As runners, we all know a thing or two about pain. Pain presents itself to us in many forms. There’s post-workout soreness to the point where getting out of bed is tough. Then there’s the type of pain stemming from an injury. I consider this the worst kind of pain because it’s always on your mind. Pain can be expected as a part of any journey, but that doesn’t mean that it should consume you or keep you from doing the things that you love.
I severely sprained my ankle a few years ago while out on a trail run. After a professional examination, I found that I had partially torn three ligaments in my ankle. I was instructed not to run for at least a month. Great. This was a huge blow physically, but even more mentally. I had finally started to enjoy running, and I had to stop. Luckily, with patience and time, I was able to return to running pain-free.
Before I tell you how I resolved my ankle “break-down”, let’s break down the ankle. The foot and ankle are made up of numerous bones, joints, and muscles. For the sake of all of our sanity, I will only go through some of the major players and movements.
The ankle has two primary movements: plantarflexion and dorsiflexion. Plantarflexion is the act of pointing your foot & toes “down” (think: ballerina). Plantarflexion is primarily a result of the gastrocnemius (the top two heads of your calf muscle) and soleus (the muscle under your gastrocnemius) contracting, causing your heel to rise and your foot to lower. Dorsiflexion is the opposite of plantarflexion; foot & toes pull up, closing the space between the top of your foot & your shin. Dorsiflexion is primarily driven by your tibialis anterior (muscle right along your shin) and extensor digitorum longus (muscles located on the outside of the tibialis anterior) contracting, bringing your foot toward your body.
Ok, that was a lot, I know. What do those movements mean for runners? If we think of our lower leg as a spring, plantarflexion would be the spring extending after compression. Dorsiflexion would be the compression of the spring. In order to properly absorb the shock of landing and spring into the next step, dorsiflexion must happen. Dorsiflexion should happen between your foot pushing off the ground and landing in front of you.
Now that we understand the ankle better, let’s dive into how you can get back into running after an ankle sprain. The most important step is to walk at least 2–3 times per week and increase the distance and speed of those walks over time. Ideally, get to 30+ minutes of power walking before running again. In addition to the walks, you can strengthen the movement of your ankles.
This video shows three separate ankle exercises you can try twice per week. The first exercise is a tibialis raise, which will directly work on dorsiflexion. The second exercise is a calf raise with bent knees, which will target the soleus and work plantarflexion. The third exercise is a straight leg calf raise, which will target the gastrocnemius and work plantarflexion.
In addition, some form of weighted carry can be beneficial for loading the ankle in a safer manner. Grab some dumbbells or kettlebells and set a 1-minute timer. You can hold them at your side, overhead, or rest them on your shoulders. Doing 3 total sets of 1 minute should be plenty, and with time, you can increase the weight.
If you want extra guidance and a personalized plan from a team of professionals on your journey back to pain-free running, book a Success Strategy Session with a coach at Global Human Performance. A sprained ankle doesn’t have to be a life-sentence: let us help you move pain-free again.