In order to squat, lunge, walk, and run effectively, the ankle joint must be mobile. However, the ankle is prone to stiffness and can be a lynch pin of function and performance.
One of the reasons for loss of ankle mobility is modern footwear. Many shoes limit the available range of motion of the foot bones. In addition, many shoes have large heel drops. Wearing shoes with an elevated heel can create adaptive shortening of the calf muscles and Achilles tendon. This can limit the ability to dorsiflex or fold at the ankle.
Previous injury can also cause limited ankle mobility. Repeated ankle sprains can cause a sensation of pinching in the front of the ankle with end range dorsiflexion.
Common medical diagnoses that go hand in hand with poor ankle mobility include Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. Lack of ankle mobility causes movement compensations at the knee and hip and can result in pain and early wear and tear in those joints.
One of the most common movement compensations is caving of the knees during squats and lunging.
When insufficient ankle mobility is coupled with poor engagement of the glutes and core, the foot may tend to over-pronate or excessively flatten during walking, running, squatting, or lunging. Sometimes the opposite holds true. The body may brace against pronation resulting in over-supination and an excessively high arch.
A simple way to test ankle mobility is the knee to wall test. Place your foot on a tape strip that is 4 inches away from the wall. With your foot in a neutral position, attempt to touch your knee to the wall without caving at your arch or knee. Do not let your heel come off the ground.
If you can touch the wall without arch or knee compensation and without letting the heel lift off, you have sufficient ankle mobility.
When addressing ankle mobility it is important to address stiffness in the calf muscles as well as impingement that may be occurring at the front of the ankle.
Mobilization of the calves can be done with a lacrosse ball or foam roll.
Mobilization of the joint can be done with a distraction band. The band helps create some space at the joint, which may help you, clear an uncomfortable pinch.
Simple stretches that can be done to improve ankle mobility include calf stretching against the wall as well as the half-kneeling ankle dorsiflexion with a dowel.
The dowel helps ensure the knee does not collapse to make up for the lack or dorsiflexion. Be mindful to consciously not allow the arch to collapse with either of those stretches.
If you know your ankles are stiff, try some of these mobility drills. If you are used to wearing shoes with a big heel drop, you may want to transition to shoes with less of a drop while you work on your ankle mobility.