Sprained Ankle Rehabilitation and Conditioning Exercises
Use these sprained ankle exercises to strengthen and rehabilitate ankle sprain.
by Brad Walker | First Published January 24, 2003 | Updated September 8, 2017
In part 1, we took a look at exactly what a sprained ankle is. We had a look at the structures that make up the ankle joint; what happens when an ankle sprain occurs; the symptoms associated with an ankle sprain; and the major causes and risk factors that contribute to a sprained ankle.
In part 2, we started by looking at a number of prevention strategies to help reduce ankle sprain. We then looked at the importance of the immediate treatment (the first 48 to 72 hours), and began to outline the ongoing treatment necessary for a full recovery.
If you suffer from ankle sprain or are seeking to prevent its occurrence it is important to follow the information in this article. In addition, adding a few simple stretches to your fitness program will also help. To get started on a safe and effective stretching routine that’s just right for you, check out the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility.
In this issue, part 3, we’re going to outline a detailed strategy for the complete rehabilitation of a sprained ankle. We’ll look at the rehabilitation and conditioning exercises needed to get your sprained ankle back to 100%.
By now, you’ve come over 80% of the way. You may even feel that your ankle is fully recovered. Your treatment so far may have stopped the swelling and bleeding, it may have reduced the amount of scar tissue at the ankle, and it may have even started to heal the ligaments that were injured. But there is still one more important thing to do.
The last 20% can be the most crucial to your complete recovery. If you’ve ever suffered from a sporting injury in the past, you’ll know how annoying it is to think you’re recovered, and then out-of-the-blue, you’re injured again and back to where you started. It can be one of the most frustrating and heart-breaking cycles an athlete, or anyone else for that matter, can go through.
Sprained Ankle Rehabilitation
Most people will refer to this phase of your recovery as the active rehabilitation phase, because, during this phase you will be responsible for the rehabilitation process. You will be doing the exercises and activities required to speed up your full recovery.
The aim of this phase of your rehabilitation will be to regain all the fitness components that were lost because of the injury. Regaining your flexibility, strength, power, muscular endurance, balance, and co-ordination will be the primary focus. Without this phase of your rehabilitation, there is no hope of completely and permanently making a full recovery.
The first point to make clear is how important it is to keep active. Often, the advice from doctors and similar medical personnel will simply be; rest. This can be one of the worst things you can do. Without some form of activity the injured area will not receive the blood flow it requires for recovery. An active circulation will provide both the oxygen and nutrients needed for the injury to heal.
A Word Of Warning!
Never, never, never do any activity that hurts your ankle. Of course you may feel some discomfort, but never push yourself to the point where you’re feeling pain. Be very careful with any activity you do. Pain is the warning sign; don’t ignore it.
1. Range of Motion
Regaining a full range of motion of the ankle joint is the first priority in this phase of the rehabilitation process. A full range of motion is extremely important, as it lays the foundation for more intense and challenging exercises later in the active rehabilitation process.
For those suffering a first degree sprain, range of motion may not have been affected, however, second and third degree sprains will almost always limit range of motion.
As you work through the initial stages of recovery, and your ankle begins to heal, start to introduce some very gentle movements. First bending and straightening your ankle, then as you get more comfortable with this simple movement, start to incorporate some rotation exercises. Turn your ankle from side to side, and rotate clockwise and anti-clockwise.
When you feel comfortable with these range of motion exercise, and can perform them relatively pain free, it’s time to move onto the next phase of the active rehabilitation process.
2. Stretch and Strengthen
Now it’s time to add some intensity to the range of motion exercises. The aim here is to gradually re-introduce some strength back into the injured muscles, ligaments and tendons.
When attempting to increase the strength of your ankle, be sure to approach this in a gradual, systematic way of lightly over-loading the muscles and tendons. Be careful not to over-do this type of training. Patience is required.
An effective and relatively safe way to start is to begin with isometric exercises. These are exercise where the ankle joint itself does not move, yet force is applied and the muscles are contracted.
For example: imagine sitting in a chair while facing a wall, and then placing the ball of your foot against the wall. In this position you can push against the wall with your foot and at the same time keep your ankle joint from moving. The muscles contract but the ankle joint does not move. This is an isometric exercise.
The above example can be used to strengthen the ankle in all directions. Pushing your foot to the left or right against something immovable, and pushing down (as above) and pulling up.
It’s also important at this stage to introduce some gentle stretching exercise. These will help to further increase your range of motion and prepare your ankle for more strenuous activity to come.
While working on increasing the flexibility of your ankle, it’s also important to increase the flexibility of the muscle groups around the injured area. These include the calf muscles, and the anterior muscles of your shin.
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3. Balance and Proprioception
Once you feel some strength returning to your ankle it’s time to incorporate some balancing drills and exercises.
This phase of the rehabilitation process is often overlooked, and is one of the main reasons why old injuries keep re-occurring.
When ligaments are torn, as with a second or third degree ankle sprain, nerves are also damaged. These nerves send vital information to the brain about the specific position and location of the ankle joint in relation to the rest of your body.
Without this information the muscles, tendons and ligaments are constantly second-guessing the position of the ankle joint. This lack of awareness about the position of the ankle joint can lead to a re-occurrence of the same injury long after you thought it had completely healed.
Balancing exercises are important to help re-train the damaged nerves around your ankle joint. Start with simple balancing exercises like walking along a straight line, or balancing on a beam. Progress to one-leg exercises like balancing on one foot, and then try the same exercises with your eyes closed.
When you’re comfortable with the above activities, try some of the more advanced exercises like wobble or rocker boards, Swiss balls, stability cushions and foam rollers.
4. Plyometrics and Sports Specific Exercises
This last part of the rehabilitation process will aim to return your ankle to a pre-injury state. By the end of this process your ankle should be as strong, if not stronger, than it was before you injured it.
This is the time to incorporate some dynamic, or explosive exercises to really strengthen up your ankle and improve your proprioception. Start by working through all the exercises you did above, but with more intensity.
For example, if you were using light isometric exercises to help strengthen your ankle, start to apply more force to your ankle joint, or start to use some weighted exercises.
From here, gradually incorporate some more intense exercises. Exercises that relate specifically to your chosen sport are a good place to start. Things like skill drills and training exercises are a great way to gauge your fitness level and the strength of your ankle.
To put the finishing touches on your ankle recovery, I always like to do a few plyometric drills. Plyometric exercises are explosive exercises that both lengthen and contract a muscle at the same time. These are called eccentric muscle contractions, and involve activities like jumping, hopping, skipping and bounding.
These activities are quite intense, so remember to always start off easy, and gradually apply more and more force. Don’t get too excited and over-do-it, you’ve come too far to do something silly and re-injure your ankle.
About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.