Limitations in ankle dorsiflexion can cause quite a few functional and athletic limitations and can lead to knee disorders as well as foot and ankle problems. This leads to the desire to perform ankle mobility exercises. These types of mobility drills have become popular over the last several years and are often important components of corrective exercise and movement prep programming. Considering our postural adaptations and terrible shoe wear habits (especially if high heels), it’s no wonder that so many people have ankle mobility issues.
Several studies have been published that shown that limited dorsiflexion impacts the squat, single leg squat, step down activities, and even landing from a jump. These are all building blocks to functional movement patterns, so the importance of designing exercises to enhance dorsiflexion can not be ignored. While I will openly admit that I believe that the hip has a large influence on ankle position and mobility, it is still important to perform ankle mobility exercises. I will discuss the hip component in a future post.
There are many great ideas on the internet on how to improve dorsiflexion with ankle mobility exercise, but I wanted to accumulate some of my favourite in one place.
Ankle Mobility Exercises to Improve Dorsiflexion
As I mentioned previously, I like to use a 3-step process to maximize my gains when trying to enhance ankle dorsiflexion:
- Self-myofascial release for the calf and plantar fasica
- Stretching of the calf
- Ankle mobility drills
I prefer this order to loosen the soft tissue and maximise pliability before working on specific joint mobility. Also, I should note that I try to go barefoot during my ankle mobility exercises.
Self Myofascial Drills for Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobility
One of the more simple self myofascial release techniques for ankle mobility is foam rolling the calf. This has benefits as you can turn your body side to side and get the medial and lateral aspect of your calf along the full length. I will instruct someone to roll up and down the entire length of the muscle and tendon for up to 30 seconds. If they hit a really tender spot or trigger point, I will also have them pause at the spot for ~8-10 seconds.
What is good about the foam roller is that you can also add active ankle movements during the rolling, such as actively dorsiflexing the foot or performing ankle circles. This gives a nice release as well. Don’t forget to roll the bottom of your foot with a ball, as well, to lengthen the posterior chain tissue even further. There is a direct connect between the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon.
Stretches for Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobility
Once you are done rolling, I like to stretch the muscle. If moderate to severe restrictions exist, I will hold the stretch for about 30 seconds, but often just do a few reps of 10 seconds for most people. The classic wall lean stretch is a decent basic exercises, however, I have found that you need to be pretty tight to get a decent stretch in this position.
I usually prefer placing your foot up on a wall or step instead. The added benefit here is that you can control the intensity of the stretch by how close you are to the wall and how much you lean your body in. I also like that it extends my toes, which gives a stretch of the plantar fascia as well. For both of these stretches, be sure to not turn your foot outward. You should be neutral to point your toe in slightly (no more than an hour on a clock).
Ankle Mobility Exercises
I like to break down my ankle mobility exercises into basic and advanced, depending on the extent of your motion restriction. There are several basic drills that you can incorporate into your movement prep or corrective exercise strategies.
The first drill involves simple standing with your toes on a slight incline and moving into dorsiflexion by breaking your knees. There are many progressions including theraband, balance devices etc which can be used but I wont go into depth here with. Also hands on mobilisation and manipulation by a Physiotherapist is very important to restore joint restrictions that are not possible to fully resolve through self exercise alone.