Ankle Strength for Trail Runners

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2015 Trail Times newsletter.

Written by Stephen R. Santagelo

The foundation of strength begins at the ground and works up. The ankles are the number one body part in developing that foundation.

Do you know muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones of the feet, including the ankles and hands make up nearly 50% of the total structure for the entire body? That should tell you how important it is to build strength, flexibility and mobility in the feet and ankles.

Think about how often the feet are activated within a training session or competition. The stronger your foot/ankle is, the greater the applications of ground force are. The ankles and feet are critical for absorbing ground force and stabilizing the body. In turn you will run faster, jump higher and change direction more effectively; all important aspects to good trail running.

Trail runners are unique in that their body absorbs a tremendous amount of force from the rugged, uneven terrain and must possess strength and stability, in the ankles, to accept such forces, to prevent injury. What happens to weak ankles when a great amount of force is applied and the ankle loses stability and lacks flexibility and joint mobility? You sprain it, strain it, fracture it or break it. It’s more common to strain or sprain the ankle rather than break it.

I have been a proponent of ankle strength for nearly 40 years and include it in every training program for all my clients!

It has been a misnomer for decades that squats, lunges, leg press, calf raises of all variations strengthen the ankles; absolutely not. None of these exercises effectively work the anatomical function of the ankle. The ankle is designed to extend the foot, dorsi flex the foot while the leg is in a straight or bent position. Also, the attachments surrounding the ankle will pull the foot inward or push the foot out as well as rotate the foot.

Pictured are the three best exercises to accomplish this with the use of resistance bands through extension, dorsi flex and rotation. The emphasis is on eccentric strength and mobility by developing the relationship of the gastrocnemius, soleus and anterior tibialis with proper ankle motor patterns.

First, wrap the band around the ball of your foot — not the midsole. Attaching the band around the ball of the foot creates the proper leverage to stimulate the ligaments and tendons of the ankle in relation to the calf muscles.

Secondly, pull the band tight and hold continuous tension throughout the movement.

Always wear firm shoes with thick soles with a lot of deep patterns/texture such as trail running shoes. This will prevent the band from slipping off your foot. Never perform these exercises barefoot or in tennis shoes. With the lack of support, the band will cut off circulation to the foot!

Third, use a band tension which only allows you to perform 15-16 reps per foot, per exercise.

Exercise #1: Extension: Holding the band with both hands, pull the foot back as far as possible; hold for 2 seconds. Next, extend the toes forward as far as possible and hold for 2 seconds. Do 15-16 reps with each foot

Exercise #2; Dorsi Flexion: Rather than holding the band, attach or have a partner pull the band away from you. Repeat guidelines as you did in exercise #1.

Exercises #3 & #4: Rotational: Set up as you did in exercises #1 and #2 except this time rotate your ankle clockwise for 15-16 reps and then counterclockwise for the same number of reps.

Once you have experienced good control and strength with these positions move from straight leg to variations of the bent knee position.

Always perform these exercises on your strength training days and choose two different variations as part of your dynamic warm up prior to your run on the trails and feel the difference!