Any time we walk, run, jump, squat, or generally move our bodies from the feet-up, the muscles in our ankles snap to attention to make it happen. So if you want to keep everything in ship-shape, consider doing some ankle stretches. The ankle muscles, as well as the ligaments and tendons that as a whole make up the ankle joint, can get tight and lose mobility just like other joints.
Luckily, we’ve got you covered with everything you need to stretch your ankles. You can follow along with this 8-minute stretching and strengthening session by trainer Nicole Uribarri (above), made for Well+Good’s Good Stretch series. Or, keep reading to learn why your ankles—and feet and calves—deserve some stretching love, too.
Why should you do ankle stretches?
The feeling of tightness in your ankle is only part of the reason that stretching, mobilizing, and strengthening your ankle (and surrounding areas) is something you should add to your fitness regimen. Your ankle connects to your feet, so problems in your ankle can reverberate downward, causing issues like plantar fasciitis.
“The Achilles tendon can oftentimes be the culprit,” podiatrist Miguel Cunha, DPM, founder of Gotham Footcare, previously told Well+Good about the connection between ankle tightness and foot pain. “Tightness of the Achilles tendon can limit ankle range of motion which can place added stress onto the plantar fascia.”
Your ankle is also connected to your calves (in fact, your calf muscles are part of your ankles), which can play a part in foot pain. That’s why it’s “great to stretch out the calf, because a lot of that [foot pain] stems from tension or tightness in your calf muscle,” says Uribarri.
The calf muscles also forge a connection to your knees and even all the way up to your hips.
“If the ankle joints are weak, the emphasis gets placed on the knee and hip to create more motion and absorb more forces,” physical therapist Karena Wu, DPT, owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy, previously told Well+Good about the connection between ankle mobility and hip pain. “This creates an imbalance, so the other joints in the kinetic chain then have to step up and do the work.”
In short, stiff ankles can cause issues far beyond the ankle’s domain.
“If the foot and ankle mechanics are off, it will likely impact the knee, which can cause the hip movement to be misaligned, leading to unstable core movements and stress to one’s back,” 30 Minute Hit ambassador Terri Dreger previously told Well+Good about the importance of ankle stability. “Any disruption in that chain of movements means that the following movement is less likely to be performed correctly.”
What do ankle stretches do?
Because of this interconnectedness, ankle stretches aren’t just targeting the ankle itself. Brian Kinslow, DPT, owner of Evolve Flagstaff, refers to the target area as the “foot and ankle complex,” which together form an intricate mechanism.
“Your foot is amazingly complex with 26 bones, more than a dozen muscles, and countless nerve endings” Kinslow previously told Well+Good about the foot and ankle complex. “It serves both as a flexible shock absorber for every step, a strong lever to propel you forward when walking or running, and is a rich source of sensory information that informs the brain about where the body is in space.”
The ankle specifically is comprised of three main bones, with many supporting tendons, ligaments, and muscles. “You’ve got your shin bone, the tibia, you’ve got the fibula that runs parallel to that and then you’ve got the talus where it connects at the foot,” explains Uribarri. “And along that there are all of these ligaments and muscles that really need to be strong and stable.”
To support that strength and stability, ankle stretches work to improve your ankle’s range of motion. The foot should be able to point away from the ankle (plantar flexion), flex inward toward the leg (dorsiflexion), rotate inward (inversion), and rotate outward (eversion). Because these motions involve moving your foot as well as your ankle, many do double duty as foot strengthening exercises, too.
So, are you ready to show your ankles and feet some love? Check out the new eight-minute series of ankle stretches from trainer Nicole Uribarri in the video above. Or follow along with the moves below.
Stretches for strong ankles
Format: Three single-side stretches done once on each side, followed by four moves that work both ankles at the same time.
Equipment needed: A resistance band.
Who is this for?: Anyone who wants to work on foot and ankle strength and mobility.
1. Ankle circles (30 seconds)
- Begin in a seated position on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you.
- Bend the right knee and cross the right ankle over the left thigh, coming into a figure four position.
- Grab your right foot with your left hand and use your hand to rotate your foot in circles stemming from the ankle.
2. Flexion and extension (8 reps)
- In a seated position with your right leg stretched out in front of you and your left leg bent with your left foot resting at your right inner thigh, place a resistance band around your right foot and hold on to either end with your hands.
- Point the toes of your right foot, pushing the band down.
- Flex your right foot, pulling the band back up.
3. Inner arch strengthening (8 reps in each direction)
- Begin in the same position as above, but place both ends of the resistance band in your right hand, and move your right hand to the outside of your right leg.
- Pointing your foot, pull the band inwards to the left, and then return to starting position.
- After 8 reps, switch the ends of the band to your left hand.
- Push the band out with your right foot, moving it to the right, and then return to starting position (do this for 8 reps).
Repeat moves 1-3 on the opposite side.
4. Heel extensions (30 seconds)
- Come into a tabletop position, with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
- Stretch your right leg back behind you, so your knee is straight, the toes and ball of your foot is on the floor, and your heel is pointed up in the air.
- Rock back moving your heel backwards and then forward to bring it back to the starting pose, getting a stretch through your foot and calf.
- Repeat on the other side.
5. Heel sits (3 reps)
- Come into a kneeling position with the tops of the feet flat on the floor, then sit back on your heels. This may be enough of a stretch through the tops of the feet for you.
- To deepen the stretch, rock backwards so that your knees and the fronts of your lower legs lift off the floor.
- Hold for 5 seconds.
6. Foot prances (20 seconds)
- Come into a standing position, with your feet hip-width apart and all four corners of your feet rooted down into the food.
- Lift your right heel, keeping the toes down. Return it to the ground.
- Lift your left heel, keeping the toes down. Return it to the ground.
- Continue alternating.
7. Heel raises (20 seconds)
- From a standing position, lift your heels off the floor, coming onto the balls of your feet.
- Slowly lower back down.