With every step you take, the mass of your body is supported and stabilized by your ankles.
Athletes, coaches and doctors acknowledge that the ankle is the most frequently injured joint in sport. But with a little strengthening work, you'll greatly reduce chances of injury and become a much more capable, and sure-footed, athlete.
This is especially true if you've already had a serious sprain (ligament injury) or strain (muscle or tendon injury). These tend to reoccur. Sprain an ankle and you're more likely to sprain it again. But strengthening the tendons, ligaments and muscles of the ankle can eliminate residual weaknesses that cause repeated problems.
One of the easiest exercises to work the ankle is the simple balance move of standing on one foot. It can be done anywhere and at any time. Make sure that if you balance on one foot, you spend equal time balancing on the other. Practice proprioception, the awareness of where your body is in space, by shutting your eyes as you do this balancing act.
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To stretch and strengthen the ankle's tissues, and expand its range of motion, sit in a chair, lift one leg and slowly move the foot around in a circle. Continue for 30-45 seconds, then change the direction of the circle. Repeat with the other foot. You may feel the pressure of the stretch, but you should feel no pain.
Resistance bands are excellent for ankle strengthening. These inexpensive devices can be found in the fitness sections of most big-box stores. They come in different strengths. Start with a lightweight band at first. You don't want to put too much physical stress on your ankles, though you do need enough resistance to make the ankle work.
Start by sitting on the floor, feet in front. With the center of the band under the ball of one foot, pull both ends back tightly. Press your foot down against the resistance. Repeat 10 times, then switch feet.
Next, tie the band around a sturdy table or couch leg, making a loop. With your foot upright at the center of the loop, move out until you have stretched the band out enough to make it difficult to turn the foot sideways against the resistance. If you begin by turning the foot outward, do 10-15 reps and then change position so you have resistance when you turn your foot inward, toward the other leg.
Next, put the looped center of the band on top of your foot and move your body out so you can lift your foot upward against the resistance. One of the safest ways to strengthen the ankle is with isometric exercises. This involves sitting on the floor and pressing your foot against something solid and immovable, like a wall or couch leg. Cushion your foot with a shoe. Press the side of your foot hard against it in one direction (outward, for example), then turn around and press in the opposite direction. Don't bend your ankle. Turn to face the wall or couch leg and press your foot down against it. Hold each position for a count of 15.
Finally, check your shoes to see if you are well balanced on your ankles and feet. If you are over-pronating, or rolling your ankle and foot inward, the inside front of your shoe sole will be more worn than the outside part of the sole. If you're supinating, or rolling your ankle and foot outward, the outside edge of your sole will be more worn down.
Over-pronation or supination can cause pain in other joints of the body, as well as make it easier to sprain an ankle. This problem is especially important to fix if you do a lot of foot-striking, for example, if you're a runner. It can often be fixed with an orthotic or a good pair of running shoes.
But it doesn't matter what kind of athlete you are. Whether you're a soccer player or a triathlete, strong ankles will keep you going longer and faster than you ever thought possible.
Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly, which offers training, diet and athletic information.