Ankle rehab exercises are important because ankles are vulnerable to injury, especially in fast-paced sports that involve cutting actions and abrupt starts, stops, and direction changes. High school sports that involve particular risk to ankle injuries are soccer, tennis, football, and basketball.
Prolonged resting used to be the standard recommendation for healing a sprained injury. Researchers are finding, though, that resting and immobilizing the ankle too long decreases circulation, weakens muscles, and generally does not promote healing.
What does speed healing, reduce stiffness, and increase strength and mobility is doing sprained ankle rehab exercises. It’s important to rest your ankle long enough to bear weight without intense pain and to check with your doctor to ensure that you won’t further damage your ankle by stretching it. Once you’re cleared, don your stretchy exercise clothes, remove your socks, and get ready to exercise that ankle.
First, a few stretching and strengthening guidelines:
- You should feel a mild stretch
- “Stretch” doesn’t mean “pain,” so stop if something hurts
- You should be able to hold a stretch for about 30 seconds or do full reps of an exercise; if you can’t, stop and try something different
Ankle Strengthening Exercises
Once you can bear weight and movement doesn’t increase swelling, you can begin to strengthen your ankle. These exercises involve both resistance and balance. The American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society offers guidance on how to strengthen ankles, and Orthopedics A to Z provides helpful descriptions of these ankle strengthening exercises:
These involve gently pushing against a solid object that stays in place.
- Place the inside of your foot/ankle against an object such as a couch or ottoman and apply gentle pressure for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times
- Next, place the outside of your foot/ankle against the same object and apply gentle pressure for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
- Place your toes against the object and press your ankle downward against the object. Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat 10 times.
- Now push your ankle up against the object by placing your foot under the object and pressing upward. This, too, hold for 10 seconds and execute 10 times.
Isotonic exercises use your range of motion against resistance, frequently a resistance band.
- Place the resistance band around your foot and hold the ends in one hand. Gently push your ankle against the band then slowly return to neutral. Do 10 repetitions.
- Switch to pulling your ankle back toward you. Tie the ends of the resistance band to a fixed object, slip your foot inside the band so that the band rests over the top of your foot, point your foot down, and then pull your ankle back toward you as far as you can. Repeat 10 times.
- Now tie the band around a fixed object to the outer side of your ankle. When you slip your foot inside the band, you’ll press it against the band with your ankle moving to the side. Do this 10 times.
- Switch the band to the other side so you press your foot to the side in the other direction. Repeat 10 times.
These ankle strengthening exercise help you regain balance, coordination, and agility.
- Stand on one foot (your injured one) on a pillow. Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat 10 times.
- Using a resistance band tied to a fixed object, slip your foot into the band and swing it slowly to first the outside, then the inside, and finally back, adjusting the position of the band for each motion. Do each direction 10 times.
- Ankle circles: Sit down, rest your ankle across your opposite knee, and slowly roll it in a circle 10 times in each direction.
- Pressing stretch: Seated in the same position as with the circles, place your hand on the top of your foot and press your foot gently until your toes are pointed down as far as they can go. Repeat 10 times.
- Ankle alphabet: Leading with your big toe, draw the alphabet in the air two times.
- All direction stretch: Sit down and extend your leg so your foot is off the ground. Gently move your foot to the right and hold for 10 seconds. Move to the left and hold. Point your toes up and hold, and then move them down and hold. Repeat the sequence 10 times.
- Stair stretch: Stand on the edge of a stair with your heels off the stair. Drop your ankles down and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times. Do this stretch only after all ankle pain is gone.
Foot Strengthening Exercises
When rehabilitating your ankle after a sprain, it’s important to work on the foot too. Foot strengthening exercises help with strength and stability of the whole area. By strengthening both ankle and foot, you regain range of motion and general use, and you prevent re-injury. Try these foot strengthening exercises:
- Towel scrunch: Sit on a chair, and place your foot on a towel on the floor. Keeping your heel on the floor, try to pick up or scrunch the towel with your toes. Do this for 1-2 minutes.
- Picking up marbles: Place numerous small objects such as marbles or something similar on the floor, and put a container nearby. Sit on a chair. For 1-2 minutes, try to pick up the objects with your toes and place them in the container.
- Toe squeezes: Put small sponges or cotton balls between your toes. Squeeze your toes against the object for 3-5 seconds. Repeat 10-20 times.
Ankle rehab exercises get you back on your feet as soon as possible after an ankle injury. Ankle strengthening exercises, ankle stretches, and foot strengthening exercises all work to decrease symptoms, increase use, and prevent future re-injury. The more dedicated to rehab you are, the sooner you’ll be back into your active lifestyle.