The ankle joint is an extremely important structure for functional ability, whether it pertains to daily activities or high performance sport. This joint needs to be strong to withstand the demands placed on it, but it also needs to move well in order to function normally.
In this article, we will discuss some simple ankle mobility drills for improving ankle mobility that can be used in many different settings, including prehab, rehab, sport-specific training, and general fitness.
Early Ankle Mobility and Proprioception
Ankle mobility exercises are usually fairly basic in the early stages of recovery after an injury, as we need to ensure that an adequate environment for healing is maintained while restoring function to the ankle joint.
These exercises are nice because they can help to restore some of your ankle mobility and proprioception, and they can done in a pain-free manner, or in non-weight bearing positions if needed.
Seated Ankle Dorsiflexion and Plantarflexion: Sitting in a chair, find a surface that your foot can easily slide on. Then, keeping your foot flat on the ground, push your foot away from you to achieve an ankle plantarflexion position, and then slide it backwards to work through ankle dorsiflexion range of motion.
This ankle mobility exercise should be pain-free, but you may feel some ankle joint restriction at the end of your available range of motion, or a bit of a stretch in the Achilles tendon.
A good starting point for this one is 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
Seated Ankle Proprioception on a Wobble Board: This ankle mobility exercise does require some equipment, ideally a circular wobble board. In a seated position, place your foot in the centre of the wobble board maintaining full contact the entire time.
Without moving your thigh or lifting your foot at all, try to press one edge of the wobble board down so it just touches the floor, then try and make a circle in a very slow and controlled manner, which will help target all movements involved with ankle joint mobility.
Even with full ankle range of motion, this exercise can be challenging to maintain contact of the edge of the wobble board to the floor for a full circle, especially if the board is on one of its higher settings or you are starting out with poor ankle mobility.
The goal is to simply move through your maximum available pain-free range of motion with control. A good starting point for this exercises is 3 sets of 5 repetitions (or 5 circles) each way.
Tracing the Alphabet: I get a lot of eye rolls from patients for this one, and I understand why. It’s boring, tedious, and doesn’t feel like much. However, it’s an excellent ankle mobility exercise when you’ve just been cleared to move the ankle, but still need to ensure significant protection.
This exercise needs to be done with focus to have the best results. That means not rushing it, but also working hard to visualize the alphabet and tracing it as accurately as you can.
By going beyond simple ankle circles and tracing the alphabet, this will help improve ankle mobility, proprioception, and coordination, which can really help optimize your recovery while protecting the ankle joint.
A good starting point for this exercise is one alphabet per day, tracing it within your maximum available pain-free range of motion.
Ankle Dorsiflexion Exercises
Ankle dorsiflexion mobility, which is the movement of bringing the top of the foot up towards your shin (or “toes to nose”) is one of the most important movements at the ankle joint, especially when you are on your feet.
For example, a reasonable degree of dorsiflexion is required for normal walking, as this movement has to occur as your body moves over top of your stance leg, and also to clear your foot from the ground when you swing your leg forwards.
Less intuitive, but equally important, situations can include something like walking down stairs. If your right foot is on a step and you are bringing the left foot down to the next step, your right ankle needs substantial dorsiflexion to accommodate this.
Therefore, limited ankle mobility, particularly in regards to limited ankle dorsiflexion, can certainly have a negative impact on daily activities.
More specifically to sport and fitness settings, the importance of ankle dorsiflexion range of motion cannot be overstated, as it will allow for optimal performance, and peer-reviewed research has shown that reduced ankle dorsiflexion is a significant risk factor for ankle sprains.
Many things can cause limited ankle dorsiflexion. For example, tight calf muscles and/or Achilles tendon, stiff joints, swelling, and pain, can all limit ankle dorsiflexion substantially, thus leading to poor ankle mobility.
We will discuss some ankle mobility exercises below to help improve ankle dorsiflexion, whether it be more joint limitations or muscular stiffness.
These exercises are often initiated after the inflammatory phase of healing, but nevertheless, we highly recommend checking in with your local physical therapist to ensure you aren’t doing too much and negatively affecting your recovery.
In the most basic sense, if anything crossing the back of the ankle joint by the heel bone is tight, then it will be harder to dorsiflex the ankle and will reduce ankle mobility overall.
In this case, the most common culprits are the calf muscles, namely gastrocnemius and soleus. Together, these muscles form the Achilles tendon, which attaches to the back of the ankle. Stretching the calf muscles can be an effective way to improve ankle dorsiflexion (Terada et al, 2013)
When stretching these muscles, it is often recommended to try placing an emphasis on each muscle one at a time, especially if it is suspected that one of the muscles may be tighter than the other. Here is how you can bias each calf muscle when you are stretching.
Gastrocnemius Stretch: Place the ankle to be stretched behind your body. Keep your foot flat on the ground, particularly your heel. Lean forwards keeping your knee as straight as possible without letting your heel lift off the ground until you feel a mild to moderate stretch.
This should not be painful, and doing 3 repetitions of 20-30 second holds should be a good starting point.
*** If you are unable to perform the gastrocnemius stretch in a standing weight bearing position, you can also do this while sitting down. In that case, place the ankle to be stretched out in front of you and maintain a straight knee. Use a belt or towel to achieve the stretch by wrapping it under your midfoot or forefoot and pulling up on the foot to acquire an ankle dorsiflexion position.
This should be pain free, and performing 3 repetitions of 20-30 second holds is a good starting point.
Soleus Stretch: To bias the soleus muscle more, simply do the exact same thing as the gastrocnemius stretch above, but maintain a slight knee bend. This will put the gastrocnemius muscle on slack while maintaining tension on the soleus muscle. You may feel the stretch sensation shift a little lower down towards your ankle.
*** If you are unable to perform the soleus stretch in a standing weight bearing position, you can also do these sitting down similar to the seated gastrocnemius stretch. In this case, just make sure you are keeping your knee slightly bent.
Ankle Dorsiflexion Passive Range of Motion (PROM)
In order to place a greater emphasis on the ankle joint itself, you can do the following simple ankle mobility drill almost anywhere, the only caveat is it requires you to be on one knee, so if you have knee pain you may need a pillow or other form of cushion to kneel on.
Ankle Dorsiflexion PROM: This is one of the most simple and effective ankle mobility drills you can do for ankle dorsiflexion PROM and general mobility.
Position yourself in a half kneel position, which is the same as “taking a knee”. Keeping your foot flat on the ground without losing contact between the ground and your heel, move your knee forward and backward over top of the ankle.
As you move forwards, try to push into a little bit of ankle stiffness, but keep it pain-free.
10-15 repetitions at a time should be more than enough, but for really stiff ankles, you may want to do this multiple times a day assuming you are able to keep it pain-free.
Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobilization With Movement (MWM): Most joints in the body need to have some component of a glide to achieve full range of motion, so restoring these glides while working on the motion itself can be an effective way to improve ankle dorsiflexion mobility (Hoch and McKeon, 2010).
For example, at the talocrural joint of the ankle, which is where most of your dorsiflexion and plantarflexion comes from, needs to glide a little bit as it rolls into each position, making it an important factor to consider in order to improve ankle mobility.
In the case of ankle dorsiflexion, the talus (ankle bone) needs to glide posteriorly (backwards), or if the foot is fixed on the ground, the tibia (shin bone) needs to glide anteriorly (forwards).
The problem with these glides is you cannot voluntarily perform these subtle joint movements; however, you can try to glide the joint passively with an external force when you are attempting to restore that glide.
To do this in an exercise, simply perform ankle dorsiflexion PROM as depicted above, but wrap a stiff around the back of your shin bone very close to the ankle with a lot of tension on it. As you go through your ankle dorsiflexion PROM movement, the band will apply a bit of force helping the tibia glide forwards as the joint rolls into dorsiflexion.
A key thing to keep in mind when it comes to mobilization with movement is that it needs to be pain-free, otherwise you may just irritate things or cause some inflammation, which can defeat the purpose of trying to improve ankle mobility.
If you can perform this exercise in a pain-free manner, a good starting point is 2 sets of 15 repetitions, which can be adjusted according to tolerance and/or effect.
Ankle Plantarflexion Exercises
Ankle plantarflexion isn’t usually as limited as dorsiflexion after an ankle injury, and stretching into plantarflexion is typically something to avoid for the first few weeks to months with some ankle injuries, particularly lateral ankle sprains involving injury to the ATFL ligament.
However, once the injured structures are healed and a physical therapist clears you to start pushing your plantarflexion mobility, you can do a couple very simple exercises to improve this limited ankle mobility.
First, the sliding ankle plantarflexion and dorsiflexion exercise mentioned above will work, but the following two stretches provide a little more intensity.
Seated Ankle Plantarflexion Stretch: This is a good way to stretch your ankle with control, but it requires a suitable level of hip mobility. For this stretch, bring the injured ankle up to your opposite knee, hold the top of your foot and ankle with your hand, and gradually pull the ankle down into a plantarflexed position.
A good starting point for this stretch would be 3 reps with 20-30s holds, and it should not be painful.
Standing Ankle Plantarflexion Stretch: While I like the seated version better, many people don’t have the hip mobility to do it comfortably, so you can always switch to a standing position.
In this case, make sure you have some good hand support nearby. Place the ankle to be stretched behind you with your toes on the ground, then lean forwards to continue bringing the ankle into a plantarflexed position.
Many people prefer wearing shoes for this one due to some pressure on the toes, but some also like it without shoes. Additionally, those with significantly limited ankle mobility may find it just a bit too uncomfortable.
Again, a good starting point for this stretch would be 3 reps with 20-30s holds, keeping it pain-free.
Ankle Inversion and Eversion Mobility
The ankle also needs to perform inversion and eversion, much of which comes from the subtalar joint, which is the joint between the talus (one of the main ankle bones) and the calcaneus (heel bone).
There is much less inversion and eversion available at the ankle relative to plantarflexion and dorsiflexion, but it’s still important and these motions can sometimes stiffen up after injuries. Therefore, restoring full ankle inversion and eversion can help improve ankle mobility.
Seated Ankle Inversion and Eversion Stretches or PROM: For this ankle mobility exercise, in a seated position, bring the injured ankle up to your opposite knee. Hold your heel bone and gently bring it inwards to stretch into an inverted position, or outwards to stretch into an everted position.
This can be held as a stretch, in which case 3 reps of 20-30s holds is a good starting point, otherwise I personally prefer 3 sets of 15 repetitions if working it as a passive range of motion (PROM) exercise.
These specific stretches are usually left until late in the rehab process, as they can be fairly specific towards ligaments that have been sprained. Only perform these stretches if full ligament healing has been confirmed.
Stretching into ankle inversion is usually avoided in the early to middle phases of rehab for a lateral ankle sprain, especially if the ATFL, CFL or PTFL ligaments are involved, as healing the ligaments needs to happen before pushing ankle mobility.
Subtalar Joint Glides for Ankle Inversion and Eversion
A physical therapist can also perform subtalar joint glides if the joint itself is restricted into these movement patterns. While theoretically possible to do this on your own, I prefer leaving it up to an experienced professional to do this, as it’s pretty specific and quite challenging to do properly on your own.
Lower Body Strength
We won’t go into any specific strength exercises here, but we wanted to quickly mention the importance of strength for overall functional mobility.
Restoring ankle and general lower body strength can help improve overall stability, which can improve ease of motion in a functional sense.
For example, if your tibialis anterior muscle is injured or de-conditioned, it can be much more challenging to actively dorsiflex the ankle, so you may have challenges clearing your foot and toes from the ground when walking or running, even if you have full passive dorsiflexion range of motion.
This is just one specific example of how strength can directly feed into ankle mobility. When in doubt, ask your physical therapist if there is any strengthening you can be doing to improve your ankle mobility, as they can guide you based on your specific injury or condition.
This summary of different ankle mobility exercises is by no means exhaustive, but we hope it helps provide a good starting point for working on your ankle mobility, and ideally provides you with some new ideas.
Like anything else, less is more when you’re first starting out, and as you assess your response to these exercises, you can progress accordingly. We always recommend checking in with a physical therapist in-person to ensure safety and optimal results.
Hoch, M. C., & McKeon, P. O. (2010). The effectiveness of mobilization with movement at improving dorsiflexion after ankle sprain. J Sport Rehabil, 19(2), 226-232.
Terada, M., Pietrosimone, B. G., & Gribble, P. A. (2013). Therapeutic interventions for increasing ankle dorsiflexion after ankle sprain: a systematic review. Journal of athletic training, 48(5), 696-709.
The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.