The Key to Running: Unlocking your Ankle Joint

by Alpine Fit PT, Dr Charlotte Robinson, Physical Therapy

Importance of the Ankle

If you are like most of the running population, if I asked if you regularly worked on ankle mobility I’m sure you’d respond with, “I know I should do it more regularly but I don’t.” What if I told you that flexibility in the ankle joint reduces risk of injury (1), increases proprioception (2), improves running economy, is vital to glute activation(3), and reduces ground reaction forces (3)? As the base for every contact we make during running, a healthy and flexible ankle is the first step towards improving your running biomechanics and reducing your risk for injury. 

Ankle Anatomy

The ankle is formed by the connection of 3 bones; the tibia, fibula, and the talus. These 3 structures come together to form a dome shaped joint that is responsible for plantarflexion and dorsiflexion in the ankle. There is a joint capsule, several ligaments, and many tendons that cross this joint to help stabilize and promote mobility. For simplicity’s sake, this article will only focus on the ankle and dorsiflexion/plantarflexion motion and not discuss the mechanics of the foot, which adds in more complex multiplanar motions such as supination, pronation, eversion, and inversion to the foot/ankle complex.

Ankle biomechanics and running

Whether your ankle range of motion is limited by tight calves, pain, or an old ankle sprain, there’s no doubt it is affecting your running biomechanics. While running, we need about 10-20 degrees of ankle dorsiflexion range of motion to have proper mechanics. This dorsiflexion motion is important as we accept weight onto our stance leg and the ankle absorbs ground reaction forces by moving from a plantarflexed to dorsiflexion position. Then we need appropriate ankle dorsiflexion to have a hip extension moment during the final phase of stance time and push off. If dorsiflexion is lacking, our ability to absorb force through the foot, ankle, and achilles tendon is impaired. This leads to increased force absorption throughout the whole lower extremity and into the pelvis and low back (3). This can be a common cause of SI and low back pain while running, anterior knee pain, and achilles tendonitis. If we don’t have enough ankle dorsiflexion to get into an extended hip position, we aren’t able to properly use our glutes which leads to muscle inhibition in the glutes themselves. I’m sure as a runner you have heard how important glute stabilization is for running form. But all the glute strengthening in the world won’t help you if you don’t have appropriate ankle mobility that then lets you actually utilize and recruit the muscle functionally. This concept doesn’t just apply to running, it can also apply to walking, hiking, and navigating stairs where hip extension and ankle dorsiflexion is needed.

Screening your ankle mobility

An easy way to screen your ankle mobility is to perform a feet together deep squat. Stand with your feet as close together as they can get, and while keeping your heels on the floor squat down as low as you can. If you are unable to get your hips a couple inches from the floor while also keeping your trunk upright, ask yourself where you feel the tightness? Is it in your hips, knees, or ankles? If the answer is ankles, let’s do the next screen as well.

Another great ankle screen is to get in a staggered stance position with your feet lined up and heels staying in contact with the floor. From here bend your back knee as much as you can (front knee can bend as well) and sink forward letting your back knee come medial to your front ankle. If your back knee joint goes well beyond your medial malleolus your ankle mobility is sufficient. If it doesn’t go past this bone or is even with this bone, your ankle mobility is limited. Also try to note asymmetries side to side.

Exercises to improve ankle mobility

Improvement in ankle mobility can happen quickly from just giving some input to the joint, or can take a few weeks for tissues, capsule, ligaments, and tendons to loosen up. These ankle mobility exercises are great to do before a run to promote as much motion as we can. If your ankles are limited in dorsiflexion, I recommend doing these exercises daily for 1 month then reassessing using the screens above.

Forward lunge with load:

Lateral lunges with load:

Now that we’ve worked on mobility, let’s put it to use and stabilize our new-found range of motion. After mobility exercises, it’s important to use this new range and make our ankle muscles activate to control it. Single leg balance with a reaching task is a great way to do this.

Single leg balance:

If you’re curious about more ways to prevent injury, talking with a Doctor of Physical Therapy is a great place to start.
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  1. Kaufman KR, Brodine SK, Shaffer RA, Johnson CW, Cullison TR. The effect of foot structure and range of motion on musculoskeletal overuse injuries. Am J Sports Med. 1999 Sep-Oct;27(5):585-93. doi: 10.1177/03635465990270050701. PMID: 10496574.
  2. Basnett CR, Hanish MJ, Wheeler TJ, Miriovsky DJ, Danielson EL, Barr JB, Grindstaff TL. Ankle dorsiflexion range of motion influences dynamic balance in individuals with chronic ankle instability. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013 Apr;8(2):121-8. PMID: 23593550; PMCID: PMC3625791.
  3. Lin CI, Khajooei M, Engel T, Nair A, Heikkila M, Kaplick H, Mayer F. The effect of chronic ankle instability on muscle activations in lower extremities. PLoS One. 2021 Feb 22;16(2):e0247581. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0247581. PMID: 33617592; PMCID: PMC7899370.
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