Joint by Joint: Feet and Ankles

Injuries suck. Multiple injuries suck more.

Even at the age of 23, I’m no stranger to injury. I’ve broken bones in my feet, fingers, wrists, arms, and I’ve broken my collarbone. Additionally, I have torn muscles in my legs and shoulders. I am currently recovering from a lumbar fusion. Being injured so much has instilled in me the importance of injury prevention, paying attention to my body and being thorough when it comes to body maintenance. The sheer volume of my injuries may indicate that I am the last person to listen to when it comes to injury prevention. However, following each of my recent injuries, I researched how to prevent future injury in those same areas. Recently, I’ve found Mike Boyle’s book, The Joint by Joint Approach, which is effective in building structurally balanced athletes. I’d simply like to put his theory into practical terms that everyone can understand.

A synopsis of his book can be found here:

Joint by Joint Approach

Everybody’s inclination is to treat what hurts, and sometimes only the areas that hurt. This usually includes stretching and icing. Often times, I see people foam rolling or focusing trigger point techniques on their lower back. When asked why, they say, “my back hurts.” Instead, I’ll lead them through hip flexor and/or glute static stretches. In a matter of minutes, their back relaxes and they are no longer in pain.

By focusing on the most basic elements of physical activity, we can prevent many common injuries. This series presents a simple, structured way of looking at the body. More specifically, we will outline detailed but practical mobility procedures that can be easily applied by athletes on all levels.

Taking a ground-up approach to this series, we’ll start with the feet and ankles. The ankles, hips, thoracic spine (upper back), and gleno-humeral (shoulder) joints all require mobility. For these we will combine self-myofascial release techniques using foam rollers, lacrosse and baseballs, along with traditional static/dynamic stretching, resistance/Voodoo band traction, and techniques using other effective equipment.

Here is my suggestion for general mobility, no matter the area. If you are using this as a warm-up, just shorten it:

  1. Foam Roll – 20 passes or until the target area relaxes.
  2. Lacrosse Ball, Golf Ball, or Baseball (SURELY COMING SOON: some new gimmicky money-making tool that resembles one of the aforementioned balls) – apply direct pressure to the tightest area on the muscle for 30 seconds-2 minutes.
  3. Static Stretching – anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. If you are hanging around the house, start by holding stretches for 5 minutes at a time.
  4. Dynamic Stretching – at least 10 reps or as long as it takes to achieve the mobility required for the following training session or competition.

The Foot

Our feet are the body’s greatest sensor for input material, and they are meant to decipher the texture and shape of the ground. Moreover, our feet tell us how far we can run. Because there are 26 bones in each foot that are held together by about 130 muscles and ligaments, ankle stability and strength is paramount. Padding the foot by wearing running/lifting shoes weakens the foot’s stability over time, and this can lead to injuries if not monitored. Do you ever wonder why the soccer athlete, who does much more shifting and changing direction than any other athlete, has very few ankle problems? It is because their footwear is minimal.

Here are drills (used daily by the Sports Science Lab with Troy Polamalu years ago) that strengthen the foot and promote ankle mobility without the necessity of becoming a granola crunching, no deodorant wearing barefoot runner:

Foot/Ankle PVC Drill

No excuses – we need stability and mobility in every joint. Here is a useful foot mobility drill (it’s pretty complicated, so break out the notepad and take some notes).

Foot Rolling Drill

Again, if the foot is jacked up, something else will eventually become jacked up. Being an athlete may mean your body is more resilient than the average person, but over time, imbalances lead to and cause injuries.

The Ankle

Firstly, the ankle should be mobile. Very mobile. Every sprain, break, or roll we encounter induces mobility loss. Our bodies naturally stiffen to prevent re-injury, but that in turn compromises the joints and surrounding areas.

You may have noticed that the ankle has many ranges of motion: dorsiflexion (think of calf raises), plantar (think of touching your toes to your shins), inversion (think of kicking your ankle in), eversion (think of kicking your ankle out), and pro/supination (Think touching the bottom or top of your feet together). We need all of these, but dorsiflexion is the most important for athletes; although, on the field, inversion and eversion are very important as well.

Here is an in-depth ankle specific mobility progression including rolling, ball work, static stretching with band traction, and finally dynamic stretching with band traction.

Ankle Mobility Progression

The System

To conclude, I want to reiterate that every part of the body is connected. When a muscle is stiff, there is always a reason. Usually there was a past injury directly to the stiff area or to an adjacent joint. This is very apparent in the hips and lower back.

Even if you are just in for a mobility session on a recovery day, always follow up the mobility work with stability exercises targeting the antagonist group (opposite muscle group). In this case, the antagonist is the tibialis anterior (on the outside of the shin bone). After our calf stretches, we may do something like this:

Ankle Walks

Once you achieve optimal mobility in a joint, you don’t necessarily have to spend extra time on mobility. If you perform your strength and conditioning exercises with a full ROM on every rep, your body should remain mobile. One tip I recently got from Chad Vaughn (2008 USA Olympian in Weightlifting) was to occasionally begin lifting sessions with isometric holds in the bottom of various squats. His favorite version is a narrow grip, pigeon toed, ass-to-grass overhead squat with a 10 second hold at the bottom. If you can do this successfully without compromising the lower back, then you have the prerequisite mobility for a wide variety of athletic movements.

So Why Does Any of This Matter?

Have you ever seen an elite Olympic weight lifter that cannot squat below parallel? No! Ankle mobility is one of the key components. It is no secret that an NFL offensive line coach looks at player’s ankle mobility. If their mobility is poor, they cannot get into the proper stance. Again, as an athlete, we must think of injuries in terms of cause and effect as mentioned above. If there is an ankle problem, there will soon be problems elsewhere. If our ankles are immobile, then we will compensate and favor our knees. This can lead to infamous, troublesome ACL tears.

More on the knee in the next part of our series.

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