Ankles, ankles, ankles. So what about the ankles?
Fist off, lets talk about what the ankle actual is.
The ankle, or the Talocrural Joint is classified as a hinge joint. Its major functions are going to be planter flexion (point your foot) and dorsiflexion (pulling your toes towards your shin. The joint is defined by the tibia and fibula articulating with the talus. Its referred to as the ankle mortise due to its similarity to a mortise joint found in woodworking. Its also important to note that the ankle joint is actually a series of joints. The talocural joint and the sub-talar joint. The sub-taler joint is the joint between your talus and your calcaneus. At this joint we are going to see inversion and eversion. These joints are also affected and affect movement of the foot and movement of the knee, hip, and pelvis.
How does the ankle relate to movement of the leg?
The ankle becomes very important when we are in a closed-kinetic chain position (when the foot is on the ground). Movement of the ankle ultimately influences movement up the kinetic chain (knee, hip, pelvis, spine...etc).
How is this so?
Pronation of the foot leads to eversion of the ankle -> leads to internal rotation of the tibia -> leads to internal rotation of the femur -> Which equates to a Valgus position of the knee -> Valgus position of the knee is the "knees collapsing inward" position that makes us all cringe when we see in the gym and on the trail. This is the position we try to avoid in squatting, running, jumping, and landing. The valgus position is also strongly associated with ACL ruptures, IT Band Syndrome, patella femoral pain, and platter fasciitis. On a side note... the position in which the knee is most prone to injury is around 25-30 degrees of knee flexion, which is the most unstable position of the knee, couple 25-30 degrees of knee flexion with a valgus force and you have the recipe for a pretty severe injury.
How do my "tight ankles" relate to what you just said?
During squatting, walking, running, and jumping if you do not have the adequate dorsiflexion for the movement you're going to get movement compensations.
If you do not have the needed dorsiflexion for the task:
you're going to naturally turn your feet out -> when you turn your feet out it decreases your ability to maintain a stable hip and pelvis -> it makes you more prone to pronation at the foot -> which leads to eversion at the ankle -> which leads to internal rotation of the tibia and the femur-> which leads to adduction of the femur -> which leads to a valgus position at the knee, the position we want to avoid. Its all connected. Nothing in the body works independently.
The valgus knee position is commonly associated with knee pain, back pain, hip pain and plantar fascia pain. It's also associated with poor positioning for your back squat, your poor running technique, and your sub-par jumping mechanics. Poor positioning is then associated with decreased efficiency of movement. All of which are associated with injury that forces you to take time off of training due to pain; and associated decreased performance in the gym or in your sport. Ultimately if you have poor ankle mobility, you're going to be dumping performance due to poor positioning.
Who's prone to tight ankles?
Bad news...you are. If you work a desk job, wear shoes with a substantial heel-toe drop (non-minimalist), wear dress shoes and high heels regularly; you're going to ultimately decrease your ability to dorsiflex your ankle. Your body is the great adapter. If you constantly put yourself in a position where your ankle is in plantar flexion, your body is going to adapt to that by decreasing your ability to dorsiflex your ankle. What happens when we lose the ability to dorsiflex the ankle?...well refer back to earlier in the post about that.
What can I do about it?
1) Get out of your "High Heeled" shoes. Spend more time barefoot and wear shoes that are minimalist in nature and have a low heel to toe drop. If you are someone who needs to wear dress shoes for work, look into companies that make minimalist dress shoes, such as vivo barefoot. IF you're new to flat shoes, develop a plan to gradually make the transition over the course of the next 6 months. A slow transition to a minimalist shoe will help prevent overuse injuries form transitioning too quickly.
2) Give your ankles some love. They are going to need a consistent effort in order to make the change you are striving for. Spend 10-15 minutes a day working on developing your desired ankle mobility. You'll be happy you did 12 months down the road. Here are a few ankle mobilizations to add to your routine.
First here is a test for you to quantify your ankle mobility:
Take home message
This post wasn't targeted at giving you a lengthy scientific explanation of the ankle joint and how it affects your body. The goal was to bring attention to your ankle and show you some ways that you can lessen your pain and increase your performance. The ankle is a crucial area of the body that is linked to affected your performance. Many people walk around was dysfunctional ankles. You are probably one of them. Take some time, go after the low hanging fruit, and perform better in your activity of choice.
Dr. Michael Tancini
Ground to Overhead Physical Therapy