Whenever you go hiking, head out on a nature walk, or go trail running, your feet deal with a lot of uneven ground and if you've ever sprained or twisted your ankle on the trail, you know what a bummer that can be. You might be thinking your ankles are weak, but surprisingly that isn't where the problem is. This is where proprioception exercises can help.
Try these exercises to develop your proprioceptive feedback and you'll be significantly lowering your chances of injuring your ankles. Working on this specific mind body connection in addition to strengthening muscles is the solution. Whether you're hiking, walking or running, these will go a long way to avoiding getting injured by ankle sprains.
One of the most common misnomers in the general population is that people have “weak ankles.”
You may frequently sprain your ankles, or have balance difficulties, or trip and fall a lot, or need “arch support,” or even wear prescribed orthotics. But the fact is, while most of our ankles certainly can use some strengthening, the problem is not at all that they are weak. The problem is that you don’t know where you are putting your foot when you step on it.
We have a 6th sense that is very important to us called proprioception – our body’s ability to know where it is in space without looking at it. Close your eyes, stick one arm out and do something with your hand – now mimic it on the other side without looking. Easy, right? Exactly. Your proprioceptive sense knew what the arm looked like, where it was in space, and could easily match it without using your eyes.
When you have an injury of some sort, you interrupt that proprioceptive input to your brain. And that means every single time you put your foot on the ground – level or uneven, sloped or flat – it’s a crapshoot as to whether or not it lands in the right place to take your weight.
So in order to change this, it isn’t so much making your muscles any stronger. It’s more of a question of getting the muscles to fire in the correct order and improving the sense of what your foot is doing when it’s swinging in the air during gait and when your heel strikes the ground.
1 The most basic exercise to improve all of these things is as simple as it gets: stand on one leg barefoot. Try to do it for 30 seconds without falling. If you can do that, then do it with your eyes closed – 30 seconds without putting the other foot down. This exercise is brilliant for balance and strengthening the teeny muscles of the foot and lower leg that help hold you up when you step.
2 Another set of exercises involves drawing the alphabet with your toe in the air. Take off your shoes and socks and every day write the alphabet at least once – if not 3-4 times. Try to go through the entire range of motion of your ankle.
3 To help with proprioception, one of the best ways to do that, interestingly enough, is to walk on uneven ground CAREFULLY, watching your feet. We can do all kinds of things in the clinic, but in my opinion the best way for a hiker to work this sense independently is to practice what you really need to practice – stepping on rocks and roots and uneven things.
4 Now for the hard ones. These you would do barefoot, in your home, no distractions; they take a LOT of thought. These are to recruit and then strengthen your tibialis posterior, the muscle that dynamically supports your arch.
This first one will engage this muscle by actively raising your arch:
5 This second one targets tibialis posterior by trying to rotate your tibia:
Just be careful about trying to fix your “weak ankles” by wearing high topped heavy leather boots with steel shanks in them and massive prescription orthotics. There is a middle ground, and for most of us that’s where we should be walking.
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