having issues in one spot can cause other things to go awry.
"If you have very weak and unstable ankles, that can make you more susceptible to a knee injury, to a hip injury—it can even lead to problems with your low back," he says. If weak or immobile ankles are affecting your walking or running gait, over time that repetition is likely to cause one issue or another, whether it's chronic tendonitis (like runner's knee), hip bursitis (inflammation of the bursa, which acts as a cushion for the outside of your hip bone), or IT band issues, says Barone. The biggest ankle issues boil down to two major problems: 1) lack of ankle mobility, and 2) weak ankles. It's ideal to have a balance between ankle strength and flexibility, says Barone—just like with all your muscles. But über-busy schedules, footwear, injuries, and natural anatomy can make it tough to maintain that balance without making an effort.
1. Poor Ankle Mobility
How many times have you dashed out the door for a HIIT workout or a quick run around the neighborhood without a proper warm-up? Then then immediately return to hop in the shower, eat, and speed off to work or another commitment, without a proper cool-down stretch? If that do-and-dash workout sounds familiar, there's a good chance you have tight calves, which translates to limited ankle mobility. "If you're always strengthening and never stretching, that's going to be problematic," says Barone. (Try this total-body mobility workout to keep you injury-free for life.)
"The most common issue I see as a personal trainer is the lack of ankle mobility, particularly when trying to flex the feet," says Jonathan Jordan, a Tier 3+ personal trainer and group fitness instructor at Equinox in San Francisco. "When you lack sufficient range of motion, the body figures out other ways to get the job done," he says, even if that means causing other issues down the line.
For example, proper ankle mobility is necessary to do a squat with good form. Tight calves and heel cords (the Achilles tendon, or the tendons that run from the heel bone to the calf muscles) might cause your heels to pop up during squats, which "can cause pain and damage to your knees, disengage your glutes, and, practically speaking, you're likely to fall down," says Jordan.
Here's Jordan's go-to drill for testing ankle mobility: Start in a half-kneeling lunge with the front toes about five inches away from a wall. Gently reach knee forward knee toward the wall. See how close you can get to the wall without letting your heel pop up. If you can't reach the wall, you'd benefit from working on your ankle mobility. (Be sure to test both sides.)
- Warm up and cool-down: For starters, make sure you're warming up and cooling down pre- and post-workout. Try a five-minute dynamic warm-up and a few minutes of stretching afterward (like this head-to-toe cool-down), says Barone.
- Spend time stretching: Twice each week, dedicate 15 minutes to some total-body stretching, allowing 30 seconds for each stretch to really lengthen the muscles, he says.
- Foam roll: Jordan also recommends foam rolling calves for 90 seconds to two minutes, working up and down the muscle as well as rocking side to side. "This will help reduce tension in the calf muscles and minimize pulling on the ankle joint from the Achilles tendon," he says.
- Ditch the heels: If you're an avid high-heel-wearer, you might want to consider swapping for flats or sneaks (like these sneakers that are cute enough to wear to work or happy hour). If you want the inches under your feet, at least be sure to stretch your calves post-wear: "Wearing high heels will cause tight heel cords and calves, really limiting ankle mobility," says Barone. (BTW, high heels aren't the only accessories hurting your body.)
2. Wobbly, Weak Ankles
Weak ankles are super common, says Jordan, "meaning the muscles, attachments, and connective tissues around the ankles are weak or lengthened, which can lead to 'wobbly' or 'flimsy' feet." This can be a result of genetics or a past injury (like straining or spraining your ankle). "You have to think of the ligaments around the ankle as a kind of rubber band," says Barone. "If you overstretch that rubber band, it may never go back to the way it was before."
Usually, people with weak ankles can tell because they lack proper support and usually suffer from poor balance and frequent injuries, says Jordan. Not only do those injuries (even minor ones) mean time away from the gym, but they also may encourage improper movement patterns. "Our bodies are amazing at doing whatever we ask it to do," says Jordan. "It will always try and find strength wherever it can to produce the movement you are requesting of it—and it's not always pretty." (Here: more common bone and joint problems or active women.)
If you find yourself rolling your ankle often or feel unstable on uneven surfaces, you may have weak ankles, says Barone. If you have an acute injury or are in pain for more than a week, you should always go see a professional, he says—but if you think you lack general ankle stability, you can do some of these move to strengthen the joints.
- Ankle letters: This is the perfect multitasking activity for solo Netflix and chilling. Sit in a chair and imagine you are writing the entire alphabet from A to Z with your feet, making each letter as sharp, pronounced, and large as possible, says Jordan. "This helps mobilize the talocrural and other joints of the foot," he says, and it's great for after foam rolling.
- Ankle gliding: Grab a resistance band and tie it around a table leg, pole, or other anchor, making a loop. Stretch the loop until there's tension and place one foot inside, the band looped right around the ankle joint. "Be sure it fits snugly underneath both your malleoli (the ankle bones on each side of your foot)," says Jordan. Elevate your toes a few inches by placing it on a cushion or mat. With the knee bent, gently glide shin forward. Shift back to start, then glide forward again. (P.S. Jordan has a how-to video for this exercise on his website.)