I had a good question come my way via email recently and I thought I’d share my answer, since it required a bit of thought and I think the question applies to most of us. The general question is along these lines:
I have weak ankles and it is difficult for me to walk/hike on uneven/unstable surfaces. Any advice?
Even if you don’t have weak ankles, I say the question applies to most of us because we do all have ankles, the ankle/foot complex is arguably the most complicated joint system in our body, and must successfully carry our weight anytime we’re moving around by foot, as we often do.
Like the answer to many good questions, let’s began by saying, “It’s complicated.”
The advice really depends on the nature of why the person has “weak ankles”, which could stem from several reasons including:
- A past injury
- Literally weak joints/muscles from lack of exercise or activity
- Overall lack of fitness/deconditioning
- Our feet/ankles support the weight of our whole bodies. If someone is overweight, this is extra stress on the joint and structure of the foot.
- Poor footwear (Inadequate or worn-out)
- Orthopedic issues specific to the individual
- Bone Health
- Joint integrity/mobility
- Any combination of these issues
If an individual needed a diagnosis, or was trying to get to the root of an underlying problem, my best recommendation would be to go see an orthopedic doctor or physical therapist for diagnosis and treatment exercises.
For general advice for people wanting to strengthen the ankle, assuming they had no underlying orthopedic issues, I would suggest the following:
- Increasing walking on even, stable surfaces. This is a great way to strengthen the foot/ankle safely.
- Walking barefoot when possible (at home or on a soft surface like grass)
- Doing ankle/foot strengthening and mobility exercises
- Calf raises
- Towel grabs with toes
- Writing the alphabet in the air with your foot
- Ankle/Achilles stretches
- Weight bearing lower body exercises like squats and lunges
- There are a myriad of exercises that can be done in the gym on an unstable surface. Some of the stability devices include:
- Wobble boards
- Airex Balance Pads
- Bosu Balls
- Disc Pillows
- Consult a personal trainer or physical therapist for learning new exercises on the devices listed above.
- When venturing on more uneven terrain, wearing an ankle-high hiking boot, and perhaps using trekking poles for more stability and balance.
- If scar tissue exists from a past injury, going to get a massage from a licensed massage therapist.
For those of you whose ankles are healthy, treat them well by keeping your foot/ankle complex strong and stable through exercise. We want you to get many years of good mileage on them!