Ankle sprains are among the most common injuries in athletes. Ironically, they often happen outside of an athletic activity, doing an everyday, mundane movement like walking. All it takes is a wrong landing from a jump or stepping on an uneven surface without realizing.
Average recovery time for an ankle sprain takes 2-6 weeks, with more severe cases lasting up to four months or more.
Sprains occur when we lose our balance, often off guard, and regular strength exercises and wearing the right footwear can help prevent ankle injuries and decrease recovery time.
This article takes you through the different types of sprains, why your footwear matters, and includes a few exercises to build ankle strength.
Why are Ankle Sprains so Common?
The ankle is made up of an extensive ligament structure designed to keep the ankle stable and prevent it from moving inward or outward. They also help maintain balance at the ankle.
If it seems like you keep rolling your ankle once you’ve rolled it previously that is because the ligaments lose some strength and flexibility after a tear. The ankle heals, but has scar tissue, and will never be the same as it once was.
Uneven surfaces, like trails or cracked sidewalks will test your ankle after injury. This is because ankle sprains affect our proprioception, which is the body’s ability to sense movement and location. Proprioception is why we can walk without looking at our feet.
A weak ankle means that your muscles won’t react appropriately when you jump or step down from heights, resulting in another rolled ankle.
Different Types of Ankle Sprains
There are two main types of ankle sprain injuries: lateral and medial sprains.
Lateral sprains, also known as inversion sprains, are the most common. This is when the foot rolls to the inside and you experience pain on the outside of the ankle.
Common causes of ankle injuries include:
- Walking or running on uneven surfaces
- Landing awkwardly from a jump
- Playing high impact sports where your foot might become trapped, like soccer or basketball
Your Shoes and Ankle Health
A common assumption among hikers or those who suffer from frequent ankle injuries that high top boots provide more support and therefore prevent ankle sprains.
However, we at Lems believe that a minimalist or zero-drop shoe is the ideal footwear for anyone with a recurring ankle injury and for those who want to avoid them in the first place.
Traditional shoes have elevated heels, which force the lower leg bones to sit further back on the posterior, more narrow part of the ankle. This position is much less stable and more susceptible to injury.
In minimalist and zero-drop shoes, the feet are parallel or near parallel to the ground and lower the foot’s center of gravity. Further, minimalist shoes tend to have softer soles. Both of these features allow for improved tactile feedback from the ground and the foot can adjust more quickly to avoid ankle rolls on varied terrain.
Additionally, splayed toes in the wider toe boxes of minimalist shoes provide more surface area for the feet, discouraging ankle rolls.
Finally, minimalist shoes encourage strengthening the muscles, ligaments, and joints of the foot that have been damaged and manipulated by traditional footwear. Stronger feet means injury reduction.
Exercises for Avoiding Ankle Injuries
Keeping ankles healthy in the first place is the key to preventing injuries. This is especially true if you have sprained your ankle previously.
The following exercises will help strengthen your ankles and increase mobility with the goal of avoiding those annoying sprains.
Always check with a doctor or physical therapist before engaging in any exercise.
Warm Up Stretches
Prior to hitting the trail do this short ankle warm up to increase flexibility.
Using a long elastic exercise band, or yoga strap, sit on the ground with your legs forward. Take the strap or band around the ball of one foot and push away from your body, against the pressure. Do this 30 times.
Take the strap in your left hand and hold it out to the side. Push your foot inward, toward the right. Perform the same movement on the other side.
Ask a friend or use a table to loop the band or strap around the top of your foot. Pull your foot back toward your body.
Depending on your ankle strength and whether you’re currently recovering from an ankle injury, there are varying ways to perform a calf raise.
Seated - While sitting in a chair with both feet on the ground, lift one heel as high as you can while keeping the toes on the floor for up to 30 repetitions. Repeat on the other side.
Standing - Perform the same exercise as above, only do so while standing. If you need help with balance, do this against a wall for support.
Elevated calf raise - Again, this is the same movement, only this time you are on a raised surface. You can use a stair or yoga block or another object that has a bit of height. Use a bannister or wall for balance, if needed.
Take any object to act as a divider, like a rope, towel, or yoga mat. Hop side to side over the object landing on just one foot. Repeat up to 30 times total.
In addition, any balancing exercise will greatly benefit the ankles.