A stiff ankle is a huge issue after an ankle injury, but it’s not something you have to put up with. With the right stretches, self mobilizations and re-training, you can have your ankle mobile, functional and pain-free again.
Ankle stiffness and lingering ankle pain is common after injuries such as ankle sprain, Achilles tendon tear, ankle fracture and reconstruction. This is especially true for those that need to be immobilized in a moon boot or cast.
Immobilization is necessary for the injured structure to heal but it also means we get swelling bleeding and a soup of beneficial inflammatory messengers and no movement at all. it needs to be done but is the perfect recipe for tissue stiffness. A lot of people get some ankle stiffness after ankle sprains too and this isn’t down to ligament shortening but secondary soft tissue stiffness and loss of good joint motion.
The most common and limiting range of motion lost is dorsiflexion which is really important for walking and running. Dorsiflexion is where your foot comes up towards your shin, such as when your foot is planted and you step through. Without a reasonable amount of dorsiflexion, your stride is limited and you are constantly jamming up the front of your ankle.
A short term quick fix to help this is to wear shoes with a high-ish heel or put an 8mm heel wedge in your shoes. Medium to long term though, you need to get your ankle range and full function back – don’t put up with your ankle stiffness!
First, TEST your ankle range out, that way you can monitor improvements:
Our Ankle Mobility Testis easy – find out how far you can have your foot from the wall while still being able to keep your heel down and just touch your knee to the wall. This is called the knee-to-wall test for dorsiflexion range. It’s an easy way to gauge asymmetry and progress so test your non-injured leg also to get an idea of your “normal” as a goal. You can read more about this test in a past post HERE.
Great, now you know how stiff your ankle is, here’s how to work on Fixing it.
1. Self Mobilization for Stiff Ankles
Using a power band ideally but you can also use a belt, tie-down, or anything about 2-3cm in diameter, you can really gain a lot of range from your ankle. As your ankle dorsiflexes, the bottom of your shin bone, which forms a bit like a socket, glides forward and the Talus (the dome) glides back so having the band around the front of your ankle, hugging under your ankle bones (malleoli), helps assist this natural joint movement and enhance the stretch.
Work on this daily and there is no perfect amount as everyone responds differently but aim for 3 sets of 20 repetitions for a start – but listen to your body.
2. Soleus stretch for a tight lower calf
This is a very easy stretch to do but there is a key thing to make sure you are doing it well. First, have one foot flat on the step and just the balls of your other foot on the edge as shown. Hang your heel down until on stretch, keeping your calf relaxed, and then, here’s the key, bend your knee a little of the side you are stretching. this will give you a stretch lower down in your calf complex rather than high in your gastroc muscle.
Hold for at least 30seconds 1-2 times, each day.
3. Strengthen – Through the full range
There is little point in regaining some movement from your stiff ankle if you don’t re-train your body to use that range and regain good strength within the range. You likely haven’t had the full range for a while, and so also haven’t been using the muscle through the full range so it makes sense that they would be weaker than normal.
Stand on the edge of a step with one leg and bend your knee slightly (to 20-30degrees). Keep your knee fixed at that slight bend and raise your heel up and down. Doing calf raises with a bent knee loads up your soleus muscle, your deep calf muscle and importantly works it through the full range. if we did them with a straight knee, the long, superficial calf muscle (the Gastroc) would limit how low you could go.
Do 3 sets of 10 reps. if that is easy and you think you could do more – don’t – add some weight instead by holding onto some weights or a backpack etc. Do this every second day, adding weight as able to keep yourself tiring out at about 10 reps.
Too hard? If it is sore, or you aren’t strong enough for this, then start double legged with both feet doing it together.
There it is, 3 simple exercises to improve ankle stiffness. Work at it for 6 weeks at least as you will likely get improved range well before this but strength gains don’t happen much before this and to get tasting changes 6+ weeks is crucial.
You may also like: The Ultimate Sprained Ankle Rehab