How athletes can prevent common ankle injuries
Ankle sprains and injuries to the Achilles tendon are common among athletes, especially in sports like soccer and basketball. Orthopedic foot and ankle specialist Ben Jackson, MD, MBA, said there are two ways you can prevent common ankle injuries – through stretching the Achilles tendon and by strengthening your ankles.
How to properly stretch your Achilles tendon
The Achilles tendon has two parts to it. One part is the gastrocnemius or calf muscle. The other part of the Achilles tendon is the soleus muscle, a smaller, flat muscle that lies between the shin bone and the gastrocnemius. These two muscles combine to form the Achilles tendon, which is the strongest tendon in the body. When stretching, you want to focus on both muscles.
“In most folks, the gastrocnemius muscle, or the calf muscle, is what is tight,” Dr. Jackson said. “Because that muscle starts above the knee, you want to make sure the knee is straight when you stretch. Then you want to pull or stretch the foot and ankle back while the knee stays straight.”
Stand with one leg in front of the other with both knees straight. Bring your body overtop of your ankle, while keeping your heel down, like you’re pushing against a wall. Having one foot forward and one foot back helps stretch out the calf muscle in the back.
If you want to stretch the soleus muscle, stand with one leg forward and slightly bend your knees while keeping your heel down. Bending further forward will stretch the soleus muscle.
How to strengthen your ankles
“To prevent ankle sprains, it’s important to strengthen your tendons and muscles,” Dr. Jackson said. One of the ways to do that is through ankle stability exercises that focus on balance.
There are two parts to ankle stability:
- Static stabilizers. These are the ligaments that attach bone to bone. This is what is injured when an ankle sprain occurs.
- Dynamic stabilizers. The dynamic stabilizers are your muscles and tendons, which respond when your ankles start to roll.
Here are some ankle stability exercises:
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and lift one foot. This exercise uses single leg balance to work on the muscle’s ability to respond quickly when it experiences an uneven force.
To make it more challenging, you can tilt side to side or bend down and pick things up. Putting your hands on the hips makes it even more challenging. Try picking up weights and move those weights from side to side to improve stability.
When you’ve mastered that, you can try using an instability mat, which looks like a pillow. Because it has uneven pressure on it, it’s more unstable, so your body gets used to having to respond very quickly to an unexpected amount of force or stress.
Performing these exercises will help you control your core and engage all those muscles through the foot and ankle, helping to prevent common ankle injuries and to increase balance and stability.
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